Noticing the small things

The photograph below is of my Great Grandmother, Beatrice Mary Bradley. She was born in 1901 and died in 1998 at 97 years of age.

There is something about looking at old family photographs, taken years before I was born, that brings out the detective in me. I like inspecting them, noticing the small and often overlooked details. How a person folds their hands, what jewellery and clothing they are wearing, how they interact with the camera; these are all little clues that can reveal a bigger picture. I like to use these ‘clues’ to build a narrative of my family history, not just relying on the  stories past down to me, but creating my own story of family members I either never met, or knew very little about.

Family photograph of a seated woman

Beatrice Mary Bradley (My Great Grandmother).

Bradley was my Great Grandmother’s maiden name and most people called her Beatie. I only have memories of her as an old lady, and knew very little of her life as a young woman. In 1923 she married George Laycock (my Great Grandfather who died before I was born) and they lived together in the farmers cottage at Spring Lodge farm, where my Grandfather worked as a shepherd, for most of their lives.

The main things I remember about my Great Grandmother are- she loved sugared almonds, she hated big hairy caterpillars (which I discovered after dangling one I’d found in her face while she screamed at me to get it away from her), she loved children and babies (which is why I was forgiven for the caterpillar incident) and hated things being late i.e. not eating dinner at 12pm and  tea at 5pm like she had done all her life. She was a woman of routine, she could be stern and stubborn (and sometimes a little scary) as well as being generous and giving (especially when it came to sharing her stash of sweeties with me and my brother when we were little!) .

One of the only things I have that belonged to her is a red jewelled pin brooch, which I was given after she died. When I looked again at the photograph of ‘Beatrice Mary Bradley’ I became convinced the brooch she was wearing in the picture was the same one I now had in my possession!

Photograph of a broach pin with a red stone

The Brooch.

On closer inspection I wasn’t so sure, I held the brooch in one hand and the photograph in the other- scrutinised both – could they be the same? I decided probably not, but also decided that it didn’t really matter, it was my clue all the same, my ‘way in’ to the photograph.

photograph of a woman wearing a broach pin with an arrow pointing out the pin on the womans top

The Brooch?

This ‘way in’ created a new connection between me and my Great Grandmother. Instead of knowing her as an old lady I wanted to know the real ‘Beatie’, the woman who had lived for almost a whole century. I remembered hearing stories of how she had worked at Askern Post Office during World War 1, when many of the men from the area went off to war, she was cycling between the local villages delivering important letters and telegrams.

This got me wondering if this is how she met George, my Great Grandfather. George was a farm worker and when war broke out in 1914, as an essential worker in a ‘reserved occupation’, he was exempt from military service and had to stay and work the farm. Did Beatie deliver post to the farm he was working on during those war years?

In the end it was the discovery of a newspaper clipping from my family collection, with ‘February 1973’ handwritten on it, that gave me the details of how George and Beatie first met.

newspaper clipping from 1973It turns out it was my Great Grandad’s love of arrowroot biscuits that brought them together. Could that explain my own sweet tooth…? Its certainly runs in the family, and sometimes I feel like I was raised on tea and biscuits! But the most important detail in this article for me, was the fact that Beatrice was trained to cook by a French chef, and was obviously a skilled baker and cook herself. I knew she was the one who would cook for the family when her husband was out working on the farm, but I never knew it was also her occupation before she married, and a skill and passion she carried on into her later years. I was also unaware that she was a founding member of the Women’s Institute (WI) in the village of Womersley.
newspaper clipping close-up with a circle around an extract of text that reads 'The couple met when Mr Laycock, who worked on a farm in Sutton, visited the cafe and confectioners at Norton, where Mrs Laycock worked, to buy arrowroot biscuits."

The details provided by this newspaper article allowed me to look at the photograph of Beatrice with fresh eyes. I could now imagine the life she had outside of the family unit, the independent life she had lived, and the narrative she had shared with the community of women in her WI group.

When we look at our family albums and ancestral archives it is important to look not only for the family narrative, but the individual ones. The people our family members were, or are, both inside and outside of the family sphere. My story started with a red pin brooch and ended with a newspaper clipping detailing a love story that began in a confectioners in a small Yorkshire village. It also led me to know more about my Great Grandmother and the woman she was.

