I’ve got the cigarette cards—and an idea to recreate them. Coincidentally, I have the means to explore this idea.
This was 2005 and after graduating from BA (Hons) Fine Art in 2001 I had immersed myself gallery education and community art, applying my skills so that I could share them with others. I was a little unsure of the value of white walls, so my practice tested out ideas through a variety of ways that might call socially engaged, and on occasion, institutional critique, always through collaboration.
But I was getting a pull back to photography, and my own solo practice. I had no access to a darkroom or kit so I had signed up for an Open College Network photograph class, back at the college I was at when I was 16-19 years old. And from one evening a week for a year, I jumped onto the full-time course.
Turning up to college with these cigarette cards made a kind of sense to my tutors. It is an established way to learn to re-do, to copy. That’s what all those academies taught before Modernism—copy, copy! I started out with my own costumes, and digital cameras and flash lighting. But the images didn’t capture the right atmosphere. So, I moved to the old lighting systems and medium format cameras. Initially I used costumes I had worn in the dancing school shows I was in every couple of years. I had tights and dancing shoes ready to go. I had very short hair at the time, so I had to buy wigs. First, I bought non-specific wigs, until I found niche vintage websites that sold wigs with pin-curls.
All of these decisions evolved as I conducted photoshoots—and re-shot and re-shot after looking at the images I had. I dragged in fellow students to be my button pusher when I had got the lighting just right. The tutors and technicians all came up with different ideas on how to approach the lighting. I branched out and asked the theatre technicians for help and they lent me spot lights and helped with the positioning.
The curious thing is, no one really talked to me about what it meant to be the producer of the image and in the image. All these sorts of expertise I was drawing on and we never discussed why it had to be me in the image.