Updated: Oct 25, 2019
"We taught the world new ways to dream."
It was the camera that captured and immortalised those early pioneers as they arrived in what was then know as Hollywoodland. With the coming of the first bioscope shows that were simple travelling marquees showing flickering black and white moving images (later shortened to 'movies'), film studios emerged, and the players came. It was seen as a passing fad. Serious performers weren't interested until it became more established as a medium. Many travelled across to the West Coast from the New York studios in search of better lighting and landscapes, and performers from vaudeville theatres all across the United States and from the Music Halls of England followed. Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Ben Turpin, Louise Brooks, Gloria Swanson, and Harold Lloyd are some of the many who became immortalised by the silver screen.
From the age of 11 onwards, I was drawn to the 1920s and 1930s. The music, fashion, architecture, literature and film. There was a shop in Reigate High Street called 'Penny Black' that had a huge old wooden chest with drawers full of ephemera. I would sit on the floor as a schoolgirl carefully leafing through old black and white picture postcards of the Talmadge Sisters, Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Great Garbo, Dolores Del Rio, Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Nita Naldi, Theda Bara, Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Navarro. They were intoxicating; these gods and goddesses, dressed in costumes from some far off imaginary world, beautiful, pale, mysterious, alluring. They exerted this ethereal power as they gazed into the lens; smouldering, untouchable beings. I was spellbound. I spent hours and hours laying on my bedroom floor, listening to my gramophone, pouring over books full of photographs of these dreams, these deities.
I wanted to be a silent film actress more than anything else in the world. And perhaps, more than that, I wanted to join that club of those that live forever. Like the faces I was admiring, most of which were now just a handful of dust, I developed an obsession with immortalising things. The camera was some sort of strange time machine that would transport you back to the past. It could capture you, and preserve you, like butterflies in a killing jar. That is what the camera was to me. A killing jar. Preserving and immortalising beautiful creatures, or moments
“There was a time when Hollywood was truly a branch of the Greek gods Olympus, a territory inhabited by dazzling stars. Those stars were in that time uninterruptedly launched by the greatest dream factory on the planet, the factory of a system called Hollywood, the land on earth that invented the star system for a special Art, the Seventh – Cinema! The rest of the world was only allowed to see the films in which these goddesses – divas – and these gods – divos – (terms more suited to the opera universe, but which the cinema occasionally practiced) shone and to leaf through the magazines on whose pages their images enchanted, magically captured by great masters of the gaze. Thus, guided by such talented lenses, the rest of the world lived in order to admire and love those divine beings that embellished the dull landscape of their daily lives. Escaping from less glamorous realities, the rest of the world could often set itself to dream in such a phantasmatic manner.
In those times Hollywood hold the almost exclusive power to make the rest of the world dream..."
Maria João Seixas Director of Cinemateca Portuguesa-Museu do Cinema
"The first thing I did in the studio was to want to tear that camera to pieces. I had to know how that film got into the cutting room, what you did to it in there, how you projected it, how you finally got the picture together, how you made things match." - Buster Keaton
The fascination with cameras quite probably started with my father's own interest in photography. I recall he had these huge cases full of lenses and gadgets all tightly nestled within grey sponge. I can still smell the curious scent of that case now as I think about it. He would teach me how to handle the equipment very carefully, and show me what each lens did and let me take photos with them. I had a camera, too, just a basic fujifilm affair, so being allowed to use the posh camera was both frightening and awe-inspiring. That was a film camera then, although later on he went into digital. Before I was born, he had a darkroom in his flat. And before he had a flat, he set up a darkroom at his parent's house. So I guess you could say there was already something in the blood.
On Channel Four on a Saturday afternoon they would show silent films. I first saw Chaplin, who impressed me suitably enough; but it was when I saw a programme called 'Silent Clowns' that featured Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton that I was really bowled over. I can still remember to this day the scene in a film called Seven Chances (1925) where three men are around a desk, their faces glowing that glorious pale white against the dark backgrounds, I fell in love with the face that happened to belong to Buster Keaton, and it was just my luck to fall in love with a dead man who I have loved ever since. Boyfriends would remark our relationship was rather crowded; it was me, them and Buster Keaton. One in particular remarked one morning he'd never imagined in his life he would wake up in bed next to Buster Keaton (such was my propensity for falling asleep holding a Keaton book in bed). It was he and the silent actress Barbara la Marr who stirred the fascination in me to stand the other side of a camera rather than in front of one.
At school, I directed silent films in my drama classes. And at home I would sit on my bedroom floor, listening to gramophone records, turning the pages of Hollywood books slowly, as I stared at the photographs, fascinated with the whiteness of the porcelain skin in stark contrast to the heavy shadows that would sculpt the face and body of the gods and goddesses in them. With the coming of a home computer and webcam, I would make myself up in Hollywood style, turn the lights off, and experiment with lighting by moving an office lamp around until I noticed how it caught certain features, casting shadows beneath cheekbones, jawlines, or accentuating eyelashes on a cheek. I was obsessed with lighting; creating high drama, low key, contrasty images.
And so film played an ever-increasing part; as I watched films such as Pandora's Box, which is a fantastic example of chiaroscuro lighting, I became even more obsessed with how light and dark could create such striking imagery.
I never had the courage or the know-how to photograph anyone in that style; I just didn't know where to start, and I couldn't find the confidence. It remained a dream. I found myself photographing buildings in much a similar way; high contrast images with bright light and heavy shadows. I never got the chance to study photography or film, as I had wanted to - I was told to go out and get .job, and that was what I did. Photograph was relegated to just a hobby. Then, my camera broke, and I didn't have the spare money for a new one. So I went without for years. My passion for photography was forgotten as I focused on a singing career. I got used to being in front of a camera; but I was fascinated by the photographers. I observed the lighting, watched what they did with reflectors, and wished I could do their job.
I eventually ended up working in marketing for a while to support the singing career, and quite by accident became the 'headshot girl' - apparently, I was good with a camera. I would hold employee photoshoots; to relax them and get the best shots, I would play music, and have a colleague standing by with whom to banter. We'd create a relaxed, causal atmosphere, make them laugh and I would capture natural poses. I didn't realise at the time, but years later I read a biography on George Hurrell, and our working style in this regard turned out to be very similar. I'd always been an admirer of Hurrell's work, and my obsession with him grew as I turned again to photography.
It was when I had to photograph the new CEO of the company that I really began to realise the power of photography and that perhaps I wasn't too bad at photographing people as opposed to buildings or food. "I don't like having my photo taken," he spat as I beckoned him into a meeting room with terrible lighting and hardly any white wall space available. "Ah, none of us do" I sympathised, and told him I'd take a few test shots to get my lighting settings. I nudged my colleague, and he started the banter, right on cue. I clicked away in between the posing.
The day I emailed the images to him, I received a call on my desk phone. "Noelle," he said, in a tone rather too devoid of emotion for my liking. "Yes," I answered, as matter of fact as possible. "Come to my office please," he ordered, again, as monosyballic as they come, and put the receiver down. I took a second to brace myself, as though I were about to jump out of a plane, and I stood up and walked to his office.
"Come in. Sit down." Oh god, I thought. Still, I took respite in the fact I wasn't a professionally engaged photographer, so even if the feedback was bad, I would just take it on the chin.
For what seemed like an age, he stared at his computer screen. Then he finally said, " I don't like having my photo taken..."
"Ah, none of us do -"
"...but you have managed to achieve the impossible. That is best photo anyone has ever taken of me. I would like your permission to use it on all my social networks, please."
This seemed to either set a precedent, or perhaps it had already been happening and I just hadn't really paid attention to it; because every time I took a photo of someone, the same thing would happen. I found myself falling more and more in love with portrait and headshot photography, and less in love with the world I was having to work in for the time being. I dreamt of being able to combine photography with my singing career. The photography, I imagined, could earn me a living whenever the gigs were a little sparse, just like any performer has to consider.
The bit where photography saved my life
Shortly after this, I experienced a period of great depression and anxiety. I won't go into the details here, because that's probably more suited to a whole dedicated post of mental health and how photography can be a form of therapy, helping you look outwards instead of inwards and finding the beauty in the world again. But suffice to say, I was very unhappy and demotivated with life. I felt like I was trapped in a cage. I couldn't see a way out. All I knew was that something was screaming at me that where I was in life was not what I had been put on earth to do. There was a tugging at my gut that was telling me I had to throw myself into my creativity; but everyone around me told me it was not possible. Stupidly, I listened. Now of course, I know better.
One weekend, I was on a film noir shoot. The photographer cancelled last minute. I'd recently bought a secondhand camera & dashed home to get it, grabbing an office lamp on the way out. The shot of the 'villain' in the car (on my phone, actually) was from laying the lamp on the floor & telling him to pretend he was stepping into oncoming headlights.
Because I'd been suffering with depression, I had felt uninspired by anything for a long time. But I never felt so alive that night. I searched online and found a Hollywood lighting course that happened to be taking place a week later. It fuelled the flames.
And the rest is history. I fell hopelessly in love with my camera. It's the most rewarding, satisfying and intense love affair I have ever had.
I am still growing and learning; I'm now on a Photography HND course. I sacrificed a long-term relationship, a stable income and my home to be where I am now, but oh, was it worth it.
I have met the most inspirational, beautiful people along the way.
Here's to being the strange schoolgirl who was so obsessed with Buster Keaton and silent movie stars. Something tells me this is where I am meant to be.
A recurring quote that has come back to me over and over is that of Mary, Queen of Scots, who said on the day of her execution "In my end is my beginning."
Not all ends are final. They are just the start f something brand new. And I'm going to cherish every second of this new beginning.