Holding on to the past

Ever since photography as we know it came into being just under 200 years ago, our relationship with the photographic image has evolved. During my adult life, the camera as a standalone tool has become less relevant, and more specialised in its use.


Here I write about how I use photography to capture slices of the past, both as moments of historical interest and as a way of capturing my own memories.


The former Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot is currently being converted into residential homes.
The Cambridge Military Hospital, Aldershot, September 2021

A formerly derelict military hospital may appear an odd leaping off point for an article about photography, but in this very building in 1977, I spent 6 months close to drawing my last breath.


For years afterward, I had first daily, then weekly, then fortnightly appointments. Blood was taken. X-rays were done. Bones were put in casts, and finally, in 1994, surgery for a long running saga of ankle ligaments was performed. That was my last hurrah with it, other than one final out patients appointment in 1996 when the rest of the place was boarded up.


For years afterward, it fell into ruin and disrepair, becoming a source of exploration for those interested in urban decay, until in 2012, the first concrete plans to convert it into homes came into being. What you see above is the first fruit of those labours, the main building back to its former glory.


I am eternally grateful for the doctors and nurses who cared for me, there and it had a particular smell of old disinfectant, which when I catch a hint of anywhere, reminds me of there.


Our relationship with images is changing. Prints from precious film canisters are for the most part, the folly of the enthusiast or the work of the professional. For most, a phone camera will suffice, that's all most of us need, and the low cost of digital storage means we can become lazier about what our archive looks like. I use a phone like everyone else, but for the work I create, it is almost always on my Olympus cameras.


I have been working alongside Heritage Open Days here in Winchester since 2016, when I photographed their expanded heritage weekend. Since then, I've gone on to photograph four more, and I even had my own exhibition of work in 2020 when everything went digital for that year.


Heritage Open Days exists to bring people into venues and see things they otherwise wouldn't have access to. In 2017, IBM opened up its historic site at Hursley in Hampshire. Before IBM took it over in the early 1960's, it had been first a stately home, and then the design centre for the Supermarine Spitfire. It's also the home to the IBM museum of computing.



A visitor to Hursley House in 2017 finds her father in a photograph of the design team for the Supermarine Spitfire, an iconic British WW2 fighter plane.
That's my dad! Finding a memory in an unexpected place - September 2017

Capturing some of those moments that day led to the discovery that the lady above found an image of her father standing in the grounds, with the rest of the design team. It was a moment she treasured, and I sent her a copy of this later.


An IBM memory board on display in the IBM museum
Mainframe memory board from the 1980's - a memory from my younger days - September 2017

And it wasn't just her. In the IBM museum, I had a surprise too. In the early 1990's, my dad ran an electronics company, and won a contract to work on memory boards for mainframe computers. A company which sold them on realised that they could take original chips from these boards and reconfigure them so you could get more chips on the same board. More chips equalled more memory, more memory per board meant you could put more memory into your mainframe. Now being 1990, that one of these boards cost thousands of pounds for...wait for it...64 Megabytes of memory, no wonder they are in a museum. But this piece of work for a while at least, transformed my dad's business, and while the work was there, it was insanely profitable. So seeing one of these boards that I'd worked on in a museum was a special moment for me too.


We shouldn't forget the role of photography in capturing our own history. Recently, I've been asked to capture the wonderful days of friends and family for weddings and civil partnerships. It's something I don't normally do, but for these lovely people, I wasn't going to say no. Wedding photography is hard work. It's akin to being on Safari in some ways. You're looking for that moment where you spot something you desperately want to see - not a lion or a giraffe, but here, a glance, a look, a laugh.


So when I was asked to focus on candid shots of my great friend Tara's wedding last month, I went for it. She wanted less of the formal group shots, and more of the informal. In this shot, I think I managed to capture both though when her and her new husband's grandchildren decided they really didn't want to be in the photo.


Tara and Alan celebrate their wedding day with their grandchildren.
Family Wedding - August 2021

My approach as a photographer is to let people be themselves. You're less likely to find people at ease with a camera when they know there is a camera, so as much as I can, I stay out of the way. I look for angles I can get where it's not obvious I am photographing the subject because I am looking for those little moments which only come from spontaneity.


Maddy stands in the sea in her prom dress - this shot was lit only by the sunrise.
Post prom shoot in the sea - Maddy at Mudeford, July 2021

There can be little moments of magic though. Back in July of this year, England was suffering from a bit of a heatwave, and I for one found it very hard to sleep. So one Saturday morning, I chose to make the most of the warmth, and headed down to the coast with my camera for a landscape shoot. I walked down to the beach at Mudeford in Dorset to find a family with their daughter in her prom dress. Her mum was looking to get some post prom shots at sunrise, and I had all my kit, so I offered, and here you go.


Maddy stood in the sea with the encouragement of her mum, and I stood there too getting a long exposure (1/4 second is long for a portrait!) just to get some movement from the sea in her dress. This shot was lit only by the rising sun behind me.


We swapped details, and that evening, I sent them on some images. They were thrilled, and as a moment of sheer opportunity taken, so was I. They got a free photoshoot, I got a great image!


Memories come from all kinds of places, and in photography, capturing the event is as much as about the place as the people
Capturing the moment - Anna and Shakti's big day, August 2017

Capturing a memory isn't just about capturing people though; it's about snatching a moment in time more generally. For those who've worked with me, they'll know that I try to capture the little details as much as the guests. Any event has those little details, and too often they get missed out, so I seek them out, like in this image above. Our lovely neighbours Anna and Shakti invited us to their wedding celebration, and although they had a photographer on the day, what they didn't get were any of these kinds of images. So being the kind of guest that always takes a camera along to stuff like this, I took some images of my own and gave it to them as an anniversary gift the next year. I've always felt it is important to honour the moment, so when I get to a shoot, if I haven't had the chance before, I spend a little time looking over the arrangements, seeing what I can capture.


Francesca, the daughter of my friend handstands on the grounds of Petworth House in Sussex.
Creating memories can be fun - Petworth House, April 2019

Finally, I'd like to leave you with this; Creating memories should be fun. If you're looking to find an image which stands the test of time, you want to create something where everyone can look back and smile if you can. I definitely find joy in that, even if the creation of those memories can be a stressful moment in your own life. I want to make sure that everyone I work with either at an event, or because they're buying a print of mine from my online store knows that there is love poured into each image.


The run up to photographing any event is an anxiety ridden affair for me - not because I don't have the skill, but simply, if you want to ruin someone's day, creating a set of terrible images of their special moment is a sure fire way to go about it. So, take your time, invest in the moment, enjoy capturing those special memories be they personal or for someone else.


Mike Hall is a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and the owner of Northwall Gallery, an online store of his own print work.


You can find his work at https://www.northwallgallery.com and contact him at mike@northwallgallery.com

Twitter @mikehallfoto and @northwallart

Instagram @mikehallfoto and @northwallart




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