The Sitter

A Daguerreotype in its ornate frame
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

‘Photographic portraiture is the best feature of the fine arts for the million that the ingenuity of man has yet devised. It has in this sense swept away many of the illiberal distinctions of rank and wealth, so that the poor man who possesses but a few shillings can command as perfect a lifelike portrait of his wife and child as Sir Thomas Lawrence painted for the most distinguished sovereigns of Europe.'”

The Photographic News (London) 1861

A little while ago I posted a blog about the growth of the selfie from the first time we saw our reflections through to the present day when we take billions of photographs of ourselves every year. It has become a second nature to pose in front of a camera whether it is for a self-portrait or someone else is pressing the shutter. We have become so narcissistic it can be very hard to imagine what it must have been like to have been photographed for the first time. In this blog I want to focus on that experience.

Can you remember when you first looked at a photograph of yourself and realised it was you?

The chances are very remote that you do. We have all grown up in an era when photographing ourselves is a common occurrence. Many of our life experiences from the significant to the mundane have been captured on camera so to try to isolate the moment when you first saw a photograph of yourself would be very difficult.

In the early days of photography seeing that photo would be a significant moment especially as it may be the only one you will ever have of yourself. It would not have been a simple “Say Cheese” as you or someone else held their phone up for a moment to capture everyone. The process would have been complicated. It would have required a trip to a photographer’s studio so it would have been something of a day out.

Initially the cost would be quite expensive, perhaps the equivalent of several months wages; another reason for it being a one-off experience. In  time and with improved processes and technology this cost would come tumbling down.

Once at the studio you would have been ushered onto what looked like a theatrical stage with daylight pouring down from above to light you. The set would have included a variety of backdrops, furniture and props, possibly of a grander style than you were used to at home, adding to the sense of the occasion. Apart from the light overhead there might be some mirrors beneath you to throw some of it back into your eyes. As you settle yourself down you try not to squint.

Family portrait 1855. Not everybody manages to stay still!
Bergen Public Library Norway from Bergen, Norway, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

You and your family would be posed. The photographer would disappear under the dark cloth of his camera to check the image and then come back to move you a little. You might be sat in a chair with your family around you. As you lean back you feel a metal clamp behind your head to hold it steady for the duration of the exposure. The photographer asks someone else in your group to hold their chin in their hand as if in thought.  You will all need to stay still for a bit.

You would probably arrange your features into a fairly neutral expression. You won’t smile because it is hard to keep it up for the duration of the exposure and you really don’t want to ruin the picture as you will only get one chance. Also, perhaps you are slightly overawed and feel you need to put on a face appropriate to the grandeur of the circumstances. You might be thinking of some of the portraits of famous people you have seen and you would remember that in most of them did not smile. So you would compose yourself accordingly.

When everything was ready you would need to remain still whilst a photographic plate was put into the camera and then the lens cap to expose it for a little while.

If your photograph is being taken in the very early days of the invention then you may need to stay still for several minutes, maybe up to twenty minutes even in the brightest sunlight. In those cases you might close your eyes (trying not to fall asleep) knowing that the photographer would open them again by retouching them. As the photographic process became more sensitive and lenses were able to capture more light the time would come to a few seconds.

Once the ordeal was over you would be ushered out with no doubt the next subjects already queuing up to take your place for their moment in the spotlight.

A few days later you would return to pick up the photograph. Today images have become transient; we look at them for a moment and then move on. There are apps devoted to the short-term sharing of photographs, deleted after a brief moment. Back in the nineteenth century your photograph would have been more than just an image. It would be an object. For the early Daguerreotype process it would have been a one-off, a shiny artefact set in an ornate frame. Once home the photograph would take pride of place on a shelf for all to see (although because of its reflective surface it could only be viewed one at a time from directly in front).

And at the end you have an heirloom, an object held by the family, fading and scratched but still recognisably you after all these years. We look back at you and briefly experience that same sense of wonder that you must have felt on the day that you first held this photograph in hands.

Looking up

Changing your viewpoint lets you see things in a different way. Here are a few photographs taken over the last few weeks on strolls around my part of London when I turned the camera skyward to take a different view.

Spring

A few photographs taken whilst cycling around London in late March and April as the year turns from Winter to Spring and as the Covid19 lockdown eases in England.

