Nigel Shafran navigates the turbulent world of fashion photography

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Shafran’s latest photobook, The Well, collates his work in fashion from the 1980s to now. Here, the British photographer reflects on a career spent straddling fine-art and commercial photography

Nigel Shafran has always had an uneasy relationship with fashion. Visit his website, and you will find various collections of photographs, links to nine of his own publications, and countless more catalogues. Of these, few – if any – contain images of his work in fashion.

In the 1980s and 90s, Shafran was renowned as a fashion photographer, regularly contributing to independent magazines like The Face, i-D and Harpers & Queen. Moving into the 2000s, his work took on a different edge. He photographed simpler, contemplative settings: his girlfriend Ruth, their kitchen sink, charity shops, escalators, areas that you might pass by without a second thought. He found – and presented – the beauty in familiar scenarios. 

In various interviews, Shafran has described this latter part of his work as “an antidote” to his fashion photography, implying an uneasy relationship with the industry. “Fashion,” he told The Guardian in 2010 “was not what I wanted to pursue, because of the way it depicts women, and the aspirational values it promotes”. 

Shafran began to think of his work as two separate entities, and focused almost entirely on non-commercial projects. However, in the opening to his latest publication The Well – a collection of his fashion photography from the 1980s to now – Shafran takes the distinction back. “I think that over time [my commercial and personal work have] come together,” he writes. The collection of images, published by Loose Joints, reveals that there was a thread running through his work all along. 

Wrangler campaign, New York City, 1992 © Nigel Shafran 2022 courtesy Loose Joints.

“This is my work, this is what I do.

It’s how I communicate”

Teenage Precinct Shoppers, i-D, 1991. © Nigel Shafran 2022 courtesy Loose Joints.

Talking over the phone, Shafran is reluctant to describe his work too much. “Fuck, that’s a bit shit, isn’t it?” he says, after summarising the book as an attempt to showcase transparency. He pauses for a moment and takes on a more serious tone. “This is my work, this is what I do. I don’t really explain it. It’s how I communicate.” 

The new collection includes a standout series, Teenage Precinct Shoppers, published in i-D in 1991. The series was described as “an empathetically anthropological portrait of British youth” by TIME’s Phil Bickers. Bickers called the collection’s straightforwardness “radical”, in an era when “photographers preferred to distort or embellish reality”.

The Well is the first publication that places Shafran’s fashion photography in its own context – away from the advertising associated with fashion magazines. It allows it to breathe, and because of this, the themes that he has consistently addressed are more pronounced. 

That’s the thing: despite his clear uneasiness with fashion, his photography has always been a way to lead from the inside. In 1989, he shot Cecilia Chancellor for Harpers & Queen. She described the shoot as “refreshing”, because Shafran wanted to shoot “me as me”, and not as a transformed version of herself. This thread runs through all of his work – whether he’s photographing still-life or models. Shafran offers realism, and that’s what’s beautiful. 

Down Beat, The Independent, Golders Green, 1993 © Nigel Shafran 2022 courtesy Loose Joints.

Speaking a week before the public release of The Well, Shafran is cautious about critiquing the fashion industry. “Not to say that I’m an innocent bystander. I’m a hypocrite in all honesty, but you know, we make a living,” he says.  

Despite his earlier sentiments, Shafran’s return to commercial photography is positive: “Now, [by returning to commercial photography] there are questions that I can address relating to fashion.” In this sense, Shafran is able to continue to pioneer change from within. “I want to set a good example and show the subjects I photograph in a positive light – not objectifying people, or bringing in too many stereotypes.”

In the past few years, he has shot Bella and Gigi Hadid, Kate Moss, Cara Delevingne, Kate Upton and Courtney Love. His images of models break the fourth wall, often exposing the set and props surrounding his models. Bella is smiling, laughing. Gigi is jumping through the air. Everything feels natural, like the images are taken by a good friend. 

His work continues to show a direction that fashion photography should progress in: fundamentally humanist, and, in contrast to some of his still-life – which has melancholy tones – playful. 

Air Apparent, American Vogue, 2019. "The stylist had a large trampoline, but when Gigi jumped on it she stayed up in the air for far too long, and I had too much time to take a picture. The trampoline was too professional. We bought a cheaper one, and it made all the difference, her going, 'boing, boing, boing'. That’s the first frame by the way." © Nigel Shafran 2022 courtesy Loose Joints.

Prior to interviewing Shafran, I’d prepared one key question: “Have all the good images gone?” Has the age of digital, and social media, meant that most images – angles, frames, ideas – have been taken? But now I realise that the question is a non-sequitur: of course they aren’t gone. In the same way that all of life’s moments can’t be gone. Every single moment is novel – idiosyncratic, alluring, unrepeatable – and it’s these moments that Shafran is most captivated by. 

Shafran doesn’t care for staged circumstances, which, like the forced fun of an organised tour, feel cramped and rigid. Shafran cares for the streaks of light that illuminate dusty rooms, the spontaneous smile that ascends from the belly and brightens the face, the unsung hero taken from the background and plonked in the spotlight. We’ve known for years that Shafran adores these moments. What The Well does is demonstrate that his interests haven’t changed. No matter if he’s taking photographs of shoppers on the streets of Ilford, his girlfriend Ruth, or millionaire models for glossy magazines. 

The Well by Nigel Shafran is published by Loose Joints.

A book launch and signing will take place on Thursday 12 May 5-9pm at 7 Cleave Workshops, London, E2 7JD.

Jacob Negus-Hill

Jacob Negus-Hill holds the position of Online Editor at Proper Mag and is the former Senior Writer at Sabukaru Online. He studied Philosophy at the University of Leeds and achieved an MSc in Environmental Policy from the University of Bristol. His words have appeared in The Face, The Basement, The British Journal of Photography, as well as numerous other zines and online publications.