The aim of Art is to present not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance; for this, not the external manner and detail, constitutes true reality.
This quote from Aristotle is perhaps the very essence of portraiture both in its painted and photographed form. The portrait photographer aims to not only capture the external appearance of their subject or subjects but also that inner spark, which usually lies behind the eyes. In times gone by (the years of paint) the portrait was the preserve of the rich and famous – kings, queens, emperors, etc – but over time it became common for the middle classes to commission painted portraits of their families, particularly their children. Of course, the rise of photography meant that pretty much anyone could have their portrait taken. The emergence of photography was celebrated at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and once Queen Victoria had become the first English monarch to be photographed with her children and grandchildren a family portrait was the de rigueur thing for all Victorians to have hanging over the fireplace.
In the subsequent years, not much has changed – other than the technology becoming far more sophisticated and photography, as a discipline, becoming more inclusive – and we still hang pictures of our loved ones on the wall just as the Victorians did more than 150 years ago. But what is so special about portrait photography? OK, it marks the passage of time with an unflinching eye but surely there is something more to it than that, something deeper. My house is full of portraits of my children, taken at regular intervals from the moment of birth; in fact it is probably the arrival of my first child 10 years ago that awakened my interest in photography – that and the fact that the invention of digital freed the non-expert photographer from the world of dark rooms and chemicals. My kids are always getting out the photograph albums and looking at the baby pictures. It is almost as if they have to check that it really is them, so small, so vulnerable. Children live in the moment. Last week is another country; so I would argue that when we have a photograph taken of our children it is as much for their benefit as it is for ours. Family portraits provide a connection with the past, with happy times spent together as a family. They also serve to commemorate those family members that are no longer with us.
For me, photography appears to be primarily about serendipity or the happy accident. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time… Most of the stunning photos that you will ever see were taken in a split second when the planets aligned and something magical happened. When you take a photograph you are capturing a moment in time that can never be experienced again. That’s what is awe-inspiring and exciting about photography. No matter what you are taking a photo of – be it your baby’s arrival at home, your child’s first steps, a first day at school – you are capturing something that cannot be replicated or duplicated even seconds afterward.
Family photography is an ever shifting discipline. In the 70s and 80s we were content to take grainy photographs with instant cameras and lovingly collate them in photo albums or frame them ourselves. If you wanted a ‘proper’ portrait taken then you would still need to go to a professional photographer’s studio but the images were usually very static. Sit still and say ‘cheese’. The multitude of ‘embarrassing family portrait’ websites are full of such images. This was still in evidence in the 1990s but the first digital cameras led to an improvement in image quality and the movement away from film gave the photographer the option of taking more images and deleting the ones that didn’t work on the fly. Our own pictures got better and so did those of the professionals as the digital darkroom (Photoshop, etc) opened up a whole world of possibilities.
The turn of the last century (and who can believe that that was more than 10 years ago already) saw family portraiture hit the high street. ‘Quirky’ photography became the norm with all white backgrounds, ubiquitous spot colour, extreme close ups and props coming to the fore. So what’s next? Personally, I think we will see a return to more traditional portraiture i.e. a move away from the quirkiness of the last decade. The trend now is very much for more natural images taken in an environment that means something to the subjects be it the family home or a local park. This is only a personal view, and the fact that high street family portraiture still flourishes probably proves me wrong, but I think that there is increasing evidence that the staged family photograph – no matter how wacky and off beam – has become commonplace. This has facilitated a shift back towards more honest, unforced and spontaneous photography.
As a photographer I would urge you to take as many photographs as possible as your children grow up. They will thank you for it. Modern digital cameras are very easy to master if you set your mind to it and digital darkroom software (Adobe Elements, Lightroom or Photoshop for example or Apple’s Aperture) can help you produce stunning images yourself. If you don’t have the time or inclination or feel you lack the technical skills then ask someone to take your photographs for you. There is a wealth of great, relatively inexpensive pro or semi-pro CRB-checked photographers out there if you know where to look. A recommendation from someone else is a good place to start and good word of mouth is better than any advert.
What’s most important though is that you don’t find yourself looking back in 10 or 15 years time and wonder why you didn’t capture more. Photographs are to be enjoyed and celebrated and PRINTED. There is no point having a hard drive full of digital images if you are not going to print them out and put them on the wall. A decent frame and a mount can make all the difference in creating portraits that will last for ever.
I would like to thank Sophie, and more importantly, Jemima for permission to use this picture.