Clare Gallagher: Inside The Second Shift

Clare Gallagher: Inside The Second Shift

When the Northern Irish artist Clare Gallagher first started using a camera as a fine art student in the late 1990s, photography was an international art world phenomenon and its large-scale images had begun to dominate museum and gallery walls in the way billboards had long since colonised public space. Prominent among the artists producing this work were the so-called Dusseldorf School of photographers, including, most strikingly perhaps, Andreas Gursky, whose huge photographic prints seemed quite literally to explore the world further than the eye could see. Scanning vast landscapes and complex internal spaces that expressed intricate technological networks, Gursky linked an international geography to a global economy so systematised and refined it increasingly appeared in his work as a digitally enhanced visual abstraction.

These epic works of art had the civic authority of monumental history paintings, even if their messages were decidedly ambiguous and their artists politically evasive. But alongside them at the time was another strand of photographic art that in many ways represented the inverse of Gursky’s often overwhelming prints: a highly subjective, diaristic photography of personal experience that ran completely counter to the idea and image of abstracted global homogeneity. Set in the raw ebb and flow of everyday life and caught in casual snapshot moments of intimate revelation, this was an art of individual identity and difference and many of its leading exponents were women, among them the Swiss artist Annelies Strba, the American Nan Goldin, and a few years later the Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi. Implicitly feminist, and as such politically charged, theirs were photographs that drew the viewer into private internal dialogues and sub-cultural contexts that, across a variety of distinctive practices, offered a challenge to mainstream social mores and ways of seeing.

Clare Gallagher’s work follows closely in the latter tradition. The setting of her two most recent projects, Domestic Drift, and then The Second Shift (which was published as a beautifully designed book in 2019), has been the photographer’s own private world: her home, her two sons, and the everyday rituals that define her domestic experience as a working mother: preparing meals, doing the washing, cleaning, managing. In this sense Gallagher’s work is both very personal and representative of a broader social framework; her photographs indirectly linking the patterns of her own life to those of countless other women struggling to stay on top of two demanding jobs – one paid, the other, The Second Shift of childcare and housework, a kind of unpaid domestic service on which society still depends.

At first glance, the images in The Second Shift reveal a very recognisable world of home: intimate interior spaces, often dimly lit and cluttered, from which telling details are framed by her camera as, seemingly, her attention wanders, in and out of focus and from room to room. The impression can be still, quiet, and at times sensual, but an underlying tension is always there tugging away at any suggestion of domestic harmony. The overriding atmosphere is sombre, but that drifts inexorably into something more darkly oppressive and claustrophobic as evidence of the daily rituals begins to define a routine and a state of mind at breaking point. What is normally overlooked by the meditative gaze of diaristic photography, the real mess and detritus of everyday life, fills the frame of Gallagher’s world: meals are half eaten, washing baskets overflow, the sink is blocked again. That familiar jumble of wires and sockets in the corner, a feature of every home, here only further underscores Gallagher’s constant struggle against an incoming tide of chaos. Her pictures of the children, Gallagher’s two young boys, provide the backbone to the book’s sense of physical intimacy, but even here tensions predominate: opening the book, dappled interior light falling on the soft skin of a child’s torso is hardened by a clenched fist; then, a few pictures on, two hands connect across a flash-lit foreground but one is contorted as the other appears to squeeze it painfully. Everywhere the photographs are crammed with jarring physical tangles and discordant close-up views, as if Gallagher is suddenly transfixed, staring mesmerised at the barrage of competing demands around her; taking control by slipping outside time to observe, record and reflect.

So, Gallagher’s The Second Shift is not simply a forensic take on the world of home and its repetitive domestic rituals, it deals with the psychological temperature of one woman’s everyday anxieties and frustrations, deftly unlocking for the viewer what it is like to be inside the head of a working mother overwhelmed by multiple and conflicting responsibilities. In the following short interview, I ask Clare Gallagher about the ideas and motivations behind The Second Shift and about her ambitions for the future.

David Chandler: Clare, you came to photography via a Fine Art training, so I wondered what first drew you to the camera as a way of making work?

