Working Class Waplington

by Elizabeth Claud

In his first book, Nick Waplington portrays the daily lives of two working class families from Nottingham, England, in a manner that is at once chaotic, perplexing, and above all, intimate. Perhaps due to the four-year duration of the project, the family members seem oblivious to the photographer’s presence and neither hide from nor pose for the camera. The overall effect that Waplington achieves could be described as “fly on the wall” objectivity: the photographer happens to be there at the most bizarre and telling moments of daily life, the moments that are generally hidden from strangers.

“The photographer’s triumph is to bring order out of chaos without betraying the chaos,” states Richard Avedon in his essay on the book. “Waplington presents the violence in affection, the sexuality in innocence, a chill at the electric hearth, all in a new vocabulary, without romance, all in the same room at the same time.”

Most of the images are interior scenes, full of curious and spontaneous action. In the kitchens, two young girls feed their father, an infant plays in a pile of paper and laundry, a woman gestures at a man with a blunt knife, and a screaming young girl holds one eye as she wanders toward the photographer. In the living rooms, a girl stares at her reflection in a hand mirror, adults tickle their children or hold them aloft by their ankles, a man gooses his wife, and a mother makes her child’s hair stand on end with a vacuum cleaner.

Waplington’s style successfully unifies disparate events, reinforcing the instability and humor of the subject matter. Horizon lines are skewed, and the perspective shifts from floor to ceiling level. Many of the figures are drastically cropped at the periphery or are blurred beyond recognition. The details that are inherent in the documentation of the individuals and their homes add to the impact of the images. The houses have not been cleaned for the photographer’s visit, and the detritus of daily life gives the viewer more information. One notices baby bottles, candy wrappers, overflowing ashtrays, figurines, cups, T-shirt insignias, empty bags and bottles, patterned carpets and sofas, tattoos, and bunny slippers.

In a sense, Waplington photographs the interactions of family members with the sensibility of an anthropologist, but he allows the viewer to interpret the results of his labor. We try to analyze the situations leading to the final comical, yet disturbing, images and are compelled to leaf through the book over and over again. We want to know who these people are in relation to each other, though the images are not captioned or discussed in those terms. We note the changes in the people and their homes over the years and try to order the images chronologically. However, the individual images have a resonance that transcends any desire for additional information.

Of the image on the cover of Living Room, Richard Avedon wrote: “His [Waplington’s] pictures have the precision of good writing – what more perfect opening sentence for a short story could there be than “Three little girls in gingham dresses were Hoovering the lawn’?” Indeed, the images can stand alone, though the work as a whole presented in Living Roomadds to the mystery.

Waplington is sensitive to the families and conveys his long-term fondness for them without evoking pity. As John Berger states: “What is remarkable about Nick Waplington’s photographs is the special way in which they make the intimate something public, something that we, who do not know personally the two families photographed, can look at without any sense (or thrill) of intrusion.”

One of the most compelling aspects of Living Room is that Waplington has stepped outside of the tendency toward objectification of the working class. Instead, he has achieved a rapport with his subjects that brings his images to a higher level.

Elizabeth Claud is working toward a master’s degree in art history at the University of New Mexico.