Painting the Family Album

I remember, when I was a little girl, on Sunday afternoons at grandma’s bungalow in Findon Valley, she’d take a stack of photo albums out of the dresser and we’d look at the pictures together. I wasn’t that fond of grandma but I loved looking at those photos of my mum as a child or as a beautiful young woman, and pictures of my dad looking so handsome with his RAF moustache, and pictures of my grandparents when they were young, and their parents and brothers and sisters and aunts, going back through the generations to strange-looking people in Victorian clothes.

These albums eventually came to me – and they’re particularly precious now that the people in them are nearly all dead and gone – and they’ve become a source of inspiration for my painting. After concentrating on landscape for some years, and having recently been inspired by a Gerhard Richter exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, I looked again at these old photos and decided to paint from some of them.

The first one I chose was a picture of my parents on their wedding day, and I was really pleased with the resulting painting, which seemed to have layers of meaning to do with British post-war austerity (it was 1950 and my mum wore a demure tailored jacket and skirt rather than a fancy wedding dress), love, youth, romance, the conventions marriage and of photography. The original small-scale photograph of a big moment in the lives of two ordinary people becomes something different when turned into a large oil painting. That’s what I like about painting: it turns the world into something else.

Images are very powerful. Photographs have a special power. Take a picture of someone or some moment that’s precious and you feel as though you’ve caught the essence of something forever. You’ve captured the feelings you experienced with that person in that place, and you keep it so you can experience those feelings again each time you look at the picture. The power of images is obvious when things go wrong and the memory of someone in a photograph is painful or something you’d prefer to forget: you might feel the need to physically destroy that picture, in a symbolic way removing that person from your history.

My father was something of an amateur photographer in his youth. He developed his own films with a home-made enlarger in a make-shift darkroom. His photos of my mother (before she was my mother) reveal his passion for her. She was beautiful and glamorous and some of the photos he took of her reveal how was mad about her he was. In the early 1950s, just after they got married, they took photos of each other, looking very stylish in the fashions of the time, and obviously happy with their newly-wedded life. Photos of them in later years often show signs of the strain between them. Sometimes the smiles are false.

I wonder about the convention of smiling for family snaps. In the early days of photography, before it reached the masses, people didn’t smile (long exposure times or trying to keep a sense of dignity?). But with Kodak and the Box Brownie, suddenly everyone was supposed to look happy in family photos. If you couldn’t raise a natural smile to reflect your joy, you were instructed to say ‘cheese’ to fool people into thinking you were enjoying yourself. Why? Something to do with middle class ideas of the happy family, that life was good and the world was a lovely place.

Photographs are a crucial part of creating your persona. How you look in photos is important. Everyone wants to look good, don’t they? But the image we have of ourselves may not match the image produced by the camera: if you’re lucky, it might flatter and make you look fabulous. More often (in my experience) the camera will catch your bad side, or your good side from a bad angle, and you end up looking fat and ugly and like your grandmother. This is the kind of photo you dismiss, saying it’s nothing like you because it just doesn’t match the picture you have of yourself in your head. The scary thing is that this is the sort of photo other people say looks just like you.

Feature first published in Dulwich On View.

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