Clare Gallagher: I left Northern Ireland in the mid 90s and went to London to study at Camberwell and then Canterbury, desperate to leave the bleakness of my home country behind and the Troubles I’d known my entire life. I was a painter with a hankering for photography but it seemed complex and mystifying until the first day of my degree when the wonderful technician there gave an induction into the darkroom and it all became so accessible. I suddenly began to understand the possibilities afforded by the camera’s relationship with reality and how it could reflect my own way of seeing and experiencing the world and I found I could start asking more interesting questions. From that point, painting was dead to me and I’ve never looked back. Now I find myself pushing at the boundaries of the photographic image a bit - I shoot some video and I’m inching my way towards performance - but really the camera is still an essential part in all of that.

DC: I am thinking about how you actually conducted your work for The Second Shift. I know that talk of cameras is almost taboo in photographic art – with its embarrassing ‘boys with toys’ aspect – and you’ve said in the past that you are not interested in the ‘status of the camera’ in your practice. But I remember the Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi saying that it was vital for her that she used a Rolliflex, and looked down through a viewfinder so that she was not facing but looking at right angles to her subject, and was therefore more detached from it. With that in mind, I’m interested in how you worked in such a familiar setting, how you created a sense of observational distance from your surroundings and also how you continue to maintain a distinction between your art and other kinds of pictures – especially since our domestic lives are now places where so many photographs are taken habitually, often as a form of familial intimacy?

CG: While I had to learn and work with digital cameras in my teaching I have been very slow adopting digital into my own practice. I started using medium format in the late 90s and it suited my vision, or at least didn’t hamper it. I’m not a confrontational photographer so raising a 35mm camera to my eye to look at people was uncomfortable and its rectangular frame felt like an imposition on reality, too directional and dynamic. The simplicity and slowness of medium format suited me and the square frame felt democratic somehow.

I still tend to use the medium format Bronica - cheap, unpretentious, with a wonderful shutter clunk - but my favourite film by Fuji has sadly been discontinued and having to post films to a dwindling number of labs in Britain makes it tricky, so I supplement it with a mishmash of digital devices.

Photographing at home is harder than it seems! There are always other more pressing things to do and its familiarity makes it almost invisible, usually until the mess and chaos reach an unignorable level and penetrate through that veil. The flux of everyday life and pressures of work and family mean there is often no discrete point for observing – it doesn’t stay still. 

I’ve learned things along the way, through the act of photographing at home. Making the image of the two penguins in Domestic Drift was especially instructive: after a long day at work and a commute, which got me home well after the children’s bedtime, I tiptoed into their room to find what looked like an explosion of toys strewn across the floor. I set the camera down in the only bare spot I could stand on and, looking down through the viewfinder, turned the focusing wheel until something became sharp. Out of what seemed completely chaotic, a vision emerged of imagination, construction and meaning. As saccharine as it sounds, I saw the two penguins conversing, like my two sons. I realised that the mess I felt at war with, that I saw as a problem and was in such a hurry to remedy, could be viewed instead as a creative process. Mess was not the senseless and infuriating ’noise’ I had understood it to be but was instead rich with meaning and significance.

DC: One important stimulus to your working method has been Guy Debord’s idea of the dérive, a kind of drifting detached form of observation much associated with urban wandering. You said you ‘repurposed’ that idea in your previous work, Domestic Drift, in order to ‘break out’ of the routines of home. For me The Second Shift also embodies a kind of drift or wandering, but now it is largely an internal movement, a wandering mind, which is in itself a form of freedom. It’s the freedom to step away, to look more quizzically at things forever breaking down around you, forever demanding attention and remedial action. it’s this feeling of suspended time that gives the book its meditative, even languid quality, but also reinforces its sense of sombre confinement. Could you say more about this?

CG: I realised that my efforts to try to make housework more manageable, to try to get on top of it, to be better at it, were utterly futile. Instead, I began to recognise and turn towards the unmanageability, seeing power in what was difficult and uncomfortable. I looked for gaps in the cosy picture of home, seeking out cracks to wedge my foot into.

