I was recently invited to Kew Gardens, London, to make some portraits of Olivia. She is a child actor, and needed a selection of photographs for castings, meetings with agents and theatre publicity.
I enjoy making family photographs which show someone in the landscape, to give a sense of scale and place. This is especially the case when working with younger children, who run around, explore and interact with their environment. However I also love the simplicity of a beautiful head and shoulders portrait. It becomes a lot less about camera technique, finding an interesting composition, and much more about interacting with the subject – making them feel at ease. I think that more than ever, children and teenagers are aware of how they want to be portrayed. As an actor, Olivia was confident and needed very little encouragement before we were making some wonderful portraits.
My preference is always to photograph first thing in the morning, and the earlier the better. With babies and very young children they tend to be less tired, but also the sun is lower in the sky, which is more conducive to photography. I like to position the subject with their back to the Sun. In this case it illuminated Olivia’s hair beautifully, and I was able to use a reflector to bounce soft light back onto her face.
I hope that apart from being useful professionally, the portraits will be something she and her family can enjoy, and in years to come look back on.
Another favourite from the forthcoming children’s clothing collection from Aravore, given the black and white treatment. Although a fashion photograph, and so made with the intention of promoting clothing, this picture carries so many of the qualities I value in a commissioned portrait. It is classical and has a stillness to it. Over the many years I’ve had the privilege of photographing the young girl on the sofa, I have seen this pose and expression from her. The child behind had a very natural confidence in front of camera, which I think this photograph also shows. Together with the quality of light and setting, it is one of my favourites from the session.
A first public airing of an image from the official Aravore Autumn and Winter 2014/15 clothing campaign. It’s not often that I wish for ‘bad’ weather, but photographing in the middle of Spring, with an A/W collection to illustrate, overcast conditions were exactly what we needed. I could not resist making some portraits in black and white.
With the french doors at our location opened, I tried a few photographs through the glass. The trick is to avoid reflections on the face of the subject, and of course the reflection of photographer. When it works, the technique can lend wonderful depth to a composition. The face remains sharp, whilst the foreground and background are layered with areas of both definition and blur. This young girl had not modelled before, but she took to it like a natural. I will post some more photographs of the campaign soon. Most of it is photographed in colour, to show off the exquisite floral patterns which decorate navy dresses for the girls, and bright checkered accents on shirts and bow ties for the boys.
The aim with a portrait commission is usually to make images which flatter the subject. Lighting plays a massive part in this. For example, shadows are sometimes placed on the side of a wider face to make it appear slimmer. Men are often lit more dramatically than women, to suggest strength and to chisel rather than soften the face. Children are given more delicate treatment still, as brighter less contrasty lighting is used to connote broader ideals of childhood. Depending on culture these usually include softness, innocence, happiness and sensitivity.
This portrait of George, made during a family portrait commission in Balham, does not reflect these ideals. There is something quite unsettling about his expression. The mottled shadows on his face are a ‘mistake’ and not flattering in a classical sense. I can understand why a parent might not want a portrait like this on the wall. It’s not easy to look at. It is interesting, and I think quite beautiful, but not calming. It doesn’t show the idyl of family life. In some sense it reminds me of contemporary photographic portraiture often presented in galleries, where a curator is expected to challenge, and a captive audience ready to contemplate and question meaning. The context is different to work viewed daily in the family home, and so are viewer expectations.
On bright days I usually backlight my subject. By making sure the sun is placed behind them, the light which illuminates their face is not direct, but reflected from the environment that surrounds us. This indirect lighting avoids harsh shadows on the face. In this case George and his sister had been chasing one another through dense clusters of trees. The low level shrubbery dappled the sunlight beautifully, acting as a Gobo or ‘go-between’ subject and light source. By shifting George’s position very slightly, the catchlights in his eyes sparkled, whilst the most distracting hard edged shadows broke on his body and less prominent parts of the face.
