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.