One of my current projects is entitled ‘Soldiery’. It’s an exciting, interesting and challenging project in which I’m working in collaboration with the British Army to capture a truly unique collection of military portraiture.
Soldiery has taken a year to complete and has seen me visiting a dozen regiments from the Queen’s Royal Lancers, to the Household Cavalry, Gurkhas and Parachute Regiment. There have been over 250 portrait sittings that have seen me march the length and breadth of the country. Over this past year, I’ve been in military bases as far apart as Scotland’s Fort George in Inverness, to Catterick Yorkshire, Buckingham Palace, Horse Guards, the MOD Headquarters in Whitehall and Army Headquarters in Andover.
The aim of Soldiery has been to capture the ‘greats’ of our military in a portrait collection which will serve as historical record of the British Army in the early 21st Century. This is living history, and includes several of the Army’s Generals and the senior staff of the British Army.
The Challenges I asked myself, as a humble civilian, how best to approach the portrait sittings. These figures are eminent people of stature and rank. What was the protocol? What style of portraiture would be best suited?
Photographers are, in many ways, like a chameleon. We adapt to our environment as we are a facilitator. As you may know, my inspiration is often drawn from historical portrait paintings of the past. I went back to my roots, channelled my inner history buff, and began reminding myself of military paintings of the Napoleonic period. Very quickly I stumbled upon the works of the celebrated George Dawe. His style laid the foundations of my style for the project. With a staggering 342 portraits of Russian Generals to peruse I wasn’t short of inspiration. He was a busy and incredibly talented artist – in an 18 month period he had painted 80 Generals to be displayed at the Winter Palace having gained the commission during a tour of Europe with his Patrons the Duke and Duchess of Kent.
George Dawe – Inspiration for Modern Military Portraiture From British shores, Dawe relocated to St Petersburg in 1819. He rapidly won acclaim for his work and also received complimentary poetry verses by Pushkin entitled ‘To Dawe Esq.’ His work is on display at the Hermitage in St Petersburg. In fact, he became somewhat of a celebrity throughout Europe, mixing with the Russian intellectual elite, even gaining an invitation to the coronation of Nicholas I in 1826. By 1828 he had been officially appointed First Portrait Painter of the Imperial Court. For me, perusing his work, it’s the subject’s heroism and responsibility that left its mark. This is what I wanted to capture in my project with a lens, rather than a brush.
Military Sittings Began – Lt. General Mark Poffley First up was Lt. General Mark Poffley O.B.E at the M.O.D London Headquarters in White Hall. Poffley was commissioned into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in 1985 and has since served in the British Army for 31 years. He has been deployed in every major conflict in the past three decades from The Gulf War, Bosnian War, Insurgency in the Republic of Macedonia, War in Afghanistan and the Iraq War.
So began my aim to capture the General as a leader, an implacable Napoleonic Hero in Dawe’s inspirational style. Once the shoot was underway I requested the General to clutch his sword as I shot from a lower angle. With eyes to the camera I was able to direct, and capture, a fierce yet responsible expression.
My second sitting took place with Lt General Sir James Everard Commander Army Land Forces, this time at Army Head Quarters in Andover. Everard is a veteran of many campaigns and has seen action in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq & Afghanistan. With Dawe’s inspiration at my fingertips I directed the General to pose profile allowing a full display of his medals and battle honours, with sword held close. I requested a responsible yet solemn expression looking to provoke the same thoughts in the viewers of my photographs as Dawe succeeded with his painting.
For historical recording, the sword is of critical importance. It is only part of the dress uniform for Generals who have received a 3-Star rank or above. The swords come from the Sovereign.
A tall and imposing man, Lt. General Bashall was photographed at the General’s Headquarters in Aldershot. The General is one of the British Army’s most veteran combat commanders, justifiably proud of his service with the Parachute Regiment.
In order to fully capture and capitalise upon the General’s stature, I opted for a half-length portrait. Key this time was to capture his ‘wings’, the symbol of the Paratroopers.
Major General Sanders is commander of the 3rd UK Division or ‘Iron Division’. It is the job of the Iron Division to respond to the call to field an army, whenever needed. The result is that General Sanders plays a crucial role as a combat commander. Previously a member of the Rifle Regiment, the General is no stranger to the field of combat. Direction this time involved instructing his eyes to focus on the camera with me shooting from a lower point. The result is a portrait capturing a powerful yet thoughtful figure.
The final General of the collection was Major General Bob Bruce, commander of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. I needed to display tradition in this portrait with Bruce captured in his traditional Scottish uniform. Profile to camera enabled me to capture his regimental badge and his feather plume in all its glory. I used lighting techniques to separate him from the backdrop, creating a split of light on the unseen part of his facial profile.
From these sittings with senior military figures I have learned a great deal about capturing leadership. I have found myself directing prominent individuals who are used to themselves giving direction to the men and women they command. I have relished the chance to take responsibility and ownership for these historical images of senior military leaders. These portraits will stand the test of time.
Relying once again on my confidence as a portrait photographer, I was able to bring to the sittings the direction needed to draw on Dawe’s inspiration. This confidence is key to any of my sittings, both military and in other fields where I need to capture leaders: from business to government. Whilst Soldiery is complete, the lessons I’ve learned will follow through to all my future portrait sittings.