Stories behind the photographs

Behind the scenes of 125 Portraits

Chris Lacey, our former head of photography, and fellow photographer John Millar travelled the length and breadth of the country to capture the dramatic portraits for our 'A Portrait of the National Trust' book. It wasn't always easy. They faced battles with weather, days of wet feet and even had to coax camera-shy creatures to cooperate.

Blacksmiths working on an anvil
Blacksmith taking molten metal out of the furnace
Man doing up a beekeeper's suit
Beekeepers working with a swarm of bees
James McCullough and Tom Mahon (left) and Sheenagh and Adrian Dixon (right)
Setting up for a photo shoot in the middle of a river
Photo shoot for our 125 Portraits collection
125 portraits behind the scenes composite
Blacksmiths working on an anvil Blacksmith taking molten metal out of the furnace Man doing up a beekeeper's suit Beekeepers working with a swarm of bees James McCullough and Tom Mahon (left) and Sheenagh and Adrian Dixon (right) Setting up for a photo shoot in the middle of a river Photo shoot for our 125 Portraits collection 125 portraits behind the scenes composite

We talked to Chris and John about the most memorable parts of producing their new book ‘A Portrait of the National Trust'.

Hear from them what it was like completing the mammoth task of photographing all 125 sitters and fulfilling their idea of celebrating all the incredible people who support the National Trust in this visual and stylish way. It took them over 18 months to complete and they faced a few challenges on the way.

The inspiration behind the project

Chris: 'I’ve worked here for 17 years and been to almost 500 places, and I’ve met an incredible variety of people. I wanted to try to capture some of their characters, their roles and responsibilities and what they’ve achieved, in an exhibition that summarises the scale and breadth of the Trust in its 125th year. It’s never been done before and it’s a good way of saying ‘thank you’ to people for everything they do for the charity.'

John: 'The whole point of it was that Chris and I knew how amazing the people who work for the National Trust are. That was the very reason for doing the project in the first place.'

" I never really set out to flatter anybody by taking nice pictures of them. What I really wanted to get was the character to come out."

Choosing the sitters

Chris: 'We wanted to reflect the sheer volume of people and what they do for the Trust. It was important this project included volunteers, visitors, members, donors, tenants and suppliers, because it’s not just about staff.'

John: 'It was about finding people who were interesting, but who had a story to tell.'

Clive Goudercourt, our development chef, has created hundreds, if not thousands, of recipes
Clive Goudercourt
Clive Goudercourt, our development chef, has created hundreds, if not thousands, of recipes

The style of the shots

John: 'Everyone was photographed on this semi-transparent background, so we could see the background and where they were, but also separate them out and light them in a studio way in the foreground so we could really see them. So it was a perfect balance of background and foreground. We shot in colour and adjusted it afterwards. Black and white photography is very stylish.'

Everyone was photographed in front of a semi-transparent background
Photo shoot for our 125 Portraits collection
Everyone was photographed in front of a semi-transparent background

Chris: 'Black and white just made a lot of sense because you see so much colour photography these days. Black and white is a little bit forgotten. I think to bring out the character, the texture and the environment it's best done in black and white... For me the original idea was born from a visit to an Irving Penn exhibition about 10 years ago. He was an American photographer who during the 1950s took people off the street and photographed them really simply, showing their trade and their character. I thought that was a beautiful, beautiful thing.'

" I think to bring out the character, the texture and the environment it's best done in black and white."
- Chris Lacey, head of photography

Taking the shots

Chris: 'We did a test shoot at Scotney Castle in December 2018. It was good exercise to do... we made a lot of mistakes but we learned a lot. It was a breezy day and we found out very quickly that we'd need a lot more kit to hold the backdrop in place.'

John: 'You couldn’t really prepare too much. With each individual person it was 50 per cent planning and 50 per cent reaction on the day as to what the conditions were and where we found ourselves. We'd have to look around and find something we thought would work well for both the foreground and behind the background. Because a lot of places in the Trust look fantastic, we'd have five or six places which all looked great, so we'd have to choose quite carefully. The longest it took us to find a place that we thought looked right was about two and a half hours.'

The challenges of shooting on location

John: 'The effort for me was the joy of it. Some of the places we worked in were incredibly small. There was the shot we did at Snowshill Manor, amongst the Samurai armour, where we could barely move. We also had one shoot inside a barn, which took place in torrential rain. We had to try and encourage a herd of cows who really did not want to be in the shot.'

Chris: 'Lots of times there were interesting animals involved. We had pigeons. We had
donkeys and cows. We had a Shire horse that wouldn’t stay put. One time we had a bull across the backdrop. We had sheep that couldn’t be caught.'

Getting the perfect shot sometimes involves getting your feet wet
Setting up for a photo shoot in the middle of a river
Getting the perfect shot sometimes involves getting your feet wet

The importance of the portraits

John: 'I never really set out to flatter anybody by taking nice pictures of them. What I really wanted to get was the character to come out. I hope they appreciate that.'

Chris: 'These photographs are collection items now, part of the Trust’s history. These people represent everyone who works for, builds and supports the Trust in 2020 – not just the 125 in the images, not just the Trust leaders, but everyone. That’s the most important thing.'

 

Some of the quotes in this article were taken from an interview which Chris Lacey and John Millar did for the National Trust members' magazine. Members can read more from Chris and John in the autumn 2020 edition of the magazine (mailing now).

 

A Portrait of the National Trust book

A Portrait of the National Trust: 125 Stories for 125 Years  

2020 is our 125th anniversary year. This limited edition photographic collection shines a light on the many incredible people who contribute their skills, time, passions and personalities to our cause. Featuring dramatic photographic portraits by John Millar and personal interviews, it's a representation of the National Trust as it is today. It's a huge thank you to everyone who has supported us over the years.

125 Portraits online exhibition

Delve into the stories and portraits of our staff, volunteers and supporters