Continuing with the theme of siblings following my previous journal entry, I made the portraits of this brother and sister in Sevenoaks last October. This particular photograph, printed in platinum and presented in a solid Walnut picture frame, was chosen by mum as a Christmas present for their unsuspecting Dad. We had planned to do the shoot in the stunning grounds of Knole Park, and as I awoke early that morning in north London, I began to think we might be more lucky with the weather than the forecaster had predicted. Arriving at the family home however, a beautiful house in Wilderness, the sky rapidly darkened along with all hope of a dry shoot. No matter I thought – The children were charging about the place, keen to burn off some energy and definitely not going to be fazed by a bit of rain. We jumped into the car, and it was during the five minute drive to Knole Park when the heaven’s truly opened. Still we persisted, spending half an hour or so in the park seeking cover under trees, and only emerging to make a few photographs. Of course the weather cleared beautifully by the time we arrived back at the house, soaked through, not long later.
Sometimes the simplest locations are the most fruitful. This window was situated in the large hallway beside the front door. With off-white walls the light bounced around beautifully, whilst the window shelf provided a useful device to ‘anchor’ the children to one spot – at least for long enough for me to make this portrait.
When photographing a single child, there is only one pose and one expression that needs to be captured. When photographing siblings we not only add to the number of subjects, but must ensure that each has an interesting body shape and expression in the same picture. I tend to sit children close to one another, especially if they play as nicely as this brother and sister, because it encourages interaction. Some self consciousness is lost, and as they lean into one another, shapes which are interesting compositionally tend to form without much direction.
These brothers, aged five and two, were amongst the most energetic that I’ve photographed. No soon had we arrived at a park near the family home in North London, they were off like a bolt. Familiar with their surroundings and energised by breakfast, a good half an hour was spent climbing trees, collecting fallen branches and wrestling as only boys know how. We managed to capture some sweet individual portraits, before Mum wisely suggested a quick rest on this log for a group photograph. I knew there would not be much time to make an image, and given the energy levels, little chance of directing a more classical portrait.
I tend to gravitate toward photographing quieter, contemplative moments. Of course these don’t always materialise, and in the spirit of making portraits that are natural, and representative of character and mood, I don’t force certain behaviour. The light was soft, and the texture of the wood interesting. It was simply a case of waiting for the right moment. In this case, that moment arrived as Oscar joked with his Mum who was positioned to my left, whilst his younger brother stared forward contently. Moments later they were off the seat and running again.
Known as semiotics, signs are visual clues that communicate a meaning beyond the thing they show. The lone tree in a field that is suggestive of isolation, or the faded snapshot of candles on a birthday cake being blown out, to evoke feelings of happiness and perhaps nostalgia.
Some signs are universally recognised, some are culturally specific, whilst others are intensely personal and attached to specific memories. For strangers who have seen this portrait during exhibition, it has captivated and encouraged conversations. For myself, aware of a tragedy for the family that followed its creation, the meaning and relevance has become altogether different.
When making family portraits, and especially photographs of children, I am trying to show universal signs such as innocence, reflection, discovery and vulnerability, but also unique characteristics known only to the family. Be it a telling half smile, the way a young boy covers his face when nervous, or a little girl waiting by the window for Dad to return from work.
Image: Commissioned portrait of Layla, aged 4
Originally published on Family Bhive
Photography is a reductive medium. That is to say, we start with a canvas of infinite possibilities, and extract from that canvas an arrangement of visually pleasing forms and (in the case of portraiture) expressions, at one single moment in time. Although a photograph might be captured within a fraction of a second, it is the years an artist dedicates to the study of light, composition and timing, which will give them the best chance of creating a ‘transcendent’ image.
For me, a portrait becomes remarkable when this vision on the part of the artist, coincides with the revealing of an interesting characteristic shown by the subject. It’s not a direct representation or likeness, like that offered by a passport photograph, but the suggestion of a quality not immediately superficial.
The evocative portrait for me connotes more than it denotes. It suggests more than it shows. This could be described simply as depth, and is why in all likelihood the typical smiling family portrait is to me less interesting. It’s too easy to look over, consume and accept without thought or exploration. It shows a happy family, but quite often suggests little more.
Originally posted on FamilyBhive (29/4/2013)
The portrait of this child was made in Islington some two years ago. It was resoundingly the family favourite, with grandparents, as well as mum and dad, ending up with a framed print.