Here's a fun challenge: Find a favourite picture from your childhood and take a moment to really look at it. What immediate memory arises? Does it trigger another memory? Then another? Have you found yourself reliving a whole spiderweb of memories that bring you a little unexpected joy? This is what drives the work of Canon Ambassador and family photographer Helen Bartlett. Inspired by her own childhood and the pictures her father took of her and her brothers, she now takes treasured photos of children around the UK and has become a something of a master in helping families to capture those cherished memories, committing them to black and white so that they can live on.
“My dad was a keen photographer and we had a darkroom at home, and my mum had a nursery school, which she hosted in our basement. Every morning, 30 two to four-year olds would come and play and we realised there was an opportunity for a photography business. So, as a teenager I started taking pictures of the kids and selling them to the parents. I realised that I love photography and particularly photographing kids. They are so hilarious and random. You never know what they're going to do. I completely fell in love with the mayhem of it.
My father died about six years ago, and it's lovely to think that in a way I'm continuing his journey. All those pictures he took of us when we were children inspired me and I do it very much in his style. The picture of me with my mother and brother (see below) was taken by my father. I remember the day and looking at it brings back lovely memories. We were in Cambridge to visit my great aunt and my dad's stepmother. Looking at this image, I remember all the fun stuff we did together as kids. I think about my other brothers who aren't in the picture, but I know they're there. Then I think about the other relatives we went to see and my time at Cambridge… my mind continues into a spiral of memories simply from one single image – it's like a spider diagram. You start in the centre, and then go off in all these different directions.
I love black and white images; they are so classic and powerful and there is less to distract from the beauty of the image. Whereas with colour images you might look at the clothes, the decor or the weather. Everything about colour photography, to me, gives it a date. My dad's pictures all look fantastic on the wall – they looked cool when I was a teenager and they look cool now. They also sit perfectly with pictures of my dad taken when he was a child, which again sits nicely with pictures of my nephews and nieces taken with newer cameras. It has such continuity and longevity.
Family photography is so creative and there is so much freedom to it. I turn up in the morning, and if it's someone I haven't worked with before, I have no idea what kind of house they have, where we are going to go or what the kids are going to be like. You just know that at the end of the day, you've got to produce nice images from whatever happens in front of you. So, you've got to get in there, make friends, get something going with the kids and then create in the environment you're in. You could be based in a big, beautiful park or a small, garden full of stuff. But it's all about watching the kids, following them and taking their lead. And this is when I get the most interesting shots because they'll always have more imagination than an adult.
I'm less worried about perfectly manicured outfits, as my clients are really the children and I want to make sure I get pictures for them. I want to give them images that they want to hang on their wall when they’re adults. Images that might make them want to phone their brother and say, ‘let's go for a beer’. We may start with a picture where they're looking presentable, but then they might start to tickle each other and suddenly they're laughing and playing. Those pictures with real expressions are the ones that, when you're older, really speak to you. I try to satisfy both the parents and the kids and often my clients go for the mayhem and the madness. A lot of my work is repeat clients and they trust what I'm doing.
This image is a simple moment in childhood: twin brothers and their cousin spending a morning at their grandparent's house, playing with some really big bubbles. This image will always take the kids back to their grandparent's garden. What I love about it is the mirroring of the body language and that perfect moment where you know what's going to happen – but it hasn't happened yet. And your mind starts building up to it.
Rolling with the chaos is what I thrive on. As a photographer, you have to be very much part of the action to be able to become invisible enough to capture the great moments. If a kid wanders off in one direction and another turns up in a Dalmatian outfit pretending to be a dog, whilst a third is eating spiders, that's awesome. I can work with that. Whilst there is chaos, there's a certain calm to it. You're trying to think about how you can turn it into an image, while also singing a song and standing on one leg to entertain them. It's a kind of multitasking that allows my brain to calm down. After my dad died, this was part of my healing process. My own childhood was brilliant, and I love having those moments and precious relationships captured in pictures. They cement memories into something tangible to hold on to. It's an amazingly lovely gift to be able to give to children – something they can hold on to when they're adults. Our memories are really precious.”