Sometimes the most interesting images are found closest to home. Photographers Christopher Anderson, Sian Davey and the National Portrait Gallery’s Phillip Prodger explain why…
“At the same time it’s the most universal experience and the most unique experience. It transforms the way you view everything.” Like any new father, whose world has just been utterly transformed, Christopher Anderson spent the first two years of his son’s life taking pictures. Lots of pictures. Pictures of him in his mother’s arms, in the bath, asleep, at play.
But not all new fathers are also Magnum photographers. And gradually, without him ever really thinking about them as a project, Anderson’s family album found its way out into the world. Eventually in 2008, after he decided to publish them as body of work in the book, Son, “I realised not only is this part of my work, this is my work.”
Some photographers, such as Sally Mann and Larry Towell, are best known for their family portraits but Anderson had started out documenting conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. “I spent much of my early career going to the far corners of the earth seeking out the exotic and trying to make a connection. I’m much less interested in that now,” he says. Instead he sees what he does as “working in larger concentric circles, moving out from my immediate family but still somehow connected to that”.
Over the past few years we’ve seen other intimate photographs cropping up in group exhibitions and books too – Family Politics at Jerwood Space, Home Truths at the Photographers’ Gallery and books such as Family Photography Now. In two consecutive years, the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize went to family portraits: David Titlow’s Konrad Lars Hastings Titlow in 2014 and David Stewart’s Five Girls in 2015.
Portraiture used to be for Kings and Queens. Not anymore. Now anyone with a decent phone camera and an eye for a good shot has the power to take incredible pictures of everyday people. Currently open for entries, BJP’s Portrait of Britain showcases on screens across the UK, featuring portraits of ordinary Britons, which can be of family, in any form, from snapshots, to formal portraits or documentary projects.
This fascination with the familiar isn’t a new phenomenon, says Phillip Prodger, head of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery and a former judge of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. “We live in a world of the free exchange of imagery and social media and perhaps the photographs that once were considered more private aren’t considered so private anymore. I think people have been making those photographs all along but perhaps not sharing them in that way.”
Go back to the beginning of photography and you’ll find many early practitioners took pictures of their family, including Julia Margaret Cameron. “The medium was cumbersome and awkward and exposure times were very long so you had to have people that would put up with you,” Prodger points out. “It made sense you would ask your brother your sister, your son, your daughter, your wife, your husband to sit because you could direct them and if things went wrong you could have them back again and do it over.”
There was an element of pragmatism to Sian Davey’s decision to start photographing her children. Following a first degree in fine art and a career in psychotherapy, Davey undertook an MA in photography as a mature student. At first she was doing a series on immortality, a project that “took me all over the country with a one-year-old baby with health problems. Financially it was hard to support it, too – I had three kids at home.”
Her tutor, David Chandler, seeing her “in bits” suggested she start to photograph closer to home. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t have to work in projects, I can just photograph where I go every day and see what happens’.”
The result of that shift is the powerful, poignant series Looking for Alice, about her youngest daughter who has Down’s Syndrome, and Martha, about her teenage step-daughter. Davey has never worried about publishing the pictures – “I cease to see them as my children, they’re representations of my children” – but has found that playing the dual role of photographer and parent can have “difficult edges”.
Photography, she says, “has this kind of urgency, this concentration about it that means you try to bring all those elements together of light, colour, form, narrative, it’s really complex. So how can I really be fully present with my family?”
“For me,” says Anderson, “photographing someone in my family or anyone is a chance to observe them. With my family it really is this sense of looking at them with love. It’s not that different than any person would photograph their family in this sense of trying to hold on that moment.
“There’s a desperation in that but also a pleasure,” he adds. The dilemma comes when deciding which pictures to put out there. “It’s his life and I’m more conscious about that”.
What gives a family portrait wider resonance? Does it have to work harder than a picture of someone famous? No, says Prodger. “There’s an element of voyeurism in some family photographs because you’re getting privileged access to someone’s world – but if you can push beyond the circumstances of someone else’s life, that question of intimacy, of the personal offers something really universal.”
By contrast, he says, celebrities can be difficult to photograph well. “Photographing Tom Cruise is a bit like photographing the sunset. Making something really different and distinguished with that subject matter is a real challenge.”
A great portrait can be of the Queen or of your mother, but whether it shows a royal or the everyday faces the Portrait of Britain is looking for, it offers the viewer “something they knew already but can’t quite visualise or showing them something they never knew.” – Philip Prodger.
Son has changed how Anderson approaches all photography – whether working on a personal series such as Bleu, Blanc Rouge, which explores French national identity, or a taking a commissioned portrait of Barack Obama for WIRED.
“I’m looking for a way to communicate something of the experience I have with that person whoever that person may be,” he says. “That spark that’s in the pictures of my family is what I want for all my photography.” – Christopher Anderson
Do you shoot portraits of your family – or of your friends, acquaintances or strangers, the ordinary people who populate this country? Enter Portrait of Britain to have your images seen by millions across the UK.
The competition is open until Monday 26th June, 2017.
Portrait of Britain will showcase portraits of you, your family, your friends, your community in public spaces around the country. We’re looking for pictures of ordinary Britons, shot by non-professional, as well as professional photographers.
Visit: portraitofbritain.uk to find out more information about this year’s competition.
Deadline for entries: 26 June 2017.