Exercise 1.2 Background as context

Posing people for portraits has always been a stumbling block for me and so this entire chapter is proving to be challenging, not to mention the upcoming Assignment.  August Sander posed his subjects against plain backgrounds or included objects that would be relevant to their profession.  When studying the images made by him, it was interesting trying to guess the jobs or lives that his subjects lived, some were more obvious than others – The Pastry Cook (1928, printed 1999) leaves little to doubt as he stands there with his mixing bowl, against a kitchen backdrop while dressed in chef’s whites.

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I was intrigued by this one of The Washerwoman (c1930) as there is so much more to look at in the frame, with the buckets at her feet, washing twined around the water pump and her neutral expression.  This appears to be an urban setting – there is fencing on the background and the outline of buildings, and she stands on cobbles with a drain to one side ready to catch the water from the pump.  Yet there are no other people in the frame and it is solely this woman washing garments or linens out in the street.  Her position at the forefront of the frame does make the viewer look into the photograph to explore the whole image not just the woman herself.

The facial expressions were also noticeable in that most of them looked at the camera, particularly if they were single person portraits and none were smiling.  It was relatively rare for the single person to be looking away from the camera.  This was reserved for groups of people or couples, although there were one or two who were ‘doing things’ and so gave them a purpose to be looking away, such as scientists or intellectuals.  Groups were tightly framed and there was little space around them.  The backgrounds could be plain white, or interiors or outside with the countryside stretching out behind, or street scenes.  Each one grounds the subject once you know who they are and what they did.

And so to the portrait that I had to do on my own.  I spent a couple of hours with my friend who has a recording studio and is a musician, and he was recording an artist putting vocals onto tracks for a new album coming out in the Autumn.  During a break, we went outside and I chatted to him about a photo of him, and we talked about what was important to be in the background for him particularly.  Being a musician, it was important to have his guitar and appear to be playing.  He loves his camper van as he first got it when he got married and they have had several family holidays in it. It is a big part of his lifestyle, he’s what I suppose you would call a Mod but there is a hippy part of him (isn’t there in all of us?) that loves the freedom of camping and the open road.  The sun was shining on the first days of proper warm weather and the clematis was in full bloom, and they fitted in with the flowers on the roof and dashboard of the campervan.

I’m not certain that I posed him too much, it was more of a collaboration between us as we moved round the garden but I did move and choose the angle so that it had the flowers, the van, the archway and him in front of it, troubador style.  In some ways, it was easier than I thought because I took the photographs with my phone camera and that released the tension of choosing aperture, getting the exposure right – it’s just point, focus it and press the shutter button.  I often go all thumbs when faced with someone in front of me waiting to have their photo taken, and using a phone means that I can use one of those thumbs constructively.   I often use the Retrica app to capture images and this one is one of those.  The vignette is quite apparent but not intrusive, although the bottom left hand corner is over dark – this is exactly how it came off the phone.  Generally though I like it and it works as it is brightly lit, it’s in focus and the highlights are not too bright.  I can see the blue sky and clouds reflected in the glass, and I like him standing casually with one foot up on the bumper.  The square frame works in this case as there is some balance with the person just off the central line and the van on the other side.  His guitar provides the horizontal line that crosses the two central lines, although there are other horizontal lines in the edges of the van, the bricks in the wall and the dark opening behind him.  The bent leg also balances up the lines.  I confess that I don’t look enough or plan exactly where everything will go, but I change things slightly or move my position to fit or balance the image.  To me and my eye, it works and I like it, but that is very subjective.

PPArnold @ Steve's 12
Steve Cradock, Devon, May 2017

The problem that I encounter when considering portraits is the time factor.  I tend to rush it as I feel that the sitter is waiting and I am not ready.  It is important to slow down, think, consider and look more intently at what is going on around the area.  Maybe it is the modern phenomenon of simple, quick ways of taking photos that appear instantly on your screen that makes me feel that I need to go quicker when in reality there is no rush, I can take my time and try to get it right.  I am aware that this may be a problem when compiling work for the Assignment as I just know that my instinct will be to grab one or two shots and run.  It will require some work, but plucking up courage to ask complete strangers to have their photo taken will probably take over from the technical issues of trying to frame, focus, pose, shoot and then see if it might come out.


1.4 Archival Intervention

Part One, Project 3, Exercise 1.4, Archival Interventions


A very interesting exercise that I could easily get lost in once I started.  Looking at the outline of the exercise, I thought about the large numbers of very old family photographs that I now have since the death of my Dad last year.  I found it really hard to get rid of them as the old tiny black and white pictures of my grandparents in particular are a window onto a different time and fascinating in the clothes, cars, setups they have for their snaps.  Sorting through them also struck me as to how little we actually take time to look at printed images and try to connect with what happened at the time they are taken.

My thinking was to somehow connect the past with the present through the family and had a couple of options.  The old photos were mainly of my Dad’s family so I had a starting point of looking at the paternal side rather than maternal.  Plus, I don’t have many photos of my mum’s.  I am quite close to my aunt, my Dad’s sister, and I was interested in the connections to her and family.  One option that I pursued was of the women starting with the grandmothers, then my mum and aunt moving on to me and my two sisters. The photos of my grandmothers are of them in their 40s or 50s.  I always thought that one of them was in her 60s, judging from her white hair and dumpy physique.  In fact, she was only 55 when she died and in these photos she is much younger.  It highlighted the fact that we make judgements on appearances even if they may not be true.

