First thoughts on ‘The Non-Familiar’

Assignment 1 asks to make five portraits of people who were previously unknown to me.  I have ignored it for a couple of weeks hoping that it might go away but I finally had to knuckle down and do something about it.  I admit that I not the most gregarious of people and I find portraits quite difficult anyway in that I tend to rush rather then take my time, as I feel that the sitter will be impatient with me taking time to sort out focussing and all that on the camera.  When they say that it is out of the comfort zone, I tend to agree for this reason as I refer to be invisible.

I didn’t really have a definite plan in mind of who I wanted to try to find to photograph other than I wanted them to be from where I live, so the people who work and live here.  I live in a tourist area by the sea and when the sun comes out, so do the people and locals. It seems that we almost hibernate during the winter but as soon as the first rays glow, out they come casting off clothes and ready to face the world.  I would like to say that I had it all planned out, that I would go to a certain place and find the right people.  In reality, I took my camera to several events and hoped that it would come to me.  In my favour is the fact that I seem to have to air of someone who knows (a) where they are going and (b) where everything and everywhere is, plus I must be approachable as I have been asked directions in the USA, Canada, and Germany as well as the local Sainsburys.  I have seen Martin Parr in action in programmes and he makes it look so easy.  I am no Martin Parr, on several counts. But I hope that when I did approach people that they weren’t intimidated by me.  I even asked a young man who seemed very wary but allowed me to photograph him anyway.  Interestingly, I think this is the one image that shows the lack of connection and has a ‘far away’ feel to it.  The others were very accommodating and it was ok after all although I did have trouble with the focussing on my small camera on one occasion that I panicked over a little but laughed it off.  That is the learning part of it.  I was once told by a piano player that you never stop playing if you make a mistake, you carry on and most people won’t even notice and assume that it’s part of the piece.  I am learning to carry on playing so that it all looks intentional while to me it appears that it’s chaos.

Below are a couple of the few photos that I took in order to move towards getting them to pose for me.  Dan is the only one that I remembered to ask his name, and I took some of him making the coffee before stopping him to get him to look in the camera.  With the ice-cream seller, it was a breezy afternoon on the seafront and the wind whipped up under the canopy as I was taking the photos.  She was laughing at her hair going all over the place and while this was a moment, it was not the moment.

Non Familiar contact-1
Dan making the coffee


Non Familiar contact-2







So, I have finally come up with five images and while I am not sure that they are the best I have done, I am submitting them as a first draft in order to get on with the rest of the course and not be bogged down in this.  As time goes by, I will be persevering in photographing strangers and hopefully getting better at it as I do.  I feel sure that this is not the final five as the course progresses but for now, I have got them.

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.”    (

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.