Exercise: Self-Absented Portraiture

Go to the artist’s website and look at the other images in Shafran’s series.

You may have noticed that Washing-up is the only piece of work in Part Three created by a man. It is also the only one with no human figures in it, although family members are referred to in the captions.

  • Did it surprise you that this was taken by a man? Why?
  • In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?
  • What does this series achieve by not including people?
  • Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?Make some notes in your learning log.

Copyright Nigel Shaffran

Nigel Shaffran, a trained comercial and fashion photographer has produced a range of work that explores aspects of his and his wife’s  personal life. There is something of the biographical in his work ‘Washing up’ but  also an element of exploring or finding meaning in the mundane. By using his camera to focus on one small aspect of his life he sets out to reveal something wider. At this stage i am still trying to read these images but i must say I was immediately struck by the technical quality of the work in terms of composition framing , balance and visual interest. i was left with a sneeze of some staging and arrangement because there is something visually satisfying about the work.


Copyright Nigel Shaffran

This approach isn’t new to Shaffran and he has developed this approach in other works such as Compost Pictures (2008-9) images of a small pot on the sink work surface where discarded vegetation is put prior i assume to bing dispatched to a compost heap. here are constants in the images, the pot, the sink and the wall. each image has new and different colourful waste matiear and ahgain out of the mundane there is something peculiarly engaging. An earlier work Suburban garaged 2001


Copyright Nigel Shaffran

Did it surprise you that this was taken by a man? Why?

It didn’t and to be frank the question suprised me more and seemed to be rooted in notions of gender stereotypes about the kitchen, washing up and traditional but outdated gender roles. I have been bright up in a culture where cooking and washing up are the work of the entire family and find the notion of this type of activity being linked to a specific genre, with alien and ancient. Whilst I acknowledge that gender and its attendant biographical experience will shape the photographers viewpoint, this seemed a clumsy question.

In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?

A photographers life experiences, their training and their artistic intentions all shape an artists outcome. Gender is clearly a dimension of experience and there will be a trace of that experience in an artists work. In my view it may be subtle in some instances and very apparent in other. This in my view will be a function of artistic internet, where the artists is them selves making a choice to make genre more explicit in the work. It will be far more about seeding an intent than the tyranny of historic gender roles and expectation.

What does this series achieve by not including people?

The absence of people is an artistic choice but also one that I think adds to these works. The sharp and clear focus on space, environment and the unmistakable traces of human activity and existence all point to people, without revealing them. It is a very different approach to the traditional portrait and I imagine this oblique and abstract approach makes theviewr ask questions an fill in the blanks about whose kitchen this is. Indeed by revisiting the same space and making a range of work i that space, the view is given information in increments, that it might be argued reveal more and more about an individual, but always keeping some aspects illusive. There is a constructed paradox that simultaneously reveals but keep opaque the hidden subject in then work. I have to say i was left intrigued by the work

Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?

When looking at the work of Shaffran I was most struck by the technical quality of the work. The very sharp and balanced composition of the work , the framing and the lines that run through the work. For example the line of the window from running with precision in parallel to the farm of the camera. Whether you like the images or not they stood out to me as the work of a skilled photographer. The light too, work well with excellent control of shadows and a real sense of natural light. I was reminded of section o Bergers (1977) Ways of Seeing, Chapter 5 that dealt wit oil paintings in the renaissance and in particular the use of painting to exhibit wealth and possessions. Berger refers to the vower seeing something about individuals lives but the owner being absent. Although quite different, given Shaffran has chosen a much more mundane subject than the oil painting Berger is referencing, I was struck by the parallels in the notion objects revealing more than merely their form and placement.


Shaffran, N Website, found at: nigel shaffran (Accessed November 2016)

Berger, J (1972) Ways of Seeing, Penguin, London


Self Absented Portraiture- Some thoughts

This section of the reading as posed some interesting and challenging ideas, indeed notions of the portray, the role of the photograph and the photographer appear to be far more tenuous. Although I have much uncertainty, such challenge to the orthodox are helpful and although I struggled with some of the work referred to in this section, it is all part of the learning journey.

Sophie Calle’s ‘Take care of yourself ‘ felt more autobiographical, although the idea of a third party or proxy standing in for the subject does I think extend the concept of the self portrait. This is an abstract idea and in thinking about the traditional definitions of the portrait, this work seems to be at the margins of the genre.

