Wabi Sabi Photography


I have been taking (making?) photographs since 1979 when I was given my first SLR camera for Christmas – actually, my father gave me a small Instamatic when I was ten because I kept wanting to use his camera, so I’ve been doing it since the early 70s really, but I suppose the SLR took things up a notch (or seventy) – but I’ve never thought of myself as a photographer. When pressed I might describe myself as a person with a camera who’s interested. Or a storyteller with a camera. Or on the odd occasion when I’m feeling particularly bold (confident, misguided…): a poet with a camera. But mostly I think of myself as someone who does things with words and photographs, not usually in conjunction, and not always successfully, but with intense focus. I do it for the doing of it rather than the result. Which means I was surprised when I was offered a solo exhibition by a small, rural, and well thought of gallery/arts space in the region.

My photos tend to be of extremely mundane objects and scenes: a deserted petrol station on a wet afternoon; a pepper on a chair; a biscuit tin; a discarded fag packet in a meadow. I don’t set up beautiful still lifes, I have no interest in portraiture, and I’ve had to come to terms with the fact I’ll never be Sam Abell.  Yet over the years I’ve created some images that I love and want to share. These are the ones I want to put in the exhibition, but I’ve been struggling with the question of how to do that without boring the pants off hopeful viewers.

Street photography by Eryl Shields

Thus I’ve been trying all number of experiments with the images, including slicing them into half centimetre strips and interspersing them from two or more shots to make new pieces, sometimes I’ve added lines of text between (some of) the strips too, and this has proved fruitful on the whole, but I broke my last scalpel blade the other day so am waiting for new ones to arrive before I can continue with that.

The other thing I’ve been trying to do is explain to myself why I find empty scenes, debris, and the quotidian so interesting I have to photograph it, over and over again. So I’ve begun to look at each image in turn and interrogate my motives, and I’ve come to the conclusion my fascination is peaked by the endless possibilities these things provide. When I look at my red pepper shot, for example, I’m transported to a particular garden lunch in Italy, or to my friend’s kitchen in Milan when she showed me how to blacken the skins, or to all number of other summer lunches with friends. Red peppers speak of huge salad bowls on garden tables surrounded by friends and/or family; they’re not my favourite vegetable to eat, but I love their associations. As a result I’ve wondered how I could direct the viewer to these connections, or, better, inspire them to make their own. Enter the J. Peterman catalogue*.

Game Night Readers – J. Peterman
STORY Game Night. There’s an endless onslaught of clues in tiny fonts. Throw in a bit of perverse humor, consoles that count down like a hot potato, some vino, and your besties who know how to laugh their butts off, and you’ve got an evening that makes life worth living. You’ll need some mischievous red tortoise readers to help with the tiny font (and to psych out your opponents). Just because everyone is seeing red, it doesn’t mean you can’t wear it.

Every item in it (which they call the ‘User’s Manual’) comes with its own story. It’s a joy to read. The best of these stories, they’re not all equal, take you on a trip to a world of possibilities, they imply that you too may one day sit under your own cherry tree reading Proust while watching baby goats frolic in the sun. I spent the best part of Saturday reading the catalogue online (I’d dearly love a hard copy), and most of Sunday writing stories directly onto my photographs with a fountain pen. I think I’m onto something.


*I owe a debt of gratitude to Anne Fadiman for showing me the joys of the J. Peterman catalogue in her book Ex Libris.

7 thoughts on “Catalogical

  1. I need to read this catalogue! I also need to tidy my recent writings…
    By the way, if your banner pic of the old wooden bench does not feature at your show, I think it should.


    1. I plan to use it as a teaching tool for the museum workshops I’ll be running in the summer, I can’t think of a better example of small inventive narratives inspired by objects.
      I’m working on the bench story right now, if I get it right the picture will be in the show. Thank you for the validation, it’s so difficult to know if I’m doing anything right at all.


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