I am fortunate enough to have a job (my own business, LifeBooth) where I can say with my hand on my heart that there is nothing I’d rather do in life. I make biographical films (or ‘digital biographies’)about the lives of everyday people ~ films about family, for family.
One of the other things I do is ‘home movie edits’ whereby people collate all of their photographs, video, and super 8 footage to be edited into something more focused and beautiful ~ often something that creates a theme or a narrative out of the gorgeous confusion of a family’s media archive.
The film below is one such example where I was given some super 8 film footage and some photographs, and given the task of editing it together for a daughter’s 40th birthday.
This is why I love what I do. Firstly there is the enormous sense of trust people invest in you ~ something I never take for granted ~ that with these truly irreplaceable elements of their heritage ~ they are given to you to look after, and do something wonderful with. Then there is the sense ~ the privilege ~ in feeling like one is involved in some kind of ‘modern archaeology’. For the film in question, the family had not seen them since the mid-1970s ~ and then I was given full access to it all. I can only describe it as feeling like one has walked in on a slowly dissolving secret ~ just in time to save it.
Finally comes the joy ~ sitting there with clients in a preview and seeing their faces when they see the film footage for the first time in decades. In an ideal world that really would be payment enough…
Many thanks to Mr and Mrs S who have kindly given me permission to reproduce the film online.
I’m hoping that gradually this blog will reach out into other forms of home/family media as it grows ~ and so I thought it would be a good opportunity to show a bit more of my own.
The film below is the result of my first experiment with a new (or should I say “old”) 1970s Nizo Professional Super 8 camera that I bought for my business (other than visual biographies I am also hoping to film the odd wedding film too ~ once I can find two willing guinea pigs!). Most people will probably recognise the kinds of images that Super 8 produces from seeing it on TV ~ or perhaps you are lucky enough to have some old Super 8 home movies yourself.
To me, Super 8 is such a beautiful medium to work with compared to digital ~ and it is actually seeing something of a revival amongst independent filmmakers who want to work with film but can’t afford to work with larger film sizes such as 35mm. In terms of processing, Super 8 is much more forgiving on the wallet although it’s still not cheap. A 3 1/2 minute roll of film will cost about £13 to buy and about £13 to develop ~ more if you want to have it digitally scanned instead of filming it off your projector screen.
As with film photography there’s no instant results and you can’t alter the image during filming so there’s a bit of guess work. In the footage below for example, there’s a fair bit that is under-exposed. Having said that, Super 8 is a very forgiving medium ~ it is, after all, synonymous with home movies and because of that aspect of visual culture the wobbly cameras and flickering lights kind of adds to the charm! Anyway I’ll keep telling myself that until I’ve learned my way around the camera a bit better! Of course it can be much more refined than that!
(The music in the movie is Bluebirds by Kensington Prairie)
I really enjoyed my first venture into Super~8 though. The whole process was fun (filming with Amy in Stanton Fitzwarren Park, and Cheltenham), full of anticipation (waiting the 2 weeks to get the film back from the developer), and joyous (feeding the film into the projector and then seeing it being beamed onto the nearest available surface I had ~ which was an old cardboard box! I changed it to a piece of paper after checking though!).
Going back to what I said about the visual culture of Super 8 ~ for me it kind of feels like a memory in a sense ~ more than any other kind of media because it is synonymous with old home movies and thus how we have experienced the medium either through TV or our own films. It is retro~cool but I think there is also something familiar and warm and fuzzy about it too. When you see a modern Super 8 film it kind of looks like it’s from the 1960s or 1970s ~ but then you see the ‘signs’ through the clothes people are wearing, or the cars in the background that shifts the context to the present.
For me, the film I made is particularly special though ~ because in each bit of footage with Amy in it, there is also the knowledge that she is carrying our child ~ and so I love that in the future he~or ~she will be able to watch the film and feel connected to a time and a place where even though they were not visible ~ they were very much present.
Whilst I had not yet been conceived, these photographs represent this for me ~ of my Mum and Dad on holiday in the Alps ~ probably a year or so before I was born. For me (even as a child) these images have always felt like my own memory ~ I’m sure they are why I love all things retro!