So why not dig out a few items from your own personal collections and see where a bit of detective work could lead you.

If you would like to share your own family story please feel free to email me, or comment on this blog post. Thank you for reading and I’ll post again soon. Rachel 🙂








How to Photograph Family Collections From Home

Tip 1: Get familiar with your camera.

If you are using a DSLR camera these settings are a basic guideline for shooting in natural light/sunlight-

  • ISO – 400 in cloudy conditions, 200 in bright sunlight
  • Shutter speed above 1/60 unless you have a tripod
  • White balance set to daylight if using natural daylight- use AWB if unsure or using mixed lighting (i.e. indoor lights and sunlight).

No DSLR? – don’t worry you can use a little point and shoot camera or your camera phone and still get good results- but the images will be of a lower quality and you will have less control over what the camera does. Whatever camera you use keep practicing and experimenting until it becomes familiar.

Tip 2: Build your own still life studio

  1. Find some thick black material (velvet is the best material as it absorbs light but any dark and heavy-ish fabric will work).
  2. Use the material to line the inside of a cardboard box or drape over a chair/table.
  3. Place your object on the material inside the box/on the chair.
  4. Use your light meter in the camera to expose for the object (meaning the background will look dark and your object will be well exposed)- Take your photos! See my sample photos below:
an open locket on a chain that displays two small black and white photographs inside

A locket photographed inside a shoe-box lined with black material

Black and white photograph of a man and woman stood in a garden

An old photograph placed on black material and re-photographed

a green leafy plant in a decorated plant pot on black background

Black material draped over a chair to create a backdrop for larger items

Tip 3: Make use of any natural light you have.

You don’t always need flash photography or a studio- you can get great results using the natural light you have available.

Just remember whatever your light source the shadows will always be cast in the same direction as your light – so if you can’t move the light source move your subject!

TOP TIP! : Direction of light= direction of shadow

diagram of photo studio set up with one light showing direction of light equals the direction the shadows fall

Classic photographic studio set-up with one light and a reflector.


diagram of photo studio set up using sunlight as main light source

No studio lights? Don’t worry – the sun can act as your key light instead










Tip 4: Use a Reflector

A reflector takes light that would usually spill out to the sides and redirects it back towards the subject. Without the use of a reflector a large quantity of usable light is lost. The colour of the reflector will be seen in the light reflected onto the subject.

Gold – to produce warm tones

White – creates neutral colour effect photograph showing three different coloured reflectors, one gold, one silver and one white

Silver – creates neutral tones but brighter than white

Don’t have a reflector? Then make one!



How to make a homemade reflector:

An old shoebox

1.) Get an old shoe box or large piece of cardboard.

shoebox covered in tinfoil

2.) Cover it in tin foil- that’s it! You now have a reflector 🙂

If you don’t have any tin foil you can also use some large bits of white card or layer up a few sheets of white paper (note the reflected light won’t be as bright as if you use tin foil so the effect will be much subtler).



object lit evenly using a reflector

With reflector

object with a shadow on one side

Without reflector

These images were taken in the same location in my house using only sunlight. The camera used is the same in each (Nikon D750) and the camera settings/exposure are also the same. The only difference is that on the first image I didn’t use my homemade reflector and on the second image I did!

You can really see the difference the reflector has made in lifting the shadows and making the lighting look even on the second image.

Tip 5: Get to know your collections

Spending time with your family archives or personal collections allows you the time to get to know them better, as strange as that may sound, and sometimes new narratives can form. The more time I spend looking at the photographs and objects I have at home, the more I notice.

For example, in the photograph below of my Grandmother, it was only after zooming in on it after I had re-photographed it and had the image as a digital file, that I noticed the sign behind her read “Fresh Cream”. This really made me chuckle as I remembered how much she loved Cream Teas and how I once had fresh scones and clotted cream shipped to her from Cornwall to her home in Yorkshire for her birthday. It’s the little details I love so much in family photographs, the accidental or seemingly unimportant visual information that fill up the frame. