Helen Bartlett / Family Portraiture

My Inspiration – my Dad’s photographs of my childhood


One of the things I am asked most frequently is why do I photograph in the style that I do – what drives me, what inspires me and what are the reasons behind the decisions I have made in my photographic practice. Why do I shoot on location using natural light, and why only black and white? I find these questions fascinating and when I look at other photographers’ work, I believe you can tell if someone has thought through the answers to these questions, and if someone really knows why they work in the way that they do. It’s through the process of finding the answers to these questions that a real photographic style develops.

I’m lucky because I have always known why – why I shoot in black and white, and why I photograph children. The reason is that I am lucky enough to have the most wonderful document of my own childhood photographed by my father, which brings me such joy as an adult. It’s capturing pictures like these for my clients – and for their children – that drives me.

I thought it would be interesting to share with you a selection of these pictures from my childhood; pictures that my father took of me and my brothers which shape the way I see the world photographically and influence all my work.

For the first in this series of posts, I’m starting with this shot of my mother, my brother William and I on a punt on the River Cam in Cambridge. One of the first things that, as an adult, strikes me about this picture, is that it looks cool. It’s a great photograph that I am proud to have, enlarged to 18″ x 12″ and framed, hanging in my hallway. I am lucky to have photos from my childhood that I want to share – I have so many friends who only have faded Polaroid snaps, or cheesy Eighties studio portraits. This image is timeless and that is something I always try to achieve in my work.

This picture also tells a story. You can ascertain many different things about the moment that my Dad has captured – we are in Cambridge (a number of members of my family went to university in Cambridge and my Grandfather and Great Aunt lived nearby, so we visited frequently when I was young). Also, it’s cold, which is typical of my parents – why punt on a hot summer’s day, when you could go in the wind and the rain? I’m with my family – although you can only see three of us, I know Dad is taking the picture and my brothers Richard and Giles must be sitting opposite. You can also see that I’m scared – I’m still not keen on punts, although after living in Cambridge for eight years, I try to style it out a little better now.

But most importantly for me, the picture has many memories and associations – this is the most wonderful benefit of location portraiture, and why I personally prefer working on location to studio shots.

There is family history – my parents went punting on their first date, and I’m sure they would have told us that story that day – it makes me smile to think of it. Being in Cambridge, we would have been visiting my Grandfather and Great Aunt and it’s nice to think of them each time I look at the picture; photographs keep memories alive even if those we think of aren’t featured in the image itself.

And my brother William fell into the river. I remember that clearly – jumping from the punt to the bank and back again, he misjudged it and landed in the River Cam. It must have been seventeen or eighteen years ago, but the memory still makes me laugh. What more can you ask for from a photograph, and what more can I strive to put into my own work for the enjoyment of my clients?

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