Most family photographs serve as reminders of a special occasion, but professional portraits are an occasion in themselves.
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The Independent Culture
IN THE OPENING paragraph of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, the narrator, Fanny, describes a photograph of her cousins: "[the children] sit round the table in party dresses or frilly bibs, holding cups or mugs according to age, all of them gazing at the camera with large eyes opened wide by the flash, and all looking as if butter would not melt in their round pursed-up mouths. There they are, held like flies in the amber of that moment - click goes the camera and on goes life; the minutes, the days, the years, the decades, taking them further and further from that happiness and promise of youth, from the hopes Aunt Sadie must have had for them, and from the dreams they dreamed for themselves. I often think there is nothing quite so poignantly sad as old family groups." Many houses have a few ancient studio portraits lying around: damp-blotted pictures of anonymous pale-eyed children in sailor suits and solemn babies (always, for some reason, propped on furs), unaware of their lost identities.

With studio portraits taken in the 1800s and early 1900s, the choice was usually between a country or a city setting: a soft-painted pastoral scene, with trees and gates and perhaps a real laurel bush; or a velvet chaise longue and silk-tasselled curtain arrangement. Now, most people opt for a plain background or a natural setting such as a field or riverbank, electricity pylons concealed from view.

Kevin Wilson, who photographed the Stout and Bertie families (shown overleaf), does many outdoor shoots, and it was at his suggestion that the Stouts had their picture taken in a meadow: "I like to offer families a fantasy location if I can. People should look relaxed, wear casual clothes - although we advise them on colour coordination. If I do use a background, I like plain white: it has a more modern, fashionable look. Most important is that people come across as natural and very together as a family."

The Sunderland-based photographer David Lawson finds that 60 per cent of his customers still choose to be photographed with a backdrop. At his studio, he has a wide selection: "There's the library one, a gothic set with pillars, a green landscape with a forest theme, and for Christmas we've got a fantastic snow scene, but that's only used in October and November really." He photographed the Mackintosh family against most of these, but they chose to take the prints of the library background. "We just liked it the best; our dining room is panelled so it goes well in there. Although we're actually not a very booky family," said Mrs Mackintosh.

Prices for a professional portrait start at about pounds 25 but, says Colin Buck of the Master Photographers Association, "It's common to spend between pounds 250 and pounds 1,000." Optional extras (most expensively, the "Canvas-bonded" oil painting effect) can make the cost mount up. Buck observes that his clients "tend to be people with spare money who can afford to pay for the ultimate gift."

Most of the families pictured here said that they wanted to record a fleeting time in the children's lives. People who choose to have a professional family portrait taken seem to do so from a combination of practicality and sentimentality. The Mackintosh family snaps, in common with many of the photographs shown here, were destined to be Christmas presents for the grandparents, but, Mrs Mackintosh said, "We'll give them to our children in 50 years' time, who'll give them to their children." So this type of portrait is intended to look after posterity by preserving the moment; and the subjects not only need to consider how they will appear when the pictures are dispatched to the relatives; but how they will appear in the future, when the photograph is studied by their descendants.

The posed family portrait works to create a false impression, a contrived naturalness. While normal family photographs are taken on an occasion (a birthday, a holiday, Christmas), in professional portraits the photograph becomes the occasion. Dressing up for the camera might seem a very old-fashioned idea, and yet these pictures show that the tradition remains. Even the teens will be coaxed into something smart, the scowl becoming a rictus grin for the duration of a reel of film. The modern family portrait invariably has a veneer of health, cleanliness, happiness: everyone must smile to present a united front. This is an obvious departure from old-fashioned photographic studies, in which the subjects were required to hold their pose for so long that to smile would have looked absurdly forced. Yesterday's gravitas makes way for today's collective jollity.

But perhaps the main difference between the family album snap and the professional portrait is that, while the former is normally intended to prompt private memories, the latter is used to trumpet the family's public identity. "Here we are," the subjects seem to say.

All the portrait photographers whose work is reproduced here are members of the Master Photographers Association (telephone 01325 356 555)

Captions: Right: the Shingdia family from Leicester, photographed by Maz Mashru. Dhiraj Shingdia: `We've been having pictures taken regularly for 18 years. We repeat the sequence so we can see how the children grow. We always pick our own colours; this time we chose a mauve and cerise scheme. It's important that we don't look higgledy-piggledy. Normally it's with all three generations; this was one was just the immediate family'

Below: the Stout family from Dorset, photographed by Kevin Wilson. Christine Stout: `It was Kevin's idea that we should go into the fields - last time, he took pictures of me and the boys in a barn, dressed in old clothes. We're pleased this one looks so natural. We decided to wear all black and white. My sons like Adidas stuff, but it wouldn't have looked right to have that writing in the photograph'

Above: the Bywater family from Glamorgan , photographed by Richard Dutkowski. Eileen Bywater: `My eldest son's children were christened that day, so the whole family was together. We hadn't had a family portrait taken for years. We all look a bit shattered because it had been a long day, but we were happy. I think it comes across that we are a close family'

Right: the Bertie family from Dorset, photographed by Kevin Wilson. Debbie Bertie: `We wanted something very relaxed - we wore simple denim and cotton. Joshua was just two when the picture was taken, and it was mainly to remember him at that age. We're already planning the next picture, after I have another baby at the end of May. That'll make it a complete family portrait'

Above: the Mackintosh family from Sunderland, photographed by David Lawson. Joanna Mackintosh: `We decided to go along all in black. Some friends had done that and it looked good. Everyone enjoyed themselves, even the kids. The photographer made barking noises to get Lulu's attention - that made us all laugh. We're really pleased with the result'

Right: the Ogg family from Glasgow, photographed by John Hendry. Elaine Ogg: `This was our first family portrait, though we've had several more done since. We're delighted with it: you can't beat a professional picture. The background makes all the difference; this one was chosen to go with our clothes. You can see there was a very relaxed atmosphere'

Above: the Brown family from London, photographed by Danny DaCosta.

Christine Brown: `My husband and son were posing; my son wanted to look cool and tough. My daughter, Tyla, is a girl's girl - she's into dollies. We wanted to show off what a happy family we are. My husband and I have been married for 15 years, and we wanted to celebrate that'

Below: the Sargents from Leicester, photographed by Maz Mashru. Michelle Sargent: `My son, the serious one at the back, won a free sitting in a competition. It took an hour; we laughed a bit at first. We wore our best clothes and really enjoyed ourselves. One of us adults is always behind the camera so this is our first family photo. I think it shows that we're a lively bunch'