A new piece for the Nita series..
Montage #3 (Fan letter)
A new piece for the Nita series..
Montage #3 (Fan letter)
The telegram Nita received in 1933 (that changed her life).
I was recently asked to submit 500 words about the Nita archive project for Photography & Culture Magazine, edited by Kathy Kubiki and Val Williams, whose work I greatly admire. They are printing an 8 page feature on the Nita project for December. Here’s what I wrote for them:
Four years ago my Aunt Brenda gave me a suitcase containing my Great Aunt Nita Harvey’s archive. In 1933 Nita was discovered through a beauty contest in London, summoned to Hollywood and signed to Paramount Pictures, USA. Before, during and after her signing, Nita was prepared for performing by her mother, Ma Harvey, who photographed her constantly.
I have been working with Paramount Studio press photographs and negatives, industry press photographs, hundreds of posed portraits of Nita taken by her mother, family photographs, a two minute 35mm Nitrate Hollywood casting film, newspaper and magazine articles, an album of press cuttings made by Nita, personal letters, love letters, fan letters, address books, passports, business cards, telegrams, diaries, a commissioned weekly diary for Film Pictorial magazine, notebooks, menus, bills, work contracts, work correspondence, drawings and personal effects (including ten pairs of assorted arm-length gloves) and still scenes taken from Nita’s film performances whilst signed to Paramount and Columbia Pictures, to create a meditation on photography and performance, from both a family and an industry perspective.
How these two approaches, the commercial and domestic, change the reading of the photograph and the performance within it is an ongoing exploration within this project.
My interest in Nita’s performance within the commercial element of the photographs and films stem from my fifteen-year experience as a portrait and fashion photographer for magazines including British Vogue and i-D, where I began to understand the labored construction involved in the making of the commercial image. And, my interest in Nita’s domestic family portraits taken by her mother developed from being a relative of Nita and also my experience as a mother photographing my own daughter, who, like Nita, performs for the camera.
The force behind the lens depends on the relationship with the subject and the vision of the photographer. As does the shift that takes place during shooting between the subject and photographer. The exchange is dependent on many things but the ultimate goal is perhaps the same; to get the best, most lucid and most magical performance possible. I have been there, with up and coming performers and models and the image depends on your dynamic together. Of course technicalities are important but it doesn’t matter how much production value goes into the shoot- if the magic isn’t there between the photographer and their subject, it shows in the resulting images, whether commercial or not.
Is it about understanding your subject, perhaps offering them a platform on which to perform? How does that platform differ according to the context of the photograph? How is the performance then tailored?
The subject usually grasps at keeping their vision of their own image whilst the photographer powerfully pushes forward their own take. The negotiating that takes place ‘in camera’ will be greatly aided by an agreed (or unspoken) vision beforehand that is honored both in camera and in the edit.
The images here begin to explore the use of commercial and domestic photography within the archive both as a means of representation and as a meditation on photography and image performance itself.
Idea for Handstand Performance sequence. Make Concertina card and rephotograph in studio.
This is an Acetate negative I made for some Liquid Light works.
These were going onto Nita’s arm length kid gloves (with Liquid Light)- decided against though, instead I am asking a model to wear them (all 12 pairs) and perform a (hand) dance (like a puppet theatre) with them against a black background..will then remove the hands in post..more to follow..
These negatives will now go onto a round white vanity case using liquid light, then re-photographed in the studio. I like this also as a positive..I’ll see what works best.
I zeroxed the negative and painted the collar red. I like this as a sketch but prefer the Nitrate negative turned blue (below). Although may try further painting onto zeroxed images. Something nice about the degrading process.
I turned the Nitrate negative blue below, which I think works because the negative quality comes through the image in the vibrant violet colour (more so than Cyan). This colour also reminds me of the blue you sometimes see reflected on the surface of the black & white negative just after it has been processed.
You can see every strand of hair and fabric, the texture of Nita’s skin, lips and eyes. The negative becomes tactile and object like.
I would print it as a digital negative, large (42 inches wide) and sandwich it between two pieces of glass.
These are just test models that I xeroxed onto paper (which is why they have discolored- which I quite like) and mounted on 4 mm plywood. I cut the figures out on a ban-saw. I was concentrating so hard for the time it took to cut out three figures that I had to go to sleep afterwards. I guess I didn’t want to cut my fingers off and I wanted to be exact- for a first time I got good results on the outline here.
Now I will either mount these as fibre based prints on wood (not Plywood because it rips) or use only the paper (fibre based for stability & quality- to make a ‘Shadow Box theatre’. I’ve put the template for the Shadow box below- its a great model theatre I brought from Pollocks in Covent Garden (my Mum used to take me there and I absolutely love it still- its the oldest toy shop in London).
Domestic pose/ Industry pose
I will create my own Shadowbox using images from the archive, listed below (see image 1). I also have the theatre curtain, set and stage from other photographs in the archive. I will then rephotograph it in the studio and use it as an installation piece. The Shadowbox is approximately 10 x 8 inches, small enough for the audience to have to bend down and peer into it- which I want them to have to do.
(Paint/ hand tint photographs too with watercolour on Pearl fibre based paper).