On this day 29th March

St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh, Ireland with fishing nets in foreground

Another from my collection of photographs taken on this day in years past and, another from my visit to the south coast of Ireland in March 2015. This is the coastal town of Cobh, just outside Cork. In the background is St Colman’s cathedral; construction began in 1869 but numerous revisions to the original designs meant that it was not consecrated until 1919.

The fishing nets in the foreground remind us that is a working maritime town. Apart from fishing it would once also have seen transatlantic liners pausing here before heading to America, the most famous (for all the wrong reasons) being the RMS Titanic.

It is fascinating if slightly grim to think that this small town and its cathedral (probably still covered in scaffolding at that time) would be the last sight of land for the passengers and crew of that ill fated vessel.

On this day 28th March

Kinsale

Today’s photograph was taken in 2015 on a visit to Kinsale on the south coast of Ireland. One of the things I loved about Ireland was the colourful buildings such as the blue and yellow ones up on the hillside above the harbour.

On this day 27th March

Cork skyline

For those of you who have been following my photographic endeavours for a little while you may recognise that I tend to hunt out the more obscure parts of the places I visit. This is a view of Cork taken today in 2015. In the centre of town there are lots of marvellous buildings and, of course, a rather splendid river but I turned my camera to the edges of the city and photographed the skyline of a church spire and telephone wires.

Calendar 2022

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Each year since 2016 I have produced a calendar for sale via this website. It’s a great way to exhibit my work and every year I try to think of a new theme, something a little different to a traditional calendar.

You can view examples of photographs from earlier calendars in the galleries linked at the bottom of this page.

The theme of the calendar is “Mysterious London”.

It is an old, rambling town full of tiny corners, easily missed. I have lived here for a long time and I have explored and photographed some of its more obscure and mysterious landmarks that are often passed by and ignored.

This calendar includes some of these photographs.

They range from the quirky to the dramatic. Some of them might seem a little mundane but I have tried to seek out the mystery and sense of potential that lies within all of them.

Every place has a link with its past. When we look at something we see it today but, if we look closely, we can see the past and future spreading behind and in front of us.

I hope that you enjoy viewing the pictures as much as I enjoyed exploring and taking them.

This year’s calendar includes extra interactivity:

If you would like to find out more about each of the places photographed, what happened there and why I chose them, scan the QR code or go to the web address on each page.


Click on the links below to view examples of some of the works that were included in my calendars from earlier years.

2016

Bike parts

For my first calendar I took photographs of bike parts, primarily Campagnolo, the premier maker of high end cycle components.

2017

Flowers

In 2017 I chose a very different theme – flowers. Mainly close-ups and quite a few unusual views of sunflowers.

In 2018 there was a choice of calendars

Cycling in Islington

Street photographs of the London Borough of Islington.

English landscapes

Photographs taken around the English countryside.

2019

Riding to the end of the road – the Dorset coast

The 2019 calendar was dedicated to the first part of my cycling photography project, “Riding to the end of the Road”. The pictures were all taken where tracks and roads came to an end on the Dorset coast.

2020

Riding to the end of the road – from the city to the coast

And in 2020 I continued the “Riding to the end of the Road” this time with photographs taken on the ride from London to the Essex coast at Bradwell. These photographs were also the subject of my exhibition at the beginning of 2020.

2021

Like most people in 2020 (when I was putting together the next year’s calendar) I was locked down so my horizons were very limited. I raided my archive of old colour slides for the 2021 calendar..

On this day 26th March

Lincoln Cathedral

On the 26th March 2018 I visited the cathedral city of Lincoln and stared up at its tower soaring into the Spring sky. The cathedral has stood for almost a thousand years and was once the tallest building in the world.

On this day 25th March

A photograph of Bridlington South Beach on low tide showing a group of boys silhouetted against the sun
Bridlington South Beach

From my archive and another trip down memory lane for me (thank you for indulging me). This photograph was taken today in 2018 in Bridlington in the the East Riding of Yorkshire. We are on the harbourside looking southwards.

My visit to Yorkshire was part of an exploration into my family history – some of my ancestors came from that part of the world (hence when we were young, Yorkshire puddings every Sunday lunchtime – or was it called dinnertime??)

On this day 22nd March

Main road

Today’s photograph was taken in 2015 on a visit to the Shropshire town of Bridgnorth perched above the River Severn. It’s a lovely little town with a warren of side streets – but well signposted!

On the day I visited the town was playing host to a tractor festival so a plethora of ancient agricultural engineering was on display.