Family has always been a primary aspect of Thomas Duffield’s practice. At a young age, he “became interested in the ways that photography interacts with the social entity of family,” considering the process and romance of “taking out a box of old family photographs taken by my mother, father, and grandparents” and looking through photo albums, questioning the “fictions of our family life.”
In these albums, Thomas noticed a family “largely adhering to conventions,” and one which, through photographs, “commemorated the good times of birthdays, summer parties, and family reunions.” Thomas’ practice, however, lies within the undiscussed – the things “omitted from the family album.” This “clash of forces” between photography and family is still at the forefront of Thomas’ work today, resulting in a quiet approach to domestic life with an effortlessly ephemeral quality. It has also become the subject of his PhD at the University of Huddersfield that he is currently undergoing.
Residing with his grandparents in the north of England, Thomas’ latest project, Just couldn’t get the shoes to fit, looks again at the family dynamic. Through a very considered and sensitive lens, he focuses on the relationship he shares with his grandad. “As he has grown older, so have I, and our responsibility of care towards each other continues to shift and evolve,” Thomas tells us, using the playful photographic process to make the dynamics of this shift visible. Revealing a more vulnerable side, Thomas explains how his grandfather now “asks me to button up his shirt for him and open jars of pickled beetroot.” The important relationship they share is one of a strong father figure to Thomas and his sister after their parents separated at an early age.
“The idea for the project arose when my grandad first showed me some of his old jackets,” Thomas explains. Looking further into what the wardrobe had to offer they found “a series of other jackets, trousers, and flat caps. Most of these clothes had not been worn in over 20 years,” as they would have been saved for special occasions. “As a retired farmer, my grandad seems to have defaulted to standard gardening attire for men his age; tough corded trousers, thick socks, and a well-worn cardigan for ‘grubbin’ about in’ he would say,” Thomas continues.
Thomas and his grandad began to try on the clothes; “We were delighted, and somewhat surprised, that the jackets fit us both quite well.” He began to photograph the event in a makeshift outdoor studio after being “moved by the proud and content expression on my grandad’s face.” This neutral environment for the two subjects to play in meant that “the photographs were removed from an identifiable place or time. Instead, placing emphasis upon ourselves as subjects, the clothes, and our relationship to one another.”
Although performative and playful, the photographic series contains “small elements that pose a slight disturbance to the harmony of the image,” such as a stain in the jacket pocket that undermines their “cloyingly wistful gaze into the middle distance.” In allowing these disturbances, the images “fall short of the ideals of portraiture, and subsequently, become interesting qualities in the photographs,” akin to the elements of family life excluded from family albums.
For Thomas, the blemishes of the portraits go a step further, as they also address “the inevitable vulnerability of my grandad as he grows older” as well as his own anxieties towards responsibility and ageing – “positioning ourselves in front of the camera, situates us as subjects in a position of vulnerability. Subject to an unreturnable gaze.”
Being a very intimate and revealing look into his family life, the project brought “forth a range of emotions” for Thomas. “I hold the belief that the inherent challenges and difficulties within family life can foster greater strength and understanding in relationships,” he says. “The intention of the series was to recognise and celebrate vulnerability, togetherness and resilience.” In doing so, Thomas exemplifies a “sense of empowerment”, an exposure of vulnerabilities in order to show strength.
The project was a very collaborative process with his grandad, with Thomas saying that “throughout the making of the series, my grandad really took naturally to the process of being photographed, having a lot of pride in his appearance at 86 years old.” Despite the show being displayed in London, after winning an Offspring Photomeet prize for best portfolio, Thomas moved the exhibition up north to Village Leeds so that his grandad could be there – unable to get to London due to having to care for Thomas’ grandmother. Moved by the works on display, “viewing the photographs printed and framed on the wall of an exhibition,” his grandad joyfully remarked that he was “surprised that nobody asked for his autograph.”
When asked whether there was more to come from this project, Thomas responds: “I consider the photographs to be a completed part of a wider project, functioning like a chapter in a wider narrative,” a wider narrative that is due to include other members of Thomas’ family that will be approached with unique methods “influenced by our individual relationship to one another.”
GalleryThomas Duffield: Just couldn't get the shoes to fit
About the Author
After graduating from Winchester School of Art, studying graphic arts, Harry worked as a graphic designer before joining It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in March 2020. Feel free to get in contact with Harry about new and upcoming creative projects.