Reviewing the work of Kapajeva, in particular ‘A portrait of the artists a young women’ did shed some helpful insight into the idea of the self absented portrait. Originally from Estonia and a photographers who has explored a variety of themes relating to women, identity and migration. This work explores women with whom the artist identifies and feels some link. in this sense the portrait is more about capturing strength, experience and biography that might say something about the photographer as an individual but traits and similarities seen in others. Again there is something of the abstract about this approach and  I am still thinking through the implications and meamning of this work and this approach to the portrait. Lots of ideas though for a more oblique presentation for my next assignment.


Copyright Maria Kapajeva


Kapajeva, M. -Portrait of the artist as a young woman found at: http://www.europeanprospects.org/maria-kapajeva/portrait-artist-young-woman ( Accessed November 2016)

Exercise- Recreate a childhood memory in a photograph

Recreate a childhood memory in a photograph. Think carefully about the memory you choose and how you’ll recreate it. You’re free to approach this task in any way you wish.

  • Does the memory involve you directly or is it something you witnessed?
  • Will you include your adult self in the image (for example, to ‘stand in’ for your childhood self ) or will you ask a model to represent you? Or will you be absent from the image altogether? (You’ll look at the work of some artists who have chosen to depict some aspect of their life without including themselves in the image in the next project.)
  • Will you try and recreate the memory literally or will you represent it in a more metaphorical way, as you did in Part Two?
  • Will you accompany your image with some text?
  • In your learning log, reflect on the final outcome. How does the photograph resemble your memory? Is it different from what you expected? What does it communicate to the viewer? How?

It might be interesting to show your photograph to friends or family members – perhaps someone who was there at the time and someone who wasn’t – and see what the image conveys to them.

I thought long and hard about this exercise and again probably spent too much time overthinking it. Childhood memory is a vast and complex subject and I started with a sense of this is just too big to think about!

I am also aware from my own professional life that memory is a malleable and plastic construct, where what is remembered is not necessarily what happened or what was.

A simple example is revisiting a childhood haunt  (as I did in the preperation for the previous assignment) and when confronted with space and place  it is often not how it we recalled it, indeed it can be very different. Over time memory shifts and what we think we recall changes.  There are a variety  of reasons for this and I could write a whole assignment on just this topic. There are differing schools of thought about cognitive development in children and the attendant development of memory function in all its forms. Piaget is often cited  when considering the children’s cognitive development, suggesting development of cognition occurs in a number of sequential stages, each dependent upon the last . A child, from its infant stage moves from the concrete, learning through repetition until they move to the more abstract level of thinking. Essential to the process is the assimilation and accommodation of the new. It is through this latter process that memory can become mailable and flexible in order to accommodate new and different thinking. This casts a shadow over the reliability of what we think of as a childhood memory.  Although a differing approach to Piaget concerning cognitive development in children, Bruner (quoted in Turner 1980) suggests that learning and memory are created through serially ordered routines that serve the purpose of developing cognitive structure but through the process memory can become fragmented and flexible and by default unreliable.

What does all of this mean and why have I included it? Well in short  I have limited reliability on what I recall from childhood and as already stated what I remember may not be what actually occurred. That said and I guess the point of this work in the course photographs can assist in partially in filling gaps, although they also present challenge in terms of objectivity. The reliability of supposed factual images is a well covered area in the literature. I wrote about this in my Expressing Your Vision course  here .

I revisited the work of Trish Morrissey as part of the reading for this exercise. It struck me that by recreating family images in her ‘Seven Years’ project, she was revisiting a memory, false or otherwise. The images she made by deploying traditional family photograph tropes, manifest as  ‘meticulous mimicking’, might also offer a representation or revisiting of a memory. It was this idea that became the catalyst for my work on this exercise.

This might seem an interesting approach given  I have no photographs from my childhood. Ironic as my father was a keen photographer, but my sister took all of his photographs many years ago and they have since been lost in house moves. The inevitable  fate perhaps for many collections family photogtraphs from a pre social media/ computer age, when an image was also an artefact with substance.

I decided to call both my brother and sister (we all live in different parts of the UK) and talk to them about family photographs and memories they had of them as a trigger for a potential subject. I asked them both the same pre prepared questions:

  1. What is the family photograph you have the strongest memory about?
  2. What is the family photograph you  have the strongest memory of with me in it?

I had interesting and nostalgic conversations with both of my siblings and we talked about many events long forgotten. To the second question though they both made reference to an image I had forgotten about entirely, but an event I had remembered.

