Family on film

I was watching the 1996 Mike Leigh movie, Secrets & Lies last week. I often wander how many families are a couple of bottles of wine away from the revelations offered up near the  film’s end. But what grabbed me on this viewing more than previously was the brilliant barbecue sequence at the home of photographer, Maurice Purley, played by Timothy Spall. Around the tightly packed table are six people, all making polite English noises as they eat, drink and smoke. I never saw how complex this scene was before. There are no cuts, just a camera in a fixed position, and the scene lasts for a good couple of minutes. The camera has the table directly in front of it, almost as if we, the viewer, are there, a seventh member of the party. Each character goes through a range of movements and  expressions whilst never disrupting the visual harmony of the frame.

Although Mike Leigh deals in cinema, which John Berger has noted moves forward instead of looking back, as photography does, it is for scenes such as that described above which make his films a source of inspiration to me as a photographer. Within the frame in Secrets & Lies,  there are smaller, side narratives, all of which add to a whole. The manner in which the boyfriend swigs from his can. Maurice waving his steaks in the air. These are intertwining aspects of what we see; they enrich the scene.


I don’t make any great claim for my images by mentioning them in the context of Mike Leigh. Although lately I have focused more on portraiture, when I do photograph my family as a whole, I try to wait for moment where multiple actions are taking place. And then wait for the moment when the scene is visually at its most cohesive. It’s tricky and often doesn’t work. But that’s families, perfection rarely exists.


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