Researching and writing helped me understand that my concerns and frustrations about the everyday practices of home were not mine alone. They weren’t my own deficiencies or ineptitude at failing to juggle everything smoothly, effortlessly and with a smile. Actually, they were rational responses to inadequate and biased systems which denigrated the work of home and family. They also put me in a shared situation with huge numbers of others. The unpaid work that women do in caring for their families is about more than individuals and their relations; society depends upon it and benefits from it. Persisting with the simplistic distinction between private and public, personal and political, fails to acknowledge the dividends some people gain from the patriarchy.

Ideas about what even counts as work also matter, with ‘work’ widely defined by whether it is paid or not. Surely Covid has made what society depends upon much clearer – kindness, care, transporting food etc – and they are not things our capitalist society usually values and rewards. Even before the pandemic, and my own sudden shift to online lectures and meetings, new technologies and more precarious work patterns and contracts were challenging the neat division between home and work for many people, permitting the insidious creep of work into more areas of our private lives.  

With The Second Shift I set out to create a body of work which might connect with others bearing the domestic load on top of their work. To tell, to show, to make visible, this hidden work – and I consider that a political act.

DC: You have described The Second Shift as ‘a quietly angry book’, and it has also been said that the poetic text which underscores the atmosphere of the book, by Leontia Flynn, lends it an angrier more visceral edge not so present in the photographs. I must say that this was my feeling too, so could you say a something about this tension, and how important Leontia’s text was/is for you?

CG: Leontia Flynn is a Northern Irish poet I hugely admire [Profit and Loss; The Radio] who had written beautifully about my work Domestic Drift a decade ago. She very generously gave me permission to use her poem First Dialogue in the book. It uses the loaded format of Sylvia Plath’s play Three Women, transposing the setting to a restaurant with the tense discord between a couple with their fractious baby.  She shows the impossible weight of motherhood and the frictions in trying to perform the role of woman while under the disapproving gazes of tutting strangers. My photographs aimed to make visible the hidden work of home and motherhood because the invisibility of those experiences and struggles hurt. The personal is absolutely political and I wanted the work to feel like an act of protest against all the structures which denigrate those experiences and the women (predominantly) who struggle with them. I recognise that my work is potentially ambiguous though, dependent on the perspectives of the viewer, and I found that Leontia’s articulation of anger helped to frame the work since its quietness might have permitted the rage and frustration I felt to pass unnoticed. 

DC: Were there any particular considerations or obstacles for you in making your private, domestic surroundings and your children the subject of your work, particularly when it came to exhibiting and publishing The Second Shift?

CG: I’ve photographed my sons as part of my art practice since they were three and five and the photographs have been shown in exhibitions internationally. Issues of my sons’ privacy have always been an important consideration – in terms of their rights to their own image, their own information and their anonymity. I’m very careful to avoid embarrassing or exposing them; my relationship with them is far more important than that. 

As they got older, I involved them more and more in the discussion around the content and use of their image, talking through our thoughts about particular photographs and explaining my reasons for wanting to use them. I allowed them to veto photographs they weren’t happy with, checking from time to time to make sure I still had their consent for the images to be used. Over the five years I was making The Second Shift, my sons went from being participants to something more akin to collaborators, with a clear sense of their own power in the process. They’re now 15 and 17 and very blasé about my photographic practice!

The work is about many elements of the ways women tend to experience home so it would have narrowed the work too much to make it about my family or my specific circumstances. Their faces are obscure and oblique; I wasn’t trying to make portraits of them. Instead I was focused on their tactility with each other, their invasion of each other’s space, the way they don’t seem to see each other as separate beings. They are both physically and mentally connected, understanding one another and interested in much the same things. They are often pressed together, sometimes affectionately, sometimes violently. Embraces are tight, but erupt into laughter or fury without warning signs that I can identify. In a way, it seems to encapsulate the claustrophobia of our relationships we have there.

