Putting yourself in the picture – Project 3: Self-absented portraiture – Exercise


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.

Washing Up (2000), by Nigel Shafran (1) is a series of interior photographs of kitchen sink areas after the washing-up has been done. The photographs have been taken over a period of time (approx 1 year) at different times of day, using a large format camera and natural light.

The OCA course material states that Shafran’s images are accompanied by text, which often state what was eaten that day, or how the artist was feeling. However, no such text is present on the artists website. The closest I came to finding any accompanying text was on a blog (2), where some of the text also alludes to who was present, and to the fact that we do not always know who has done the washing up; The artist? His wife Ruth? or a guest?

When I saw the first of Shafran’s images in the course book, Three bean soup, cauliflower vegetable cheese. Morning coffee and croissants (4 Jan 2000), from the series Washing Up (2000), I felt very indifferent. The image struck me as banal and as a poor/lazy excuse for Art. But this is because the images do not work alone. As a series, I actually found them quite interesting. It’s the subtle differences that struck me first. These differences are the punctum by which I then began to pick apart the series and discover a narrative with the artist being the subject. Why the change of kitchens part way through? Did the artist and his wife move house?  Is this one of the many signifiers for the passage of time, such as the growing plant on the windowsill, the changing seasons that we glimpse out of the window, the wall mounted calendar or the changing light?

In an interview with Charlotte Cotton (3), Shafran states “Sometimes I see old photographs and what’s interesting to me are the things on the edges that are not meant to be there -the soap packet, the bit of litter, the things that we can relate to and hold that everydayness. I like it when something has been photographed in a simple way.” We see this throughout the series, with wine bottles, tinsel and other items such as personal photographs which give us snippets of information about the artist.

So, although banal at first glance, there is actually a lot to look at within the series. Signifiers and narratives aside, when I began to appreciate the series as a whole, it gave a better appreciation for each image individually. Shafran has managed to capture the everyday in a manner that is also aesthetically pleasing. The splashes of colour, the layers of depth through windows and other rooms, from foreground to background, the detail and the play of shadows make each image quite interesting. The exposure of each photograph is excellent, and the inclusion of windows or parts thereof, give me a voyeuristic sense of looking in on Shafran’s life through a 4×3 window that he has created.

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

No, not at all. And I don’t know why it would surprise me. Art is Art, it’s subjective, and in this case self explorative. This is the 21st century. The traditional roles of men and women within the household, and within the world of Art have been blurred for a long time, to the point where it would be difficult now to make distinctions, except in terms of physicality. Or perhaps my failure to make a distinction in what I expect of male or female artists is down to a) a lack of education or b) my view on equality.

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

Yes and No.

When it comes to the everyday, and to subjects that are not specific to a gender, or which are equally understood by both (Still life, Landscape, Domesticity, Family Life etc), then why or how would one specific gender contribute? The answer boils down to the intention of the artist and the issue or message that they wish to communicate. There are some issues that can only be conveyed from a certain gender viewpoint, where artists of that gender have a greater understanding of what it is they wish to convey. As an example, the horrors of front line conflict would normally be a man’s domain as women are excluded from close-combat roles  within the armed forces (but perhaps not for long). On the flip side, the physical and mental challenges of pregnancy and childbirth could only be properly communicated by a woman (but again, perhaps not for long!).

What does this series achieve by not including people?

I think it achieves quite a lot. The lack of people makes me think back to Lifting the Curtain (2015) by Keith Greenhough (4) that I saw at a recent study visit. Greenhough purposefully omitted people because within an image, they tend to become the focal point. In this instance, as with Lifting the Curtain, people would be a distraction.

By omitting the person, we are left asking “who did the washing up”, and trying to work it out from the way in which the dishes are arranged or by how tidy the area is left. We are aslo able to focus on the details, the shapes and the lighting. The people are still ultimately the subjects, they are just absent from the frame, having left us clues about their everyday lives. In essence, the series is a diary.

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

I think that my preamble above answers this question in depth. In summary, it takes the series as a whole to fully appreciate each individual image. As a note, I consider these images to be less ‘Still Life’, and more ‘Self Portraiture’


(1) http://nigelshafran.com/category/washing-up-2000-2000/ [accessed 13/12/15]

(2) https://tiltshiftblog.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/nigel-shafran-washing-up/ [accessed 13/12/15]

(3) http://nigelshafran.com/interview-with-charlotte-cotton-edited-photographs/ [accessed 13/12/15]

(4) http://www.liftingthecurtain.net [accessed 13/12/15]


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