Exercise: childhood memory (page 82)

Feeling grown up

Several of the practitioners that we have studied recently have touched on childhood and growing up, particular Sally Mann, Elinor Carucci and Tierney Gearon. Sally Mann’s image of a five year old ‘posing’ in a mature way complete with pearls and make up put me in mind of feeling grown up …. and my tea set came to mind. I would also have been around five years old and the owning of the ‘crockery’ and the action of pouring the tea was the epitome of sophistication and being a grown up.

I went and bought a child’s tea set. Luckily I have a few small nephews and nieces who may enjoy it when I have finished photographing it.

Feeling grown up (1)

My memory is of my Grandma’s house, the gift, unwrapping it and seeing the most beautiful thing; then pouring the ‘tea’, asking everyone if they would like a cup and pouring cup after cup for my ‘party guests’.

For the recreation of my memory I wanted the focus to be clearly on the crockery. I dressed in black so as not to compete visually with the cups and saucers and tea pot. I wanted a ‘party’ atmosphere so included the cups in the foreground as though I was going to fill them all. I purposely wore a watch and a ring to emphasis that I wasn’t a child in this image.

It may be interesting to show your photograph to friends or family members (perhaps someone who was there and someone who wasn’t) and see what the image conveys to them.

I showed this image to my twin sister (who was given a tea set at the same time and remembers it fondly).  She said:

  • Even though you can see only a little of my face, it gives a sense of determination and concentration. This is accurate in that I remember holding the cups very carefully, being mindful of not ‘spilling’ any of the tea from the empty cups.

I also showed this to my elder sister (who wouldn’t share the same memory as me). She said:

  • It takes me straight back to my childhood, and my mother, when tea was a very important part of life. I drink coffee now, so there are elements of nostalgia and a lost past. It also makes me think of the individuality hiding behind something which appears generic – how much tea, how long to let it mash, how much milk, sugar or not, etc. My grandmother visited my mother once and said ‘Have you forgot to put tea in, Hilda?’
  • Also, the institutionalisation of rituals from an early age – how this separates us from the ‘other’, be it gender, class, ethnicity, etc.
  • Only parts of the photograph are in focus, reflecting the ephemerality of memory. What I remember of my childhood, I know, is highly selected, processed and modified by time, which is a bit spooky, when you think about it.
  • Hope this helps – I could probably write an essay on it.
  • Really liked the photo.

Thank you very much to my sisters for their analysis of my image. I am really pleased that it has resulted in many things to think about.

Does the memory involve me directly or is it something I witnessed?

It involves me directly and when I remember it, it is from my viewpoint as though I am watching myself pour the tea. So, I have just realised that there is something wrong with the image above. The viewpoint isn’t right. In my mind I am watching myself pour the tea and not observing myself from afar. This is more like it.

Feeling grown up (2)

Will you include your adult self in the image or will you be absent?

I have experimented with both. In the top image I was trying to recreate how I ‘felt that I looked’. Rather like Trish Morrissey’s five year old daughter could see a Toothfairy in her mother’s painted face, I really thought that I was a ‘proper’ hostess. The top image therefore reflects how I saw myself at the time. The bottom image is more in keeping with how I viewed the tea set itself.

Will you try and recreate the image literally or will you represent it in a more metaphorical way?

I have tried to recreate it literally like Richard Billingham does in Ray’s a Laugh or like Elinor Carucci does in her Mother series. However, Billingham’s images show more context. We see the living room and the bathroom and we see furniture so we are in no doubt that the images are in the family home. Carucci’s images generally show less context. Where she is breastfeeding, the background is mainly black. The bottle-feeding image has a shadow in the background. The little girl crying, a blurred background. So, we don’t get the same context like we do in Billingham’s work. We assume the mother is in a room of the house but we are not ‘told’ that. In contrast Francesca Woodman had a metaphorical approach with her sense of surrealism and movement.

For my images I have not included much in the way of background. I admit, this was largely circumstantial in not having the right environment. It would have been improved with 1960’s furniture and wallpaper etc. but I feel limited in what I can improvise with. However, the close viewpoints work with my aim.

Will you accompany your image with some text?

Yes. I like the idea of referring to a feeling; that of feeling grown up. The feeling is the main memory. All children like to think they are older and bigger than they are.

Reflect on the final outcome How does the photograph resemble your memory?

Well it does and it doesn’t. I am in no doubt that if I framed this image, every time I looked at it I would remember being in my grand mother’s house and pouring the tea so yes, it has ‘worked’ in that respect. However, it isn’t the same. The viewpoint is right but I was sitting on the floor and adults were standing around so my head was probably level with their knees. I haven’t captured the feeling of people being there.

Is it different from what you expected?

In my mind everything is bright. Not bright in a sunshine sort of way but the colours are bright. I tried to increase the temperature of the image in Photoshop, to make it warmer but it wasn’t successful. (See final paragraph below for how I have reflected on this and how I would approach it differently in hindsight)

What does the image communicate to the viewer? How?

The first image more clearly communicates the juxtaposition between child and adult. The adult hand and jewelry and the childlike patterns and size of the crockery are clearly at ‘odds’ with each other and raise the question, what is going on? Is it a mum playing with her children perhaps?
The second image doesn’t show as clearly the adult hand and the message is therefore less clear. I wondered if the image could be seen as an advert for children’s toys but I don’t think so. It would need the tea set displayed in its original box or a few children playing. The setting of table and sofa looks ‘adult’ with no evidence of anything child related, so this may be sufficient to create the uncertainty about what is being portrayed.

Photographers who have worked with childhood toys

When preparing for this exercise I came across Peter Spurgeon’s photographs of toys. Below is a link to a post I wrote about his work.


Spurgeon says of his project:

The Childhood project documents toys and other family objects. As well as a personal record of well-loved items prior to their disposal, the project invites the viewer to consider wider themes around memory, hoarding, family relationships and consumerism.

(Spurgeon, P. 2017)

 I do feel that I have captured my memory now in a permanent way (being on this blog) and that I have recorded a well loved item … and it has made me think of memories and how correct they are and how much they get distorted over time. Regarding hoarding and consumerism, well, maybe, just maybe, I will keep the tea set for myself and not give it to the nieces and nephews!

A reflection, a few weeks later

I have just come across this image again (below)  by Kaylyn Devaney in her series The Day to Day Life of Alfred Hastings and it has made me think of background. If I had set my teaset against a brighter more vivid background it may have captured the essence of the feeling I had more accurately; made it a little more childlike that mature.

Image by Kaylyn Devaney


Spurgeon, P. (2017). Peter Spurgeon | Axisweb. [online] Axisweb. Available at: https://www.axisweb.org/p/peterspurgeon/ [Accessed 19 Nov. 2017].



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