Rows of photos of young people grouped together in short sequences like film stills

Nigel Shafran’s book makes art out of archives

The photographer’s new publication, Workbooks, is an ode to the ritual of meticulously cataloguing work, thoughts and ideas, and gives a glimpse into the last 40 years of his creative production

Archives and sketchbooks: two parts of a creative’s practice that reveal as much about them as the finished article that we see in galleries, on billboards, or in magazines. Art and fashion photographer Nigel Shafran’s new publication brings together both by presenting excerpts from his workbooks that he has maintained for four decades, which in turn serve as a microcosm of his archives.

In Workbooks, prints of his photographs appear alongside notes, sketches and other ephemera, all beautifully displayed with their rough edges left in. It’s filled with scribbled notes to self, and with its stained paper, torn edges and loose pages, it has a lo-fi diaristic feel. But look more closely and it’s clear to see Shafran’s meticulousness and the intentionality in the original workbooks, and again in the new reproductions, designed and edited by Linda Van Deursen.

Cover of Nigel Shafran's book Workbooks which features a fascimile of a black leather sketchbook
All images © Nigel Shafran, 2024. Courtesy Loose Joints
Inside cover of Nigel Shafran's book featuring text on the inner book jacket and a photo of a sketchbook on the left

Van Deursen has collaborated with Shafran on his previous books Dark Rooms and The Well – the latter born directly from a conversation with Van Deursen – and has commissioned him as a photographer too. “We are more or less from the same generation and I think we have a similar view on photography,” she says. “It is always interesting to hear him speak about pictures which are important to him and I can sometimes convince him to include images which bring other values and might be important for the narrative.”

Workbooks is organised chronologically, starting 40 years ago – around the time he began shooting for youth titles like i-D magazine – to the present day. “Throughout this time, he has used many different sized books: small sized ones, tall ones, landscape books, calendars, books with lines and so on … but the majority seemed to be a black Moleskin book, medium sized.”

This size formed the foundations of the design; pages from books in different dimensions are adapted to fit by enlarging or reducing them. “I had originally made a few proposals, but Nigel liked the one [where] the top and bottom [of] the pages bleed,” Van Deursen says, “which makes it less of a facsimile book, but more as if you are in the book.” The rough hewn cover is similarly immersive, with shadows and layering giving the impression of holding one of the original books.

A double page spread in a book showing a grid of black and white photos of young people
Double page spread in Nigel Shafran's book featuring handwritten text on the left and a red and white illustration of a milk carton on the right

The publication was initially set to only include pages from his more freeform workbooks, rather than any dummies or preparatory work for specific projects. However, this created a gap of around ten years, so those went into the edit as well.

The pages that made it into the book were chosen based on what they instinctively liked, “mostly because something interesting happened on a spread. Nigel was usually concerned with what was being said, and I was also concerned with the overall compositions of these pages, the balance between drawings and photos, between found stuff and his work, between his drawings and writing…. Just so that the turning of a page would bring something surprising,” she says. “The book is really an autobiography, so I think it helps when you have an outsider looking through them as well.”

Double page spread in a book featuring a photo of Victoria Beckham and Nigel Shafran in a studio on the left page, and a reproduction of a contract with Vogue on the right hand page
Double page spread in a book showing a photo of stone cornicing on the left page, and leaf pressings on the right page

“What I like about this book is how it ties Nigel’s interests together, and how it can give you a view into all his other published work,” she continues.

“Of course it is heavily edited, but it provides a really intimate view on how he works. How he balances out his own personal work next to applied work. What he looks at, what is important to him, how he processes jobs, family affairs, spending time with friends … basically how he’s grown up and built a life working as a photographer.”

Double page spread showing black and white photos of bedrooms
Double page spread featuring an old legal letter on the left page, and a sketch of a pair of scissors

Workbooks by Nigel Shafran is published by Loose Joints;