Archive for the ‘Nanny Brown's Scrapbook: photography by Jackie Norman’ Category

More Photography Tips from Jackie Norman . . .

Friday, October 24th, 2008

‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough . . .’

Robert Capa, 20th century combat photographer

Of course, it is not at all necessary to go on courses to improve how you make photographs, that is just a masochistic approach. Mobile phone cameras are improving in leaps and bounds, and we are all photographers. As for the frequent question ‘how do I get better?’, the best approach is to keep looking, including looking at the pictures that you make and thinking how to improve them. The technical part is usually taken care of by today’s gear anyway.

We are all more visually literate now. We devour films and computer games, and we are besieged by adverts. If you examine advertisements and work out how they are directing you, how they are drawing attention to what they want you to look at and their ‘message’, then you can apply that to your own photos. You convey a mood by how you photograph. It often works if you restrict yourself, or play with an idea, for example you can decide I’ll do just reflections today, or just the colour red, or experiment with speed. I mean slow shutter speeds. A limitation can force you to be more creative, rather than letting your head spin because anything is possible. How about photographing a place you know in two completely different ways, as if they were different places?

Some people say that their picture lacks impact, this is where Robert Capa’s dictum is always quoted. By close enough he meant get physically close to the subject: take a few steps forward. Importantly, he also meant emotionally close in that you draw the viewer in to connect with the subject. What are you trying to convey in this particular image? Are you taking a picture or making one, which is much more proactive. When photographing people it often works to choose the background first, then you can tell a story or create a feeling, instead of just recording the fact that they were there.

An excellent way to get your ’seeing eye’ in is to look at Flickr and see what grabs you. You might find that you respond to a certain style or subject . . .  Then you can go and try to re-create it. You’ve probably been to many many art galleries, so you have absorbed the conventions of images anyway, but now you have to unpick them and name what you are seeing. How has the artist used light and shade or colour to direct your attention?

However if you want to learn more techniques for example (simplified):

1. Large aperture = low number e.g. f2.8 = shallow depth of field = only the subject is in focus, the background is probably out of focus = good for portraits

2. Small aperture = high number e.g. f22 = large depth of field = most or all is in focus = good for landscapes

3. Slow shutter speed* = e.g.1/15 = things (cars, waterfalls) will blur

4. Fast shutter speed* = e.g.1/250 = moving objects will be frozen

* (i.e. gap between the curtains for you pedants out there)

Then you can have fun putting the effects together.

If you are already using rear curtain sync then you are humming.

Then you had better be very very careful for you are on the way to being hooked.

What camera shall I get is usually the burning question, but they all work. Some choose by weight or colour, or you can choose by what it can do. There are many websites and forums out there to help. Some are commercially driven, some are deeply unhelpful and are full of people flaming each other, but two useful websites to start with are: and

Then you can go out and see what you find. There are increasing restrictions today however on street photography. Photographers are sometimes stopped by police in the UK, and in France people have copyright in their own image should you wish to publish anything. If you are serious about publishing or selling your photos then keep an eye on the “Orphan Works Act of 2008″ (H5889 and S2913) in the US. Corporate land owners can create problems too: don’t try photographing using a tripod around Canary Wharf unless you can run fast.

Happy photographing!  I will be blogging again next year on Nanny Brown again.




Jackie Norman on Photography . . .

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

 Counting Elephants

If a drawing is simply a line going for a walk (Paul Klee), then photographing should be simply pointing and shooting. But it isn’t. The first question is always how. How do I get my photos (stories, paintings, poems…) to have more impact, or to convey what I am seeing. ‘If only I knew how’. After some years I find that it isn’t the technique that matters, but that you need to have acquired enough skills to be able to use them first. That is the catch.

I started going to classes when I had a little more time and the feeling of ‘I want to take better pictures’ wouldn’t go away. The more I learnt, the more I became hooked. The course, naturally, was miles away and meant returning late at night carrying boxes of prints and equipment. We worked in a cold darkroom with a single very dim red light bulb, peering at shadowy images under the enlarger. We counted in elephants. Any old-school photographer can count seconds pretty accurately: one elephant, two elephants, three elephants, it was easier than fiddling with a timer. We knew what 20 degrees Centigrade/68 Fahrenheit felt like as our hands were spending hours gently rocking prints in the chemicals, and a consistent temperature is required.

We learnt tricks of ‘burning in’ (making an area darker by increasing the time/intensity of light under the enlarger) or ‘dodging’ (reducing the light), or if you had forgotten you could wing it by pouring hot water on a specific part of the photo, or by pulling a corner out of the developer. Print Solarisation? Rediscovered by Lee Miller in modern times but often attributed to her colleague Man Ray – just flash a normal light on and off. The joy of random results. I’m talking about the 1990’s here, of course.

This still wasn’t enough for me however. Going back to uni in your fifties is sooo painful, but exhilarating. We learnt how to deconstruct images before we made them. We learnt about art history, film studies, semiotics, conceptual art, sociology, psychoanalysis, representation, critical theory. We were criticised. We were not taught how to use cameras or how to work on images digitally, so we taught ourselves and each other. By the time we had finished four years later only 8 of us out of 32 had completed the course and got the degree. We never wanted to make another picture again.