I decided instead to look more closely at the military connection of the men in my family. I would not consider us to be a military family in that we have not had generations following each other into the armed forces, but there is a connection of sorts.  Both of my grandfathers were in the armed forces during the First World War, one in the Flying Corps and the other in the Army, the Artillery Division.  Their portraits are formal and posed using the style of the day.  One is full length in a studio set up with props and countryside scene, the other has heavy white vignetting around his head and shoulders.  My father was in the Army at the end of WWII and went to Northern Ireland to train new recruits to shoot.  His portrait is similar to that of his father, a head and shoulders but without the vignetting.

My two sons have been involved through one being an Army Cadet at school, and the other was a Recruit with the Royal Marines but had to make the tough decision to leave because of injury.  I have a snap of the Cadet but in full rig with cap and badge in place.  The other is the formal photograph that all new recruits have taken along with a Troop photo shortly after joining.   His is the formal portrait of head and shoulders, but in contrast to the older ones he is looking at the camera.  I can see a confidence in him but is that because I know him and what he went through in order to join?  I am sure that the other difference to the older generations is that he chose to join rather than being drafted which I know happened to my dad and very possibly to my grandfathers but I am not sure.

As a family, we had conversations about the army as for my generation WWII was still quite close and our parents had lived through it as young people.  I was always fascinated by the fact that my grandfathers had been in the First World War and as our knowledge of it grew I wondered about the horrors that they may have faced.  One of them got a medal for courage under fire when he helped other soldiers while being gassed.  My dad loved talking to his grandson about uniforms, weapons, drill and bad food.  It gave them a connection that had been missing and a talking point to bring the generations together.  I would have liked to have had that opportunity with my grandparents but unfortunately they were all gone by the time I was old enough to understand and question them.

Archive Collections-2
Three Generations of Armed Forces

When putting them together, I started with what I believe is the first one taken of my mother’s father in the Flying Corps in about 1914 then my father’s father in the Royal Artillery in about 1915.  Then my father in the Army about 1945 followed by my younger son in the Army Cadets in about 2006 and finally my older son after joining the Royal Marines in 2015.  If only George Armitt had been wearing his cap with badge, it would have made the set more complete but we don’t have one with him wearing it.  There are only three or four photos of him in uniform and all are without his cap. Personally I find this connection interesting because while I was aware of it, this is the first time that I have had them all together.

This exercise was interesting in bringing out family photographs and putting them together with different connections.  I also looked at weddings in the family and how they changed over time.  This has sparked something that I would like to pursue further and it is a reason for getting out the old photos rather than having them away, to look at the past and discover where we all come from and how we come together with shared interests, jobs, lives and families.








Part One Exercise 1.1 Historic Portrait


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Cecil Beaton: Marlene Dietrich, (1935) Sotheby’s London. 

It’s a black and white image of the actress in a confined area with a sculpture of a woman’s head and shoulders.  The background is of some kind of gauzy material and a floral arrangement.  Dietrich appears to have flowers in her hair and wears a thin transparent wrap around her shoulders.  There are feathers at the front of her that could be her dress or just feathers.  The sculpture is very close to the background, on the edge of the frame while Dietrich fills the rest of the space with her head in the centre of the frame.  The light is filtered so that there are patches of light and shadow playing on both faces.  It is a glamorous portrait of a Hollywood film star that stylistically is very reminiscent of the 1930s Hollywood era.

What struck me about this image is the mirroring of the woman and the sculpture.  They are dressed very similarly with hair done up and a neck decoration around their throats.  The eyebrows are also almost identical, with thin dark arches.  There is a tension in the expressions on the faces – the bust is impassive and looking away while Dietrich’s is more animated as she leans into the bust and tilts her head towards it.  There is a dominance in her femininity as she pushes forwards and pushes the ‘other woman’ into the background so that she is physically touching the background.  Dietrich’s beauty is striking with her smooth skin and slight smile on dark lips.  Her hand is just in the frame, adjusting her wrap.  The hand adds an awkwardness as it isn’t clear what she is doing with it.

At first, I was drawn to this photograph because I saw it in a book and thought it was glamourous and a good example of the Hollywood look and influence from the 1930s.  Now that I have looked at it further and thought more about what she might be thinking, I am wondering if Beaton had any other agenda. He was known for being quite ruthless with his sitters:

Hugo Vickers (The Guardian)

Saturday 24 January 2004

 “What is Beaton’s secret? I think he produced a kind of magic. Not only did he photograph most of the interesting, alluring and important people of the 20th century, but he made them look stunning. He examined his sitters with a cruel eye and disguised their faults by subtle posing and lighting. Nor did he hesitate to touch them up ruthlessly.”    (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/jan/24/photography)

What were her faults that he was disguising?  Dietrich was a famous movie star and this photograph ensures that her image is perfect, from her carefully made up face to the softness of the surrounding props. There are flowers and a soft transparent material in the background, and this is repeated in her dress and it looks like she has flowers in her hair too.  I was interested in the image as this is an area of photography that I could never enter – the stars of stage and screen posing for shots that will be seen by many people.  It is very stylish and lavish but there is also a sense of fun in her going cheek to cheek with a sculpture.  I like the dark edges while the lightest part of the frame is reserved for her face, and she is lit much more evenly than the sculptured lady. It is also a little less formal as she is looking away from the lens out to the left, rather then confronting the camera face on.  There is more to think about than if she was looking straight at the camera.  It’s not easy to discern what they were aiming for, and this is one of several images from the same shoot.  Another photograph had her looking at the camera and away from the sculpture, while their faces had more shadows and harsher lighting which changed the feel of it completely.