Photo Insight with Andrew Sanderson – Situational Portraiture

October 17, 2013

Photo Insight with Andrew Sanderson – Situational Portraiture

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Andrew Sanderson reveals how chance played a part in this portrait of Margaret and Robert

This picture came about in an unusual way. I was walking home from the pub one night, and saw Robert – the man in this picture – trying to lift a huge plank from a skip at the side of the road. He was having a bit of difficulty, so I went over to ask if he needed any help. He was quite pleased that I’d offered, and perhaps a bit bemused as to why I wanted to help him. I was offering to help him pull the plank out, but he took full advantage of my offer and had me carry it all the way to his house! After carrying it for about half a mile, he took me up a small lane behind some houses and we came out in front of a very old farmhouse with chicken huts, tractor parts and tumbledown sheds in the yard. There was junk everywhere and I was amazed that I’d never discovered this place in the 15 years I’d been living nearby.

I dragged the huge plank into his yard and looked around the place. It was stuck in time and immediately I thought that it wouldn’t stay this way for much longer. I wanted to photograph it, so I asked him if I could come back and take a few pictures of the farm. He replied that he was perfectly happy for me to do that.

I was back round there the next day with a Mamiya RB67, a tripod and a few rolls of Ilford HP5 film. I began by taking pictures of the building and the overflowing sheds, and he allowed me to wander anywhere that took my fancy. Later, I was asked in for a cup of tea and met Robert’s sister Margaret and his brother Benny. They were direct Yorkshire folk, friendly and generous, and were happy to let me photograph the things I was interested in. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of doing a few shots inside, so I asked if it would be all right to do a portrait. Margaret said yes, so I asked her to sit at the table. Benny was out and about doing some job on the farm, but I got this image with Margaret looking a bit mystified as to why she was being photographed and Robert in the background, asleep. I’m really pleased with this double portrait. Margaret is the main focus of the image as she is in the best part of the frame compositionally, and she is looking directly at the camera. The cupboards either side are a good balance and the drying clothes above help to give some interest to what would otherwise be an empty space.

I photographed Benny outside later, and have photographed him a number of times since. I have got to know Benny quite well over the years. He used to regularly stop me for a chat in the town and always had an interesting angle on current affairs. I haven’t seen him to talk to for quite a while, but sometimes I see him driving his battered 
old Land Rover around.

I enjoy this kind of situational portraiture, but what really interests me is the background. I love the incidental details in the shot, such as the two clocks, one saying 7.30 and the other 12.15. The wood-effect hardboard on the mantelpiece has been held up with sticky tape and the breakfast things are still all over the table. There is a bare light bulb, thick socks and an apron hanging on the creel over the fire, and the tablecloth is vinyl, with bold fruit images over it. This room wouldn’t have changed much over decades.

I have photographed many abandoned farmhouses in my area over the years, some with similar interiors. This was the only time I’d been in one which was occupied. Most of the old farmhouses locally have been done up now and many of the old features have been discarded. Benny still lives in the same house and this room is probably much the same today as it was when the shot was taken 20 years ago, but I think that both Margaret and Robert have now passed on.

I’d love to go back again. The next time I see Benny, I’ll ask him if I can revisit and do some more shots. I’d really like to do some pictures on large format. I need to do it soon, though, because if Benny moves out it will just become another expensive local ‘character’ property with a modern interior and his land will probably become another housing development.

Andrew Sanderson was talking to Debbi Allen

If you would like to read more about paper negatives, Andrew’s book Paper Negative Photography is available from, price £15

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