TateShots

Chris Shaw: 'There is an insanity in the working process'

Homeless, Chris Shaw began working as a night porter in a hotel to have somewhere to stay. To stay awake, he began taking photographs

Having originally studied photography at art school, Chris Shaw decided to document his experience of working as a hotel night porter. From naked drunk men who had locked themselves out of their rooms, to visiting comedian Norman Wisdom, Shaw captured everything.

In this TateShots film, Shaw also discusses his project Weeds of Wallasey which began when he went to visit his ailing father. Having found his original plan of photographing his parent too emotionally difficult, Shaw instead turned the camera on the area where he grew up, searching for life and nature amongst the industrial backdrops.

transcription

The reason that I got the hotel job was I was homeless, actually, and a way to get out of my homeless situation would be to get a job in a hotel which had staff accommodation, which is what happened. I thought, I've got to keep myself awake, I really want to take photographs to keep myself awake so I don’t get sacked.

I took photographs of things like anything bizarre that happened or sometimes just banal things like fire escapes and staircases. Sometimes I'd photograph interesting people like Norman Wisdom. I opened the door for him, he was on his own and I started talking to him and he was really, you know - one kind of night porter talking to another night porter.

The duties I least liked was taking the master key and going up with these naked drunken guys to let them into their room. I thought, the next fucking bastard - the next one that comes down I'm going to embarrass them. The next guy who came down I took his photograph but instead of being embarrassed and ashamed he was quite happy. He was like, how do you want me? All this kind of stuff.

I was using Minoltas and really low quality cameras but the thing was the exposure was always the same because I had a flash and I was able to manipulate what it looked like in the darkroom, which is what a lot of my work is about. Connection with the prints, connection with the film, the dirty, tactile nature of what photography used to be. I don’t really like that one.

I recreated the mood and atmosphere of a night porter in these landscape pictures called Weeds of Wallasey. I went back to live with my father in Wallasey. He's very old. While I was there I had the idea of taking photographs of him but I just couldn’t do it. I turned the camera on the landscape that I grew up in, which was a dockside area of Wallasey. I became aware of the landscape. There was this contrast between industry and nature and nature was kind of winning. It was overgrowing the old industry.

The book was called I Wouldn’t Start From Here at that time and then it turned into Weeds of Wallasey. You just see the development of how my work develops by using the book. It's not that different but it's - there's a photograph of me when I was 11. There's an insanity in that but the working process is a lot like that, keep going back and taking the same photographs until I really get it.

All I can see is the imperfections and the mistakes but it's about making an aesthetic of the bad printing, I suppose, my work. This is what it's all about. I always have this conflict about the printing frames. It's always been a problem with printing frames. Simon's a great curator and it's great the way he's done it.

That’s my girlfriend, she's so bad at photography. What's your favourite prayer? The Hail Mary?

find out more