In some ways I think this emphasises the beauty of family photographs ~ especially as they (and we) age. When I look at the photographs of my grandparents (such as the one in my previous post that I colour~corrected) I too feel connected to it ~ because whilst it was a photograph taken probably 25 years or so before I was born ~ my mum, my aunts, my cousins, second cousins, and myself ~ are all now invested in that single image. It punctuates all of our existence. Perhaps it is the same for you ~ with your own family photographs?
I’m going to write another post on this in the future at some point, but if any readers would like to submit a family photograph that is of special importance to them ~ alongside a few words ~ then I would always be delighted to include it on my blog. It has been something I have been thinking of doing for a while now, but given that I can see from my “hit counter” that more people are reading the blog now I am writing regular posts ~ it would be nice to include a bit more ‘audience participation’. Alternatively, if there is something about family photography that you would like to see written about on the blog please feel free to contact me. My email address is in the “About Me” section.
I received another album today that I purchased through eBay!
There was a wonderful collection of Victorian albums up for sale too but way too expensive. It was a shame though because the person selling those albums has split them up ~ something I find kind of sad and disrespectful in a way. I think it is shame enough that family photographs get removed from their family base as it is (however broad that base might be), but to split collections makes it worse.
Several times I have looked at what happens to split collections to see who buys them and often the person buying one will bid on the other. Given the nature of eBay ~ sometimes they win and sometimes they lose. I think perhaps sellers get greedy sometimes and figure if they split a collection they’ll get more ~ there’s been several occasions where I’ve even seen all of the photographs be split in albums and then sold separately!
The guy I bought Nancy’s albums from was selling them separately ~ so it was a rather expensive purchase for me ~ although to be fair to him he did give me a reduction because he liked what I was doing with them ~ AND he left the postcards in there which were the very reason why he purchased the albums in the first place!
Unfortunately one of them slipped away though ~ an album that documented her travels through Switzerland. I contacted the person who won it to see if she would sell but she declined as it was a gift for her father who was in love with the country. However she was really very helpful and gave me some of the details she found in the album such as names and places they’d been.
I find it fascinating how such personal items as family photographs can become commodities. That probably sounds a little hypocritical coming from me ~ but I have an unusual agenda in trying to find ways of getting photographs back into the family circle so it’s my hope that I won’t actually be hanging on to them for too long!
One of the reasons why such personal and intimate objects as family photographs become commodities is that they are not only about families, but can also reach a point where they actually reflect social history ~ and that is when they can be connected to people’s identities. I briefly mentioned in a previous post about the woman I interviewed during my PhD research who was completely in love with the Victorian era. Her house was like stepping back in time! I asked her if all the family photographs and albums were from her family but they weren’t ~ they were all from eBay! I love that example though ~ because whilst they have been separated from the original family they are still very much treasured, looked after, and respected.
Anyhoo, the person I bought this new album from was as helpful as she could be and answered my usual follow-up email to see if she had any extra info. Unfortunately she didn’t have anything other than the details in the album although there does seem to be a fair bit of info to hand.
This one is a bit unusual as whoever put it together didn’t put the photographs in a proper album as such, but used what seems to be a scrap book with plain thick brown paper.
However the album still tells us that the owner was keen on tennis (there are several photographs of her playing tennis and also at Wimbledon), and horses through photos depicting her at various gymkhanas (my god I spelt that first time without the spell checker kicking in lol!) and also The Grand National ~ oh and that her surname was Gore. I don’t have a first name for her but I’m 99% certain that she is the woman in the photographs on the left here.
I was just doing a spot of research on the Internet and came across the blog ‘Awkward Family Photographs’ ~ so I had to share the link with you all! It’s got loads of reader~submitted family photographs that depict exactly what you might expect! Here’s how the blog is described
“Let’s be honest– we’ve all got them. At some point in our lives, someone close to us has made us pose for an uncomfortable photo. Well, here’s your chance to share your family’s awkwardness with the world. Submit family photos, wedding photos, vacation photos, engagement photos, baby photos, etc!”
