Picture Perfect

Meet Keith W Roberts, a photographer honouring the past, whilst remaining firmly rooted in the now…

In 1923, alongside Kenneth Burrell, one E Chambre Hardman, returning from active service at the Khyber Pass, set up business in a photographic studio at 51a Bold Street. Indulging a passion for landscape photography but sustaining himself and the venture with a growing renown for portraiture, Hardman’s standing became such that anyone of repute in Merseyside wanting their photograph taken would head straight for Burrell & Hardman’s.

By the early part of the following decade, Chambre Hardman had been left the business in its entirety by Burrell, and married Margaret Mills, formerly his assistant. Together, the couple built on the commercial success of the business with actors Ivor Novello, Robert Donat, and Prima Ballerina Margot Fonteyn amongst those snapped by Hardman in this period. Then, in the late 40s, they moved to the now famous and National Trust protected 59 Rodney Street.

Fast forward the best part of a century, and Hardman’s somewhat underappreciated aptitude for portraiture is being given new life and attention by a fellow, albeit modern day, ‘togger. Enter Keith W Roberts, Programme Leader of B.A. (Hons) Photography at St Helens College. Keith first came to us with a proposition, way back before The Double Negative launched, asking could we introduce him to creatives as he’d very much like to take their pictures.

Fortunately, he quickly assured us his reasons were purely professional, and no showing of etchings was discussed. Interested in pursuing the idea of the photographer as archivist, he wanted to interpret and recreate some of Hardman’s portraits for a new age, and fascinatingly, had negotiated access to the National Trust element of the collection. The purpose of all this? Keith is working toward his PhD and the portraits are a way of engaging with and updating ECH’s practice. We said we’d be back in touch once we’d launched, and some months later we met for a cuppa and a chat, intrigued about the nature of his work.

“I have a strong desire to build up some kind of typology of artists”

Keith explained that while much had been written about Chambre Hardman’s landscape photography, little in-depth work on his commercial portraiture had been undertaken, leading him to submit a doctorate proposal on this basis. He has form in this area too; in 2009, he self published Southport Victorian Memes, a book that “dealt with the visualisation of ‘memes’ left behind by some of the more eminent Victorians based in Southport, Charles Scarisbrick for instance … I couldn’t photograph him because he died in 1860, but I could try to photograph some of the stories he left behind that I uncovered as a result of my research.”

It’s this sense of a narrative which Keith is aiming to convey in the series of portraits he has and will take over the course of the doctorate, and it’s still those creatives he is interested in working with; anyone who considers themselves a practicing artist and wants a portrait doing, this is your man. “I have a strong desire now … to almost build up some kind of typology of ‘artists’ who have practiced within this geographic location at this point in time.”

The examples we’ve seen, while featuring clues as to what era they were taken, have a real evocation and respect for the past. We ask Keith about his methods: “I … have just recently started to work more closely to ECH’s technical language, using daylight in the studio and longer ‘portrait’ lenses … even specifically dropping out of focus various elements of the portrait with the use of the Large Format Camera’s movements … a specific technique and piece of equipment ECH would have employed during his period of activity.”

The work, we think you’ll agree, is beautiful, and will eventually form part of an exhibition juxtaposing Keith’s modern day photographs with some of those hand-picked from the ECH archives. It’s going to be a long process, mind; Keith is currently two years in to his six year course, but something tells us the results will be worth waiting for.

Work in the arts in the Merseyside region, and would like to contribute to Keith’s research by having your portrait taken? Contact him on: KRoberts1[at]sthelens.ac.uk

Images courtesy K W Roberts. Home page: Jim Loftus, artist, article: Marc Henry, photographer

Posted on 20/03/2012 by thedoublenegative