But of course we did. It won’t go away. I take my camera for a walk often. At the moment I enjoy street photography, but strangely I find it very difficult in my own country: it’s probably the matter of seeing, it can be difficult to depict the familiar. I am just a jobbing photographer and don’t claim to any vision, but I enjoy seeing what’s going to happen next. Just as you ask yourself the last question which is why, as in ‘Why am I doing this?’ as you are lugging equipment around, you suddenly see something that surprises, intrigues or delights, and it is uniquely yours.

The photo is of a Festival in Chalon-sur-Soane, France, where Frenchman Joseph Nicephore Niepce (7 March 1765 to 5 July 1833) discovered how to make photographic prints in 1825, before the Englishman Henry Fox Talbot did (around 1835). HFT wasn’t even the first to publish a book including photographs. Anna Atkins published the first book to use photographs as illustrations, in England in 1853 of Cyanotypes of ferns. (Cyanotypes are blue prints, using ferric salts. This method was later used by Architects because very large sheets of their drawings could be reproduced. That is why they are called ‘blueprints’). So much for the mythology of photography.



Note from Admin:  As Jackie says above, she went back to university in her fifties to read photography.  What she does not say is that she got a first. 

Nanny Brown’s Scrapbook: photography by Jackie Norman

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008



If you really feel that you wish to paint, have you bought art books and also sketch books and palettes of paint? Have you bought attractive notebooks for writing (with sensuous textures and beguiling covers)? Pens?  Pencils? If you have a hankering after a sport, have you done more than bought the ‘right’ gear? Do you have the need to challenge yourself or to create something? And how far do you develop something you wish to do? I’m frequently amazed by what my friends can do or what they know.

My passion is cycling and OK, I have the ‘go faster’ brightly coloured Lycra and a dayglo yellow Goretex jacket etc., and I pore over routes I would like to do. Even after we recently did Lands End to John O’Groats, which we refer to as The Big One (1,065 miles), the desire doesn’t go away – and yes, this post does actually feed into Grace Brown and her Scrapbook in due course  . . . 

In addition to the exhilaration of riding a bike, I am increasingly drawn to noticing the shape of the land. This is quite different from ‘the countryside’ with its concept of beauty or splendour. It is about the unfolding of the shape of the land, the continuum of change of the colour of the earth, the style and material of buildings, and the use of the land, present and past. Perhaps this is an older person thing! Cycling is the perfect way to experience this. In 50-60 miles per day or even 30, by the power of your legs you can see the landscape change before your eyes. However it’s not for everybody. Most of our friends shudder and would rather curl up with a book or go to an opera.

Photography is an equal passion for me. It began, as these things often do, when I was given a Brownie 127 camera (made 1952-1959). I must have already been expressing an interest. Looking at a few of the photos I took then, and yes I’ve kept them, I see that I concentrated on my family, the sea, the moors, ICI flare stacks at night, and stormy weather. Being brought up in Redcar, North Riding of Yorkshire, that was what caught my eye. Five decades down the line I got a degree in Photography and have had the fun of being commissioned to photograph people in places like the House of Commons, Westminster Cathedral, Bisham Abbey, the ICA, and more recently to log the absorbing scrapbook of Grace Brown.  You see – I got there.


When I am puzzled by how limited Grace Brown’s apparent activities and interests are, am I assuming that everyone has curiosity? Grace worked as Nanny with families in Yorkshire, in Leeds (which was the deep South to me). She too would have been exposed to an industrial landscape of mills, factories and back-to-back houses; one very different to genteel Oxford where she worked later, and I wonder what she thought of it and the people. Leeds was bombed and was a major manufacturer during the war. No particular references or ‘compare and contrast’ images appear in her scrapbook, but she must have known even if she wasn’t living there any more. On the other hand, here am I not referring at all to the economic situation, so perhaps it is the elephant in the room syndrome and too large to talk about, and other activities serve as a distraction.

In photographing her Scrapbook I felt sympathy for her perceived limitations but also that I would have loved to have asked her ‘What was it like?’ We overlapped in time, the 1950’s, dammit!  A very scary thought.




Nanny Brown’s Scrapbook: Photography by Jackie Norman

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

 A Restraining Order . . .


As I handled Grace Brown’s personal Scrapbook I was occupied with my part as the photographer and treated it as a task to be completed technically. I set up lights, diffusers, tripod and stand. I concentrated on choosing the lens, controlling consistency of colour, parallel planes, and evenness of lighting. However, every so often I would realise with a jolt what a unique document this book was. It was irreplaceable, and until someone photographed it, unreproducible.

