Little Angels. Meanings in photographs

For art historians much of the 1980’s was preoccupied with rewriting the history of photography. Out went a long continuum of facts and dates and in came a new approach based on the then popular philosophies of structuralism and semiotics. It was argued that all things had many levels of meaning and that these meanings were continually developed by society.


An experience could be interpreted at its literal or factual level and as a metaphor for something else. All things were subject to this type of analysis and as a result there was much debate about meanings in photographs. A photograph of a man dressed as John Bull could imply all sorts of meanings from sentimental popular culture, to anti common market politics, to English beef, to winning the football World Cup, to a traditional beer, saving stamps or to extreme rightwing politics. The meanings mutated and evolved with each new context the same picture was associated with.

In my studio last weekend I had the privilege of working on a family portrait shoot. There was a baby girl of 13 months, quite able to walk around the studio, and her five year old sister. The toddler was intent on running from person to person in the studio making a nonsense of my carefully worked out lighting plan where each family group would be posed the optimum distance from the flash lights. The studio flash lighting did not seem to bother her very much. The difficulty was to get the baby stationary at the right distance from the lights. Her parents tried picking her up and this was moderately successful for a time until she felt it necessary to try her newly acquired walking skills. Then the five year old did a few tricks I had long forgotten about with a hula hoop that had been in the studio unused for years. Little Anna found the solution to my problem by getting her baby sister to play with her inside the hoop thus allowing me a little more time to focus on positioning them in relation to the lights. If you are trying to photograph very young children find ways of keeping them in a fixed place. The pictures began to appear on the monitor, as the shoot progressed. I was transported in my mind back to my student days in the late 1980’s

The hula hoop had transformed itself from an outdated toy and taken on a new reality in my picture. The baby was no longer a client’s baby. The hoop had transformed her from another child to a different level altogether. The hoop became a halo and baby an angel in modern dress. She would have been comfortably at home in one of Giotto’s paintings. There aren’t many jobs where this sort of thing happens on a drizzling bank holiday afternoon.