I think the blog is fab and worth a look if you fancy a laugh! It’s making me wonder if I’ve got one I can send…in fact…I think I might have several! I’ll let you know if I submit one!
Awkward Family Photographs is quite interesting to me in terms of my PhD research as I was particularly interested in photographs that were in some way politicised as the relationships they depicted changed due to negative events. I called these photographs “Prickly Photographs” because of how they made people feel. That’s why I like the Awkward Family Photograph blog ~ because it is Prickly Photographs but in a much more positive and jovial sense!
Click here to pay them a visit. I’ve listed them on the right hand side of the blog too ~ where I’ll be adding family photography related links as and when I find them.
I was practicing some restoration and colour correction exercises on old family photographs today as I was thinking of including it as a service for my new biography business.
I scanned the photograph of my Nana and Granddad’s wedding outside the Church of Ascension in Easington Colliery (the very church where I was Christened ~ and the same town where Billy Elliot was filmed!). The photograph has been on display on the sideboard in the dining room and is getting quite faded. I originally intended just to restore it in black and white (which I did), but then fancied the challenge of making it all colourful.
I love colour correcting photographs as it gets kind of hypnotic ~ especially when you’ve got some nice soothing Yann Tiersen playing in the background. The wedding photograph took quite a long time because of all the detail in it and you have to pretty much go over every pixel to make it look right. For example, with the bouquet of roses my Nana is holding I had to go over every leaf and then go in between the leaves to colour her wedding dress.
I also had to do a bit of research ~ I spoke to my Nana to check that the roses were red, and what colour Granddad’s suit and tie was. Even after all these years she still remembered! I tried to find a photograph of the church but there wasn’t one unfortunately. However I did find some photographs that were taken on the same street and so I used those as a basis for colouring the bricks. The door was a bit of a wild guess and I think it needs altering a bit to get it right!
If you are working on a photograph that has a lot less detail such as the one below of my Mum (or it might be my aunt!) when she was little, it is much easier. The problem is that with more detail there is ~ the more ‘cartoony’ it can become. The photograph of my Nana and Granddad looks much more obviously coloured than the one of my mum (to my eyes anyway!). I think the wedding photograph works okay though ~ the only thing I’m not as happy about are the roses as I couldn’t for the life of me get a faithful colour on them to make them look convincing.
I think I might try colouring one of Nancy’s photographs later on today!
After nearly a year I managed to find some time today to do a bit of research on Nancy and excitingly we can now put a face to the name!
Previously I had wondered if Nancy had been behind the camera all the time and that we wouldn’t get to see her, but thankfully her albums are so well organised with lots of writing on the back of many photographs that were easy to get to because she had used adhesive photograph corners throughout. Carefully looking at the back of many of her photographs and using my magnifying glass, I managed to find her amongst all the faces that adorn the pages.
What I love about researching Nancy’s photographs is that with each little bit of information I get, it completely changes one’s experience of her photographs. Simply by being able to put a name to a face means that I am now seeing her in many of her photographs ~ and so it increases the sense of intimacy and familiarity one feels when leafing through her albums ~ especially given the huge variety of information they contain.
And there really is so much information in them ~ not only in the text she writes on the back of many photographs and how she has carefully annotated the pages of the album ~ but also through the other documents she has kept such as plane tickets, postcards, telegrams, letters, ticket stubs to tourist attractions, and even a small paper menu of a meal she had at a restaurant!
It reminds me of how things have changed with family photographs now that everything is digital. Too many people have their photographs lurking around on hard drives and barely being displayed ~ and if they are displayed there is rarely any text to accompany the images. One more obvious exception to this though is online photo sharing websites such as Flickr and (increasingly) Facebook where people often provide narratives to their photographs.
I wanted to include some more photographs of Nancy here but unfortunately I’ve mislaid the cable to my scanner so I will try and find it in the morning! Anyway, it has been nice to update the blog again after such a long absence ~ and I’m hoping that I will be able to post more regularly now.
