The Open University short photography courses
Picturing the family
I have previously studied with the Open University and gained a BA (Hons) degree in Literature. I gained a lot through distance learning and my fantastic experience with the OU was a significant motivator in my taking this current photography degree with the OCA and I have found both to be excellent. So, even though I am studying primarily at the moment with the OCA it hasn’t stopped me looking at what is on offer from the OU.
The Open University offers free short courses via their ‘OpenLearn’ service and I have decided to compliment my OCA learning with a few photography related short courses from this service. After each short course you can download a ‘statement of participation’ which makes it easy to chart your progress.
My first short course is ‘Picturing the Family’.
Link to my OU profile
This course has concentrated on our family albums and what the images can tell us about our past and what a photograph can reveal. Early images were taken by professional photographers in a studio but by the mid 1900s most images were snapshots taken by families.
Victorian photographs were luxury items due to their cost and photographers’ aims were to show their subject at his or her best. Following in the footsteps of classical painting the aim was also to display something of personality and character; always positive though and in keeping with convention. Women had to be modest, and men, strong and noble. In this early practice, the photographer had control and the sitter had to do as s/he was told. Main directions revolved around facial expressions which were crucial in order to successfully capture a sitter’s character. No big ‘cheese’ smiles at this time as this was considered undignified but also exposure times were long and a smile could not be held still for long enough without blurring the image. Is this why we think of the Victorians as being serious and unfeeling? Poses had to be flattering and photographers aimed to hide any ‘less than perfect’ attributes. They also were required to be formal to suggest status and elegance. Men were posed differently to women.
Painted backdrops were mentioned and I was particularly interested after recently studying the work of Clare Strand and how she has used Victorian backdrops in her ‘Gone Astray ‘ series Irving Penn and Clare Strand. From my own personal archives I have a photograph of my Grandmother and Grandfather with my mum and auntie as children. This was taken around 1933. The backdrop is painted and it portrays quite an elegant setting which removes my family from their own domestic setting, adding a touch of luxury. I also note the poses. Grandad is standing, which makes him taller and identifies him as ‘head’ of the family. Nana is seated, knees together and arms circling her daughter, altogether a traditional family scene.
Image from my own family archive circa 1933
Lighting was usually from daylight that was adjusted using blinds and reflectors along with opaque glass and so on. Again, the idea was to make the sitter look as good as possible. No wrinkles if possible.
Here is another image from my archives albeit taken much later than the Victorian era, in around 1970. My auntie here, in this studio portrait, is captured free of unflattering shadows and harsh light.
Another way of improving a photograph was by adding colour after the print was made. I am delighted that I have an example (above) of this in my family archives. The instructions on the back read ‘hair as on other proof, bouquet as other proof, deep red roses with fern, close mouth on both slightly’. This is an image of my parents in 1951.
Photographs at the time were usually of special events like weddings or to commemorate an occasion or to capture an ideal. They didn’t exactly portray real life, just the good times. Images were also taken then (as they still are today) to record achievement, the cap and gown of graduation, the sports success and so on.
I found this image in my archives and though it isn’t Victorian it reminded me of that era where images were formal.
From my family archive 1944
Compare the wedding photograph above with this
and with this
Images courtesy of Pixabay
I have enjoyed this short course and learning about the Victorian conventions that dictated acceptable photography of the time, the expressions, the poses and the backdrops and the intention to portray the ‘ideal’ as it was considered to be at the time. I am also interested in how these conventions change over time and how the ‘ideal’ changes from one generation to the next.
here is my certificate.