It was like getting to know a person slowly. One of the first impressions was that Nanny Brown loved flowers. In addition to the typical contemporary floral cards, she pasted in flower pictures from magazines or catalogues. She clearly did not search out images of plants in dramatic locations like deserts or mountains. She liked her wildlife neat, named and domesticated. Preferably common identifiable garden flowers: daffodils, chrysanthemums or roses. However it appears that she did also hanker after something more exotic – she requested lemon seeds from her families who had emigrated to the United States during the War. We don’t see her side of the correspondence, but we read the exasperation of one correspondent that the exact type of lemon pips requested by Nanny Brown are impossible to acquire. One wonders why she was so insistent on growing lemons: she could hardly have had a G & T habit. The request for lemon seeds comes in 1943, by which time she must have had access to a garden, as the correspondent discusses frost.

The huge amount of information that we do not know about Grace Brown is exactly what hooks us in to know more. To quote Elizabeth Speller writing about the recent exhibition of Hadrian at the British Museum: Fragments have a power to be more than the sum of their parts. The arbitrary survival of ancient artefacts is one of the seductive features of classical history. We are left both desiring more and with a need to engage individually with what is left to fill in the blanks. This explains well why the one-sided correspondence that we have ‘received’ from Nanny Brown is so riveting and intriguing.

Her forms of self expression that we know about for the major part of her working life were her scrapbook, and gardening by proxy. As a Nanny she may have kept plants in her room, but that is probably all. In our times we are (possibly) fortunate to be able to indulge our ‘need’ for self expression. We can observe those who choose to do it by a car sticker, bling dangling from a mobile phone, or a handbag with a NAME, but many of us also need to create something too. I find it makes me furious to imagine what it must be like to be gagged or constrained by society.

Did Grace Brown feel as if she were working within a confined emotional space and that she could not express herself? It is unlikely though that she thought in those terms. Did she at least make up songs or stories with her charges, the children? Did she play at galloping, or invent ‘exploring’ games with them in the University of Oxford Botanical Park and Arboretum near where she lived with their families, or was it just prams, boats, sticks and hoops and don’t spoil your clothes?

Above all, I would love to know what and how she wrote back to the people who sent those letters and cards. And I wonder if she wrote to them more than they wrote to her?




Nanny Brown’s Scrapbook: photography by Jackie Norman

Monday, October 20th, 2008

 An Edwardian blog . . .

I was asked to photograph an album and was handed a battered Scrapbook with pasted in cards, cuttings and photographs. I flipped through and read ‘Hearty Greetings’, ‘A Cargo of Good Wishes’, ‘With Love from Nicky and Mandy’, ‘I married in May’. So far so ordinary. I then discovered that the author of the scrapbook, Grace Brown, went to a Memorial Service for Queen Victoria in January 1901, collected flower pictures, and glued in sermons exhorting people to fight their worst impulses. OK, I have the picture of a typical late Victorian woman. Then I turned over a letter at random and read ‘Frank escaped deportation by the skin of his teeth and in March was fighting in Germany with the United Nations…’ I realised I was holding an extraordinary testimony of someone who witnessed and recorded cataclysmic events spanning over fifty years from the death of Queen Victoria to the Holocaust.

Grace Brown, however, was not directly active in these events: she was not even a passive spectator, but she was a recipient of information about how it affected the lives of others. The Scrapbook is an Edwardian Blog, although paradoxically a mute one. As a children’s Nanny, she did not voice her own opinions. We see nothing that she wrote or drew, except dates marked when she replied to a letter. Everything in her scrapbook is information that has travelled in one direction only: to her, yet it still functions as a Blog. She would probably feel far too exposed if she had written a diary, and anyway it would be too dangerous as she was always in the employ of others and living in their homes.

Cards form the bulk of the items pasted in the scrapbook: often only Christmas cards and New Year cards with dutiful notes, of the type we have all sent. They mark her testimony to herself of how she was esteemed by the families she worked for. This would be labelled as a form of ’stroking’ these days, and her scrapbook is her proof to herself that she was valued. Were they like the selected reviews of their creative work people place in their blogs? Don’t we all need to pat ourselves on the back publicly? But I wonder if she was aware of how terse most of the comments were in the cards she was sent time and again?

The newspaper and magazine cuttings she chose are often quotes from the Bible, references to patriotic duty in the time of War, and sermons about keeping on the straight and narrow, or being frugal. They were common currency at the time, and are very like the tag lines and ‘bon mots’ that people put under their signature or moniker in discussion forums and blogs on the internet today. We like to demonstrate or ‘prove’ that our opinions and points of view are right.

Whom did she share this book with? Did she show her employers, the parents? Probably not, it was too personal: the times she engaged with them would be likely to be formal, and she had probably learned the necessary trick of self effacement. The appearance of some of the cuttings might be evidence that she involved the children in some of the work: they are raggedly cut and include comic snowmen, animals, elves and clowns. The scrapbook might have been shown to her brother whom she lived with after she ended her working life: perhaps that was where she continued working on it. What we know for certain is that it was completed, it was kept, it ended up in a seaside antique shop, and that we are her unintended audience who are allowed an direct insight into what it was like living that life in those times. It is as if we were peering over her shoulder as she cut and pasted . . .

More tomorrow.