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My apologies to any readers who have been wondering where I’ve been the last few months. I’m frantically trying to get my PhD thesis ready for submission. I should be finished soon though and will then be posting on a more regular basis! Don’t forget to subscribe if you want to be notified of new posts!
This is the earliest of Nancy’s albums with the first photographs being dated as August 1950. To put this in some historical context, this was the month that Princess Anne was born, the first live television transmission between Britain and France took place (“how very interesting” I hear you say), and also when Britain began sending troops to Korea – “The Forgotten War”.
What strikes me about the photographs in the first few pages of the album is that this is only five years after the end of World War II. This period of British (and of course world) history has always fascinated me because unless one lived through those times it is hard to comprehend the sense of loss that so many would have endured on so many different levels. For sure, there is empathy but I think even the most empathic of people eventually encounter that numbness ~ the limits of not having had those ‘real-time’ emotional and sensory experiences whereby we can truly know. How are people able to mourn when the whole world is mourning also? How did people who’d witnessed (and even taken part in) the most horrific acts manage to reclaim some normality in their lives. How did they (if they felt they had to) forgive themselves, forgive others, and try and move on with their lives? Where on earth do you begin trying to make sense (if there is any) of and move on from, that utter utter mess?
I can’t help but think of these things when I look through these albums. In many of the photographs in this particular album Nancy is travelling through Cumbria and Scotland with Jim, Alan, and Leddy (?). They all look like happy and adventurous folk ~ having fun, joking about (especially Jim).
I do wonder though (as I do with most old photographs taken in or around WWII) what the war took from them (because it pretty much took something or someone from everyone), and where did they find the strength to pull it all back. I’ve asked people this before of course, who had lived and suffered loss during the war and they all say the same thing ~ of just having to “get on with it”. If WWII showed us the devastation we are capable of, then it also showed our resolve ~ not only during, but afterwards too.
At some point between 1838 and 1839 Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre positioned his Daguerreotype camera with a view over the Boulevard du Temple in Paris at a time when the city (indeed the country as a whole) was going through immense changes.
Because of the limitations of photographic technology at the time, photographers could only really photograph nature, objects, and the built environment. Amongst other factors, exposure times were very slow and so movement could not be captured effectively.
What makes this photograph so special though, is that within these empty streets of inky polish and fade, we see what is widely regarded as the first two human beings ever to be photographed. A man stands with a kind of earnest on the corner. The reality was that he was getting a shoeshine and was unaware of his photograph being taken, but in a way he stands as if he is intentionally claiming his mark in (photographic) history.
The other fascinating thing about this photograph is that (as Gerry Badger puts it in his book The Genius of Photography), the street is “populated by ghosts”. The streets of Paris were as busy as ever when Daguerre took the photograph, but because people were on the move they simply vanished – seeping into the pavements and the street because of technological limitations – all, that is, but the man and his shoeshine.
So naturally, I love this photograph as for me, in terms of photographs of people, this is where it all began – a chance encounter on a Parisian boulevard. It reminds me of those music videos that you see sometimes where people are standing still whilst the blurred flow of the city unfolds around them and everyone is oblivious to everyone else. It also reflects the irony in how photographs of people can become plagued with anonymity. It is like a statement on a possible future that threatens every photograph of a person in the world; whereby with time your face could be, or will be, forgotten.
It also makes me wonder about the places we don’t know of in which photographs that include ourselves reside. Go to the Trevi Fountain and within thirty minutes you’ll probably become embossed in the background of hundreds of other people’s memories for decades… This makes me think of the albums I have of Nancy – is she still alive? How could she ever know that she is part of a project where slivers of her life are being scrutinized? Is it even ethical for me to be doing this, let alone writing publicly about it? But I guess part of writing a blog is that it has the benefit of that ever-so-slim chance that someone might recognize a face or a name…
It’s not all doom and gloom of course! But I think this reinforces why I try to trace photographs back to their original families – I try to stop them from becoming interesting but anonymous faces and lives. I guess it is about preventing them from simply becoming “objects”, and hoping that some kind of meaning and dimension can be re-invested in them.