The big picture: behind the scenes at the shopping centre | Photography

In about 1990, the British photographer Nigel Shafran began taking pictures in shopping centres. His series Teenage Precinct Shoppers involved portraits of shell-suited Saturday afternoon pilgrims to Topshop and Primark, trying out regrettable new hairstyles for size. Some of the pictures, bleak and exuberant and desperate in different ways, helped to define the street style of i-D magazine and The Face. They led to commissions for global brands including Levi’s, often using models Shafran had met hanging out in malls. He calls his new compulsive, retrospective book of those pictures The Well, which was the term for the centrespreads of the glossies, where conventional fashion photography began to meet edgier social commentary. In the book, Shafran recalls how he started out: “I remember that when I first started taking pictures I felt like the village idiot, walking around roundabouts and other peculiar places.”

Thirty years on, the images from that time feel like quite tender period pieces. This picture, taken in the multi-storey car park of Brent Cross shopping centre in north London in 1993, is characteristic of Shafran’s quiet irony and pathos. Young men pushing snakes of shopping trolleys became part of the post-industrial landscape around this time, the lowest rung of supermarket employment. The ill-fitting brown coat and orange gloves seem of a piece with the brutal concrete and car park signage; it is a landscape designed to contrast with the neon come-ons of the shops below, and their ever faster fashion. “There’s a lot of just looking in a way that’s hopefully not judgmental,” Shafran says. “It’s the duality of reality and fantasy, you know, we were in that world, and lots of people thought that it was an amazing place, but I think we knew that, really, that wasn’t the case at all.”