How would you respond if a relative gave you an old suitcase full of photographs and documents that originally belonged to their mother? For the last three years, photographer Ellen Nolan has been going through her great aunt Nita's assorted collection of images, films, newspaper and magazine articles, diaries, letters and notebooks with a view to making her own work in response to them. She recently gave a brief introduction to her project at a study day held at the University of the Creative Arts in Farnham. You can download a video of it here.
Nita Harvey was an English actress on the brink of Hollywood success. In 1933 she won a beauty contest run by Paramount Studios and was summoned to Hollywood. She was signed up as an actress, but quit her job after complaining that she wasn't being paid enough and returned to England to continue her career on the stage. The archive documents her increasing disillusion with the American film industry, contrasting the journal she wrote about her experiences in Hollywood for Film Pictorial magazine with her own letters home to her family. Within it, there are two very different types of photograph. The first of these consists of images like this one showing a still from a casting film reel, presumably intended only for the eyes of Hollywood directors and producers - and very telling about the film industry's priorities. The second type are those taken by her mother, who constantly photographed her with the aim of preparing her for acting in front of the camera.
As part of her creative response to the archive, Ellen has started to photograph her own six year old daughter Dorith, who has persistently shown a strong desire to perform, whether on or off camera. You can see some of these images on Ellen's blog, most of which are dramatic freeze frames using dance and movement. She felt that there was a clear parallel between the roles of Nita and her mother as photographer and performer and those of herself and her young daughter. In her own words:
Our home life is, though, like Nita’s seemed to be, very creative and a little bit theatrical, in that we are all play acting a lot of the time, dressing up, putting on silly voices, singing, dancing and performing to each other for fun.
The blog also talks of Ellen's plans to dress up as Nita to take photographs of the Paramount lot; to create a fan from one of the photographic collages she created from images of Nita sunbathing; and of producing a performance piece inspired by the ten pairs of arm-length white kid gloves that she found stuffed into a flowery pillowcase. Why not take a look at it for inspiration?