New York

Nick Waplington

Burden Gallery

Nick Waplington’s vision has been likened to Breugel’s, and yet, while these photographs of two working-class families at home in their Nottingham council flats have the manic ebullience and macabre aimlessness of a Dutch peasant debauch, the people portrayed are quintessentially English, and the interiors bear all the grubby claustrophobic signs of bad British housekeeping. But Waplington isn’t appalled by the overflowing ashtrays, cheap furniture, kitsch-lined shelves, and low ceilings; indeed, it is his complete lack of irony or distance from the subjects that makes these pictures so incredibly beautiful in their frightening way. Diane Arbus would present these same people as monsters or grotesques; Waplington’s photographs hit closer to home. We can’t stand off to one side and snicker at them, or look on in voyeuristic thrill.

These pictures owe less to Breugel than to the grotty old Brit Hogarth, who had a deeper interest in portraying the humor of bodily functions and appetites. Waplington’s living rooms are strewn with half-chewed crusts and dirty diapers, smouldering cigarettes and lukewarm cups of tea, baby puke and greasy plates of chow. Each pale and pasty body bears a tattoo, and the cheap synthetic clothing reeks of perspiration and cologne, mingled with bath soap, tobacco, and wet dog. But there’s a certain coziness to it all—the fire blazes. Safe from the drizzle outside, nobody’s complaining, just smoking another cigarette, having another drink.

Waplington eschews developed narrative (cautionary tales, fables, descriptive tableaux) in favor of a “snapshot” esthetic. Which is not to say that the photographs aren’t beautifully composed or full of stories, just that they try very hard not to be too clever or too detached, either pictorially or in terms of content. Even the most narrative of the shots (a diptych of a man pinching his wife’s ass, followed by the wife turning and belting him in the chops) says very little above or beyond the incident itself. This image is simply a record of a specific and forgettable incident.

In their lack of pretense or grandiosity, these photographs are beautifully, terrifyingly descriptive of the banal wonder of the family at home. No matter how squalid or depressing the surroundings, there is an inevitable vitality here—love, too, despite all the exhaustion and decay. These are images as heartbreaking as any in contemporary photography, all the more powerful because they are so unself-dramatizing—as quietly hopeful of achieving a certain dismal truth as, say, Philip Larkin’s poetry.

Justin Spring