In terms of considerations in designing the book, um yes! I worked with brilliant graphic designers, Sort, in Belfast, who constructed a layout which cleverly incorporates smaller pages with Leontia Flynn’s amazing poem. These pages are layered over some of the photographs so that they fragment and disrupt the view. However, the bookbinding process meant the pages could only be inserted in particular places. I love the poem and its articulation of rage but I didn’t feel like I could layer any of the “fucks” on photos of my sons, so it was an added complication to get everything in the right place. But ultimately it was a really satisfying result.

DC: The Second Shift is a very personal book. It says ‘this is happening to me now’, this is the uneaten food that needs clearing away, this is the full laundry basket waiting to be washed, there is the slug that has snuck it through the back door again. It is in the present moment, and yet it also transcends time. The book connects these very personal circumstances to the more universal reality of what you have called ‘the illusion of equality’ for women. The former is apt to shift and change, the latter continues, dependent on deeply ingrained social values and priorities. The subtext of the book seems to me about a longing for personal escape, I say this partly because its final image, looking up a loft ladder, seems to offer, at least metaphorically, that means of escape; the promise of some personal space, and time? So, have things changed for you? What is your perspective now?

CG: The ladder image is actually not about escape but reflects ideas I kept returning to about containment and spillage in the home. The solid walls of home contain our lives, our accumulated possessions and the tools of our routines. Seeming stable and secure, they enclose the spaces in which we construct and conduct our intimate relationships. The infrastructure of daily life is located there - water, sewage, gas, electricity, washing machine, sellotape, screwdrivers, out-of-season winter coats and summer shorts… the list is immense when you try to itemise it. These things take up space, some of it front stage, a lot of it backstage, and it takes time to create systems to maintain them. I was also thinking about the emotional affects of home, the sometimes dysfunctional workings of our intimate relationships, and how easily the stresses of the outside can be brought inside and unleashed. 

I wondered about when containment fails and how we manage the overspill. I thought about the attic as a place where things are stored out of sight and mind. It holds what is otherwise unmanageable. In this way, the roof space might be seen to speak of things which are difficult to confront, painful, too big, unpleasant. Clutter is another example of the overspill - it seems to pile up by itself, or at least no-one will admit their hand in its creation, almost like tidal flotsam and jetsam. The ladder is rickety so I tend to fling bags and boxes up through the hatch from the landing. I am reluctant to confront the catastrophe which is inevitably building up there and choose to imagine the roof space as having a limitless capacity. Out of sight, out of mind. 

Have things changed for me? I think they’re always in flux with cycles of harmony and growth, tension and chaos. When my sons were small I used to think, ‘when they’re walking/finished with nappies/at school etc’ things will be better but of course each challenge solved would be replaced by a new one that took me time to learn to deal with. Now that they’re taller than me and almost adults, the challenges are just different. I think the long process of researching, writing, filming and photographing helped me examine and articulate many of the aspects of home life which are generally seen as trivial and insignificant. Most of our ideas and practices around dirt and cleaning, for example, are actually very idiosyncratic and really quite bonkers. They’re often inherited from our mothers who inherited them from theirs, so our attitudes are influenced by all sorts of experiences. My mother had TB in her youth and would rather read a book than do almost anything else so her emphasis was always on the threat of invisible germs and visible cleanliness was paid little heed. She also grew up in a large family on a remote farm without running water and with a mother who had a full-time job, things which also shaped her attitudes and practices. I now feel more reconciled with my own visible scruffiness, particularly since I am clearer about how I understand hygiene – which I am particular about – as distinct from untidiness and dust, which don’t bother me. I have come to realise it is not some shameful failing of my womanhood that my home doesn’t look like something in a lifestyle magazine. It is simply an acceptance of life. 

DC: In recent years there has been a shift towards more politically engaged forms of contemporary art. I wondered in this context how you envisage your critical voice developing? Do you see your work changing in the way it opposes the status quo in the future? What impact do you hope it will make, what would success look like for you?

