Tuesday, 7 February 2012

What does a picture tell us?

I suppose it's inevitable that part of the process of studying photography is the "pull" of looking back, and the looking over, of old photographs. I had asked my mother to search out any old photographs she had, although I already knew there wouldn't be that many as my father, before he died, had already relegated all the negatives and the vast majority of the family archive - and who knows what else - to the bin. It's a shame as, I suppose like a lot of children, the feeling is that a part of your history was deemed superfluous. Never mind, no use crying over spilt silver.

I therefore didn't expect there to be any "really old" photographs in amongst the bundle I was given last week; but I was surprised with a few photographs and I have uploaded one here. A photograph of my parents - centre - on their wedding day.

What to say: well it is the widest view I have ever had of my entire gene pool. They are all smiling (that is the people - not sure about the genes!). The couple to the far left are my paternal grandparents; the lady far right and the gentleman second from the right are my maternal grandparents, their daughter, my aunt and mother's sister, is between them. And of course the happy couple are my parents. My aunt Sylvia has an "eye" moment it would seem. The salubrious surrounding is the back garden of the vicarage of St Peters, Bushey Mill Lane in Watford. One can almost hear the peal of the bells.

Eric Wishard who is standing at the back, to my father's right, had the role of "Best Man". My father hardly knew Eric, he happened to be the boyfriend of a friend of my mother. The original choice for looking after my father had, according to mother "let everyone down" and Eric was roped in for the day. Knowing that, it is easy to see why he stands where and as he does. I do not think he is closing his eyes to "disappear" from the shot as it was taken - he is probably suffering a similar moment as aunt Silvia. But there are other signs and signals. Why is my maternal grandfather (whom I worshipped as a boy) not standing next to his wife (whom I also loved)? They were married, lived together until she died, long after they had retired. In the photograph both of his daughters seem to "upstage" him, he has been relegated to the second row, not shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the family.

A clue maybe found in the detail. Mother and daughter are holding hands, providing support for each other. Aunt Sylvia has her engagement ring on - she was to marry later that year to Charles (Charlie), he was probably away in the Navy at the time. Well, my grandparents were going through a "rough patch" as my mother politely puts it. My grandmother had left him twice and my aunt Sylvia had decided never to forgive him, she was the eldest daughter and no doubt decided that she had the responsibility to keep the peace for her sister's wedding. My grandmother was living at home at this time and they did stay together in, I think, relative happiness for many decades more. Neither sets of parents approved of their child's choice in this marriage, so there were other undercurrents in motion - but I cannot discern them.

The wedding was on a cold January day in "rationed" 1953, the couple had planned a wedding in July, but the frostiness of the season was perhaps matched by the same feeling at home and so the couple re-arranged the wedding in quick order to bring it as early as possible. My twin sister and I were born in the following September. A testament to the clemency of the time perhaps?

Why have I posted this, well in part because it opens a part of my life that I can look into and subsequently feed into myself and my work today. But also it also plays into some thoughts I have about portrait photography. I am not sure what anyone else - other than than this writer, with his narrative knowledge - could bring to this other than innocence. I don't think that there is anything that can discerned from this otherwise, disparate set of people, connected on the day by the bonds of marriage. There seems to me to be no display of internalised narrative in any of the participants here:

From a personal perspective, both sets of my grandparents look happy (my memories of them are happy). The photographer has either succeeded in cloaking all of the various undercurrents or, as I suspect, has no perception of them whatsoever and in his oblivion of them manages to create a "happy family" photograph for perpetuity. I have shared this photograph to a wider circle including most of my my family, with the caption "what does this mean to you?" I shall be interested in the feedback.

And yes, I have edited the layout thus on purpose.


  1. When I first looked at the photograph I thought it was from the late 1940s - a time of utility everything. There's something about the cut of the clothes. the 'story' you tell adds so much more and made me start to look for the clues.
    At present I'm also working on some old family photographs and letters for an idea I've got. I seem to be more thinking than doing and I thinks it's connected with wanting to do the best I can to honour them those ancestors of mine.

  2. The family reaction so far has been very positive - ooh how happy; that sort of thing, which is how it should be. Looking back should be warm I think. Good luck with your project, I am sure you will do them proud. Is it part of the research you did in Derbyshire?

  3. I'm enjoying your approach to P&P John...it's like you're embarking on an investigative journey in to personal and family connections through photography to inform your own which makes a lot of sense...as you conclude I think many formal photographers of the past, and indeed the present, were less concerned about trying to capture the essence of the personalities or indeed dynamics and more about recording the occasion like a visual guest list. This I guess highlights some of the limitations of a photograph and means you have to work so much harder by looking at the subtleties, backed up by your own knowledge. And those staged wedding photographs that we all have had to participate in don't encourage anything other than to conform. At first glance it is hard to work out any narratives from these photos...having said that the best man, with his crooked smile probably reveals the most about himself. And with a little digging in to the era, I'm sure there would be more clues in style of clothes, posture, hand gestures to indicate social standing, wealth, attitude and so on.

    Interesting that you say 'looking back should be warm', I don't disagree with this, but that notion will inform your current work as whatever you produce will become part of the family archive also...and how truth, reality and expectations play out is will be fascinating. I'm going to think more about that. Good stuff John!!

    1. Thanks Penny, I appreciate your comments. I haven't meant to use my family members as foci for my work, but they have been around for a while! I shall now be careful about the warmth of memories, as in fact, for me at any rate, they aren't particularly warm - but that is a whole different story (stories!). How I wish my father hadn't ditched all those photographs!