360 Degree Casting. (#12 Film Stills)
This is a new work I made for the series. Here I’ve chosen 12 stills for the piece. I wanted to repeat the enduring and unflinching eye of the camera as it pans up and down whilst Nita seems to be asked to turn round and round by a (silent) presence behind the camera. This was 1933 so sound was available but for the intention of this casting film, unnecessary (or so it seems). By this stage Nita had already taken lead parts in major British films shot back at home in Elstree. From her notes and press cuttings in the archive, she records a huge frustration with not being taken seriously (despite her acting experience), because she was a ‘Paramount beauty contest’ winner for the film ‘Search for Beauty’. I’ve always thought society makes it hard for beautiful or good-looking women to be taken seriously intellectually or in work environments. Somehow, you can’t have both- or at any rate, it’s made very difficult for you. I remember as a child and adolescent going to visit Great Aunt Nita and Great Uncle Ling weekly. And what stays with me from those visits was her grounded, philosophical intelligence and clarity. She didn’t blur anything- she had a way of speaking and phrasing things that gave her thoughts gravity, humor and elegance. Quite an achievement I think- especially as they seemed to always be worried about money. They lived in a big, cold, damp house in Richmond, Surrey. Full of cats- nine in all. And full to the brim with furniture and glass cabinets of extraordinary mementos and keep sakes. I loved Nita, I adored her as a child. And still, despite all her successes and failures, she stayed grounded and if not cynical, something close. I respect that. It shows subjectivity.
For another new art work, I have digitized in still format all 1, 816 frames from the two minute Hollywood casting film of Nita. And I would like to turn the stills into a huge wall piece, keeping the frames at their original size of 35mm (perfect for peering at). This is Nitrate film, so the quality is deep, heavy, thick and sumptuous. I love the tactile, sensuousness of this film quality set against the brutalist recording approach. There is so much silky tonal range and detail that it makes the brutalism more extreme. It gives the brutalism a sensuous physicality and form perhaps.
For me its interesting and disturbing that Nita looks so terrified in the film. One of her eyes has become hooded, I think through nerves. Having to perform in such a basic, striped down way in front of the camera and the people behind it, the intention becoming obvious, must have felt demeaning.
As a photographer and artist, I respect people who are courageous enough to perform in front of the camera, knowing that in order to do so they have to relinquish control and that they are not always going to get the performance right, or even choose the performance and how its shown; that they leave the documentation of said performance in the hands of the Director, Editor and Producer. Artistically, that is both courageous and generous. I suspect this particular performance/ casting film was only meant for Paramount Producers and Directors. I think its quite incredible that Nita actually managed to get hold of the film reel itself. She was obviously quite a girl! I think through this film she gives a rare glimpse of the underbelly of 1930’s Hollywood and its brutality.
Nita also brought or managed to persuade numerous studio photographers for the negs of her portrait sessions with them. She must have understood the value in the negative as opposed to the print because she kept hundreds of them and they are all in extremely good condition. Many beautifully lit in 10 x 8, about 0.5 mm thick with that typical ‘Golden Age‘ lighting and construction. I’ve never seen such an extraordinary quality in a black and white negative before. I’ll post some of these soon..need to decide what to do with them..
I’ve thought about using Liquid Light to paint onto one of Nita’s suitcases or a white round vanity case- then rephotograph the suitcase against black velvet. I found this beautiful liquid Light work by an artist called David ( ).
Thinking about making a rounded wooden shape/ form and printing this image onto it using Liquid Light:
Also need to think about painting onto photographs- perhaps some of the 10 x 8 Studio images.
This is not my image- annoyingly I can’t remember whose it is, I think it might be by Harry Callahan..will have to look back at my research..I saved it because I liked the double exposure, the dream quality and the use of the tilted building as a surface for the two figures. This is a reference for a photograph that I need to find in the Nita archive I’m working with….
The text here comes from a letter to Nita, circa 1940- it’s a love/ fan letter sent to her at the stage door of the Victoria Palace Theatre. This is the second letter that this particular admirer and audience member sent to Nita requesting a photograph of her. I have never really seen a love letter like this before, it is quite cringe-worthy and superficial, written in the tropes of romantic pulp fiction. It is her image he seems to want and to be “in love with”, (as well as her physical beauty), which is also about a surface. That’s what I would like to try to show here…the infatuation and worship of the image or the surface. When I studied at Goldsmiths School of Art, the painters and teachers often talked about the ‘surface’ of a painting and how this altered and affected our reading of the work both emotionally and critically. And, only in analogue photography can you have a similar discussion, because arguably it is the physical chemical layering and its materiality or actuality- that penetrates and creates part of the surface of the image and therefore how we read it. The object (as a surface) quite clearly has a life span if it is not fixed, developed or stored correctly. Otherwise analogue photographic prints probably have a better chance of survival than any current digital format- for a variety if reasons, namely, the print is an original article, one that does not need to be ‘read’ by a machine or technology. Even my VHS cassettes in my attic are increasing expensive and difficult to transfer to current readable data. ‘Stanley’s’ on Brewer St transfer pretty much everything but it isn’t cheap and, it’s for professionals, meaning much of our domestic data will be forfeit in fifty years.
The image here is eroding. I found the print like this in the archive and digitally scanned it. It must have been a test print meant for the bin in the darkroom. Maybe Nita salvaged it and because it was not fixed or developed properly, it has gone red. The chemical process has reacted because the image was not ‘fixed’ into place and the chemistry and paper have caused reactions with the air over time, which in turn cause a reaction to the image and its surface. I love the scarlet, blotchy, deep erotic red of this..it’s not often a colour you see- the same as many colours within analogue- you just can’t replicate them digitally, which makes me think that much like the spoken word, we are all dumbing down or being dumbed down as our everyday vocabulary shrinks.
Nita singing on stage, circa 1933.
I like the lighting and scale of Nita here. Also I love the painted backdrop and how the orchestra meld into the scenery.
I have a small 3-D card stage ‘cut-out’ to work on and I will try and turn this into a 3-D stage set, using the image above as a starting point and re-photograph the final piece in the studio. The scale and cut-out figures and scenery are important as are the visible layers of theatrical construct, (stage, scenery, curtain, the wings etc). May also colour with paint..