CG: When I made Domestic Drift I was motivated by the struggle to see what was there at home in front of me. Consequently, the methods for making that work were designed around paying attention, appreciating difficulty and finding acceptance. This included the use of the dérive to shift me out of habitual patterns of looking and acting, restricting shots to only one or two of each scene to minimise my judgement and never moving things or tidying up a shot to make it look better. In this way, I gradually learned to see and accept the everyday in its messy, aching ordinariness. For The Second Shift however, the issue was one of finding resistance to what I didn’t think I should accept. I began to wonder if straight photographs would work for this since the photographic image seems to promote an acquiescent belief in the reality represented in it. I also felt myself getting annoyed at the expectations of photography: that it should be clear and sharp, printed pristinely and mounted invisibly so as not to produce an interruption in the viewing of this apparent slice of reality. I felt angry at photography: it seemed to help naturalise an idea of home which felt anything but natural. I started thinking about practices which might destabilise those overly neat, simplistic ideas and turned instead towards intervention, disruption and ambiguity. 

In the photograph of the kitchen roll I was interested in the contradictions within the image: the sculptural quality of the upright roll with the torn, wet fragility of the paper; the throwaway utilitarian nature of the tissue material with the unnecessarily decorative patterns on it. I printed it and deliberately creased the paper before re-photographing the print. I liked the disturbance of the crease, it seemed conceivably a part of the photograph yet at odds with the characteristics of the tissue. For me this tiny disruption played with the assumptions of realism and naturalness of both home and photography and hinted at the uncanny, unsettling familiarity.

Pinching the print is also an embodied action, inserting my body into the image where it had previously been invisible. Who does all this work? How does it get done? The work of home and childcare, along with pregnancy, birth and feeding, is physical and it is carried out by somebody. As the work and person of the domestic worker is concealed, so is that of the photographer whose presence is not referenced by marks or brushstrokes. This ‘mistake’ in the image betrays the hand of the photographer and their subjective involvement. It also underlines the wrongness - shame even - of bodily interference in the work and a kind of human fallibility. 

Pinching is often a covert action, carried out by stealth. I committed this tiny violent act on the photograph, disrupting the relationship between the photograph as image and the photograph as object. And then I allowed this rupture to close up again by re-photographing it and returning the surface of the printed photograph to smooth. The disruption becomes faint, minimal, furtive.  

DC: You published The Second Shift in 2019, significantly perhaps before the pandemic; before what we might call ‘the great adjustment’ for all of us. I imagine this has had a huge impact on how you juggle your roles as teacher, artist and parent. Have you been able to make any work during this period? Are any new publications or exhibitions in the pipeline?

CG: The book was published at the very end of 2019, when I felt like I was shouting into the wind about the significance of home: as a place of threat rather than a tranquil haven, about the hidden work women do there, as well as the often eccentric ideas people have about dirt. Moving overnight to online teaching was a steep learning curve and dealing with the anxieties of students, the constant decision making required to make adjustments and figure out practicalities, trying to support my children’s online learning and my elderly parents who were shielding, and coping with my own anxiety levels… I suppose there was a lot I felt responsible for and really unable to drop the ball on any of it. Working from home seemed, ironically, to drastically reduce my free time rather than give me more of it. I think some of that was down to work becoming more complex and urgent, and some down to the greater insertion of work into the home. I’ve been very lucky to have a relatively painless experience of the pandemic but juggling all of these elements has undeniably restricted my own practice. 

I finished The Second Shift really itching to press on with some of the unanswered questions I was still mulling over and I’m slowly examining them by building my research to support new work. I am very interested in the performance of women’s work, and I find the gestural and physical actions of cleaning and housework fascinating. In The Second Shift, I also looked at attachment: between my sons and I, between themselves, and between us and our home. I wanted to suggest the contradictions of love and claustrophobia in attachment, and the anxiety about loss or separation coupled with how increasingly independent teenagers desire detachment. I am curious about gesture, about haptic experience and embodied practices and their significance. Kindness, for example, strikes me as a sort of anti-capitalist exchange of care, particularly among other mothers who often reach to help lift a pushchair or smile in solidarity at a woman with a screaming toddler in the supermarket.