‘Make three different portraits using three different subjects. Prior to shooting your portraits, engage with your subjects and agree three different specific locations which have some relevance or significance to them individually. This can either be inside or on location, but the key to this portrait is the interaction you’ve had with your subject in identifying a place that has specific meaning for them. Each portrait should be accompanied by a very short piece of text explaining the choice of location or venue. Don’t be tempted to create a work of complete fiction here; it might make life easier for you, but you’d be missing an opportunity to really engage with your subject and collaborate with them in the image-making process’
– IaP Coursebook – p.40
All three of the people pictured for this exercise live in Kirkwall, Orkney and the pictures were taken during my annual trip north in August 2017. I am related to all three of them, so, to a certain extent, I was able to grasp the reasons why they had chosen the locations they had fairly quickly. None of their reasons seemed odd to me; all of them had chosen places with links to their respective childhood. Interestingly – like the places I’d chosen to represent my square mile – none of the locations turned out to be quite the same as the place that existed in my subject’s memory.
Laura (fig.1) is my older sister. She still lives in Orkney, but not in one of the houses where she (we) grew up. This is one of those houses: the manse where Laura lived between her fourth and her seventeenth birthdays.
The significance of the background here though is specifically to do with the fact that the front door at the top right of the picture is open and not closed. We had discussed taking the picture a few days earlier and had narrowed the location down to here and one other location (the back garden of the house where Laura now lives), but the evening of the shoot that produced this, Laura rushed through and said that she’d just passed the house and it was in the correct state (door open) for the picture, hurried me to the car and drove us both over there before it could be shut again. The fact that the light from the evening sun was on the front of the house while the space by the gate was in relative shade was coincidental.
Growing up in a manse, our front door was seldom (never?) locked and unless the weather was poor, the door to the porch was left open. Now the manse is owned privately and is no longer a semi-public space. Most of the time, the door is firmly shut. Laura herself remains active in the community a direct result she feels of growing up in a place that people felt they could approach if they needed something.
The pictures we took in the garden were nice (and possibly less compositionally challenged than the ones taken outside the manse) but the juxtaposition of Laura and the open door made this the obvious one to use here.
Laura’s daughter, my niece, Mary, grew up in Kirkwall and after a period at the school of art in Glasgow, moved back to Kirkwall. She has recently moved out from Laura’s house into a flat.
She picked a spot just down the road from the house where she grew up where there was a bench that she liked to sit on, either to get some peace and solitude when people at the house had become too much or just when she wanted to look at the view.
The bench of course, is no longer there, although this solved the problem of getting both Mary and the thing she remembered looking at into the same single frame rather nicely.
Thinking a bit harder about why she had chosen this spot, she concluded that it was because it was – like her second choice, the cliffs on the west coast of the mainland at Yesnaby – on the edge of something, in a place that led out somewhere, where journeys could start. This makes the ferry in the distance either a nice symbol or maybe just corny. Either way, it is a coincidence of timing rather than planned.
Mary’s father, my brother in law (and Laura’s husband) Dave picked a location in Kirkwall that reminded him of a location from his childhood in Edinburgh, where both his granny and an aunt had lived – Merchiston Mews. Again, it is just down the road from his and Laura’s house in Kirkwall: Garden Street.
As well as his relatives, in the 50’s Merchiston Mews was home to the racing team Ecurie Ecosse and smelt of petrol rather than horses, but the link between it an Garden Street in Kirkwall is mainly architectural, built around the regularity of the terraced buildings and the colour of the stone.
Dave has lived in Kirkwall for quite a bit more than half his life now, and one of the things we both noticed when we went down to Garden Street to take the pictures was how much it has been cleaned up and prettified over the years. This probably strengthens the similarity between it and Merchiston Mews, which is no doubt both unrecognisable as the place it was in the fifties and not the sort of place where Dave’s granny and auntie would be able to afford to stay now.
I asked Dave ‘to think of Edinburgh’ but he only laughed in a way that does not work with this series. Here – like Laura and Mary – he has a more ambiguous expression on his face (hopefully approaching something of Gombrich’s idea of sfumato, referred to by Bate in his chapter on the portrait) allowing projection into the picture on the viewer’s behalf.
Through their starting point of a location, all three of these pictures forced me to take a step or two back from where i would normally be to take a portrait (all three shoots resulted in big close ups that are nice – and possibly better pictures of the people – but none of them show enough background for it to be allowed to have meaning). The difficulty is instead in getting the background to signify much beyond the obvious; turning it into something personal to the person pictured is quite hard, and in truth, I am not sure how far any specific, yet widely readable meaning can be imposed by the photographer (and his willing accomplice, the subject) upon the viewer without the use of more extensive captioning or other contextual devices.
Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. 1st Edition. London: Bloomsbury