An image of me as a 10 year old with a large and then antique  bicycle. As a 10 year old I had spotted a bicycle for sale in the local newsagents notice board. I desperately wanted a bike and my parents couldn’t afford one. When I saw the advert for a bicycle for just £1 I was drawn by the price and not the detail. The bike turned out to be a very old, three geared ladies  bicycle  from a bygone era, it had certainly seen better days. It was orange from its paint and just as orange from the rusty chrome. That said I still bought it with my cash. The year was 1971 and the £1 was all my worldly resources. I can remember the pride I had in owning this huge orange rusty machine, with  rod linked brakes and non functioning Sturmey Archer 3 speed hub gears. When I got it home my father at first laughed but then assisted me in repairing  the brakes, cleaning and lubricatiing the ancient drive mechanism and even repairing the gears. My mother, a nobel prize winning worrier, expressed concern about the scale of the machine and all the potential dangers I might confront if I took to the road on this antique! I rode that bike for two years and although it solicited a degree of derision from others it was for a time my pride and joy. It also perhaps had a part to play in my lifelong love of cycling.  None of my family could remember what happened to the photograph my father took of me with the bike, but we all remembered it, all be it slightly differently. I was standing holding the bike, with pride in front of a large hedge . I can still visualise (to an extent) the square colour image.

During my discussion with my siblings it was clear we all had slightly different memories of the photograph and me and the bike. My brother remembered the white mudguards , my sister the location of the photograph of me and the bike and I could remember the colour image that was for a while in a Clarkes children’s shoe box of photos kept in the kitchen of the house we grew up in , long since sold now. From the discussions though we were all unanimous about the pride I had for this somewhat odd machine. That was the meaning and memory tied up with the long lost photograph and that distant shutter click in time all those years ago.

I decided to recreate a similar scene but a contemporary version with the same pride at its heart. The image I produced was about the pride and excitement I still get from cycling and owning a two wheeled machine ( of which I now have possibly far too many).

Making the Image

In making the image I considered making it on film and digital and given my ‘time poor’ status in the end used a digital camera to produce the final image I selected. I did also make two images on a square format film camera with a view to adding this to the blog when developed. I used a lens on a crop sensor digital camera that would equate the to  75mm standard lens of my fathers twin lens reflex  6×6 camera  that which almost certainly would have been the instrument used to make the long lost image that spurred the idea for this image. I also toyed with some processing in in Lightroom to shift the colour of the image but in the end went with an out of the camera colour image of the final section. I was trying recruit a memory after all an not a photograph


Selecting a final image.

I made a number of images in what from recall, with all the caveats mentioned above,  was in the bright sunlight. I was less interested in the technicalities of this work but more a mood and feeling. I think in many respects the image I remember became a catalyst for a memory. One which was augmented through the conversations I had with my siblings about an event  long ago. At 10 I was just finishing at Primary school and soon to go the high school, three bus journeys away. This was an important transition point in my life, feeling more grown up and on the point of entering into the new world of secondary school and all that entitled. In this sense my memory of this image was about so much more than a rusty old bygone bicycle.



Reflections on the final image

I’m not often in images and am more commonly behind the camera. As a 50 something there are many years of this scenario and I did ponder on the power of the camera to cloak and hide the photographer. I suspect that as a keen amateur image maker there are many others like me for whom the camera has been a place to avoid being in photographs. That has been the challenge and interest in this whole section of the course, which in all frankness challenges the notion of the photographer being the person who releases the shutter. Morrissey, Lee, Sherman, Goldin, to name just a few photographers explored over the last weeks are all well known for their self portraits in which essentially some one else chooses the instant to press the shutter button. The photographer in the context of their work is the creator of the image and the person releasing the shutter is reduced to the status of a technician, supporting the photographer in reading their vision. The learning from this exercise is quite abstract and has set me thinking about a different concept of the photographer, but most of all the notion of memory, its limited reliability and with it our tennis link to eat we believe is our past. For all of these reasons i chose not to captain the image and at this stage in th course whilst i might frame an image or set of images (as i have done in assignments 1 and 2) with some context setting text, my image remain un captioned.

So for this image I captured a new version of an old memory, I tried to express a sense of pride, but without the beaming smile. Why? My brother and sisters memories of this event, although slightly different were entirely congruent in one thing, I never smiled in this or any other family picture of myself


Turner, J. (1981) Cognitive Development, Methuen London

Beard, R. (1980) An outline of Piaget’s Developmental Psychology, Rutledge London

Trish Morrissey works found at: http://www.trishmorrissey.com/index.html (accessed October 2016)

Boothroyd, S. (2015) Context and Narrative, Open College of the Arts, Barnsley

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Thames and Hudson, London