London-based portrait photographer Helen Bartlett uses black and white photography in natural settings to perfectly capture the unique spirit in every family she works with.
Helen set up her photography business in 2003, having finished a degree in medieval history at the University of Cambridge. She has gone on to become one of the most accomplished and respected family photographers in the UK.
Helen developed her passion for photography from an early age, after receiving her first camera (a Russian Zorki Rangefinder) when she was just eight. While she was growing up, her father photographed Helen and her brothers in black and white, and from that time on she felt that those pictures looked better and lasted the test of time better than colour images. It is her belief that removing colour encourages us to look closer, to pay more attention and to fill in the blanks ourselves.
Her work is inspired by the fact that no two families are the same and her belief that each family has its own dynamic; a unique energy that makes photographing them and capturing that spirit so captivating. Shooting on location, Helen is able to freeze the individual moments in family life, sometimes as a conventional portrait but often by adopting a more candid approach to harness a sense of happiness, joy or love between family members.
Although Helen had a clear vision for the style of family photography she wanted to produce from the beginning – relaxed, natural and fun, with a consistent and timeless black and white aesthetic – her pictures have become more adventurous as her technique and skills have matured. She's now more likely to experiment with light, movement and the graphical elements of an image during a shoot.
Working with returning clients over the years has enabled Helen to document intimate visual histories of their families, but when she visits a family for the first time she prefers to know very little about the environment that she'll be working in. The names and ages of the children and the address are about the sum of it. She doesn't even look on Google Maps to see the style of the house, as she prefers to arrive with an open mind and see what catches her eye.
Her portfolio covers everything from newborns to older children and family groups. When she is not capturing portraits for her clients, she can be found taking family portraits for her friends, as well as enjoying landscape and street photography. Helen confesses that she "lives and breathes photography" and is constantly analysing imagery online, in books, films and galleries to discover fresh approaches to photographing people, storing these in her "internal database" so that when she is confronted by a situation, she can react instinctively.
Helen has lectured on photography throughout the UK and Europe and has had work published both in the UK and internationally. Articles on her work have appeared in Professional Photo, PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine, and Professional Imagemaker in the UK and a 12-page feature in the influential Photoworld magazine in China.
Why do you work in black and white rather than colour?
"Black and white images suggest, rather than show. I feel they engage the viewer more closely. I look at the expressions and the interactions rather than the colour of clothing or whether it was a 'nice day' or not. For family photography, I believe it's the perfect medium: the photographs I take today will sit alongside images taken in 10 years' time and pictures taken 50 years ago, creating a coherent family narrative with images that are full of feeling and emotion."
How is photographing a portrait in black and white technically different to colour?
"There's nowhere to hide technically – you need to get the picture right and work with the light. Graphics and geometry become more important – we don't just think 'cute child, sunny day' – we need more from our image if it's to stand the test of time."
Practically speaking, what do you need to be more mindful of with black and white?
"On a positive note, the bright colours of children's toys become less of a distraction and the other elements in a park can dissolve into the background, so a red litter bin is not so much of an issue. But attention needs to be paid to clothing. I find graphic patterns such as checked shirts, dominant stripes and zigzags to be more distracting in black and white."
How do you get the best out of children during a portrait session?
"Playing games with them is the best way to get good expressions; I spend a lot of my time sitting on the floor so we can play together properly (waterproof trousers are a must in the autumn and winter season)."
What is the toughest part of your job?
"Running a business. I love the photography side, but with it comes other responsibilities, such as admin, accounts and marketing. It's these other areas that I find harder, but the varied challenges certainly keep life interesting."
"I feel the key to photographing children is to keep it relaxed and go with the flow. I like to start early and to check that everyone has had their breakfast (yes, that includes the adults) as I find this gives me the best window of opportunity before anyone gets tired. I work around normal routines and we break for naps and snacks. This way everyone stays really relaxed and has fun – and that's when the best pictures reveal themselves. If something goes wrong and we have a meltdown, then a chocolate biscuit and a cup of tea usually rescues the situation."