Shane Deegan does not believe that portraiture is a way to represent people – which may sound odd as a photographer who has exhibited in the National Gallery Portrait Award on several occasions. However, it is easy to see where he is coming from even if it is not an entirely conventional perspective coming from a photographer who specialises in what many people would recognise as portraiture.
But of course the very essence of photography is simply to capture a moment and while a well-taken portrait can suggest things about the subject how can we be sure of the truth of those suggestions? Everyone knows the phrase The Camera Never Lies, but most people recognise that the statement is a fallacy: the camera often lies and, depending on the photographer behind it, can do it really well.
Deegan’s work, however, is not about the mistruth or machinations of a manipulative snapper behind the lens it tries hard to be the opposite of that. His images strive for honesty. Conscious that the act of taking a photograph is about capturing a moment, Deegan’s portraits have been carefully composed and timed to make sure that moment is the perfect opportunity to represent a relationship. Ultimately the relationship represented is the one between the subject and the photographer himself.
The subjects of Deegan’s work are people whom he has come across, who he has shared time with and many of whom have left his association, something which he himself calls a “transience of acquaintance.” It is a feeling which most people can relate to, especially to those city dwellers who themselves flit around from location to location and in and out of social circles.
Unlike preceding generations, the “young people” of the early 21st century are not rooted to one job, or one locale or even a single career. As systems of communication have grown and the world has shrunk, generations X and Y have been typified by the willingness to travel and to experience as much of the planet as possible. Urban populations are largely nomadic and short-term, our interpersonal relationships can be short and intense, our circle of friends change depending on circumstance and we can often live in close quarters with someone we have never met before, for a couple of years and then never see them again.
It is this aspect of modern life which Deegan’s photography concentrates on. People from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds who have touched the artist’s life. What is striking about the portraits is their intimacy, the level of trust which exists between the subject and photographer which could normally suggest strong deep friendship which has been built up over years.
Each subject has allowed not just Deegan, but also his camera, access to extremely vulnerable moments. Many of them are naked, exposed and often in unflattering positions although this is not for exploitative, pornographic or for any crass shock value. It is to highlight how close we can come to others, how brightly short term acquaintances can often burn.
The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter depicts a man asleep on a bed, the duvet thrown back to expose his stark, naked form. In this moment he is most exposed: unconscious nude, with any of the defences we build around ourselves stripped away. That the photographer has been given free access to the subject at this moment suggests a strong bond between the two, however this is in contrast to his surroundings. The ‘bed’ is a mattress atop the floorboards, the temporary nature of the sleeping arrangement shows us that the relationship between Deegan and the sleeping man is not one built upon strong foundations. The sleeping man’s status within the room has not afforded him the status of having a “proper” bed, there is no way of knowing how long he has been here or how much longer he will stay.
The method of image capture employed allows Deegan to highlight the importance of each of these acquaintances no matter how fleeting they may be. Rather than employ digital image capture, Deegan’s images are taken using a large format camera and film. While digital may be the preferred method which most people take pictures and record the relationships they make in order to easily process them, upload them to facebook and tag the subjects it is something which is, in most respects, disposable.
The care and time taken with employing what is becoming a more and more esoteric process shows how strongly Deegan cherishes each of these moments, and each of these relationships. He has a strong commitment to those short relationships he has had with his subjects, moments which may never be relived and people who he may never share the same room with again. While the time shared may have been short, by using film, large format in particular, Shane Deegan takes lengths to show that these relationships, these people he has known are not trivial.
The moments we share with other people, no matter how short or how flippant, are the moments which make us who we are. Even though when we look at Deegan’s portraits we may not recognise those portrayed, we may never have met them, we probably never will but it is the intimacy of these moments which we can relate to. It is the intimacies of these moments which we have shared with those we have come into contact with which we should cherish and remember – not simply a abstract number of connections we have made, but how those connections have made us.
Article by: Fraser Denholm