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Self-absented portraiture

Question: What does this series [‘Washing-up’ by Nigel Shafranachieve by not including people?

In a recently published compendium of photography (Durden, 2014) the sub-categories of the chapter entitled ‘Self: Looking In and Acting Out’, include ‘Personal Disclosure’, ‘Theatres of the Self’ and ‘The Everyday’. Nigel Shafran is listed, along with two others, in this latter category. The text states:

Shafran’s photography returns us to a basic and simple use of the camera as an index of life, of what is close and personal. The camera becomes a means of slowing down our relation to objects. There is little drama or sensation here (Durden, 2014: 370).

Among what Shafran achieves by not including people is this reduction in ‘drama and sensation’. This is reasonable and unsurprising when the work of self-portraitist such as for example Nan Goldin (see fig. 1.) or Yurie Nagashima (see fig. 2.) is considered. However, it is worth noting that absence of people does not necessarily lead to a reduction in drama. For example Anna Fox’s projects:

such as ‘41 Hewitt Road’ (1996 – 99), ‘Cockroach Diary’ (1996 – 99) and ‘Notes from Home’ (2000 – 03) use an unpolished style to illustrate chaotic periods in Fox’s life. Within these series, however, she is noticeably absent from the photographs, having cast herself as an observer of her life rather than a visible participant (Bright, 2010: 44).

Thus Shafran’s ‘Washing-up’ and Anna Fox’s work have in common the absence of people in the photographs, the element of self-absented portraiture, and a concern with the ‘everyday’; however, they diverge on the point of ‘drama and sensation’. The ‘everyday’ is a ‘central idea of modernity and a recurring theme in the history of photography’ (Tormey 2013:51). In its early history:

photography invents and aspires to something more than documenting reality. Everyday life is considered to be what most characterises ‘reality’. What else would a medium, thought to be the most objective in representing reality, take to be its subject? … however realistic photographs may appear to be, they cannot be separated from the fact that they are socially constructed and that notions of realism are interchangeable with our imagination and ideology (Tormey, 2013: 54).

Shafran and Fox have much in common in their work but differ in what they wish to achieve by not including people.  Thus far I have described Shafran’s series in the negative, by absence (of drama or sensation). In a chapter section titled ‘The everyday’ Jane Tormey discusses Charles Baudelaire (b.1821) on the subject:

He [Baudelaire ] proclaims that artists should seek modern alternatives to the metaphysical concerns of the great master painters of heroic and religious subjects. He searches for a vision that is particular to modern life – to be found in the everyday subjects of city life – in the present. His statement, asserting that what is most interesting is not what is projected onto the image as valuable (such a ‘beauty’) but ‘the essential quality of being present, is characteristic of the modernist aspiration to mark a distinction from the past. He suggests that what is valued as modern is concerned with the ‘passing moment and of the suggestion of eternity that it contains’. Here is the crux of the ‘everyday’ – the possibility that we might find eternity in the passing moment, the ordinary or insignificant. And here too is what is venerated in the photograph … that it can reveal to us what is not noticed and that it might transcend the banality of appearance (Tormey, 2013: 51).

Among the achievements of Shafran’s series is that by not including people ‘it can reveal to us what is not noticed’ and that this ‘might transcend the banality of appearance’ (above).


Bright, Susan (2010) Autofocus. The self-portrait in contemporary photography. London: Thames & Hudson.

Durden, Paul (2014) Photography Today. New York: Phaidon

Tormey, Jane (2013) Cities and Photography. Oxon: Routledge

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Goldin, Nan (1984) Nan one month after being battered At: http://www.cctrubiak.com/artist/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/PORT3.jpg (Accessed on: 05.02.15)

Figure 2. Nagashima, Yurie (2002) Self-portrait (Full-Figured, yet Not Full-Term) At: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/2f/9d/83/2f9d83ede3b8290d1d95142570c37578.jpg (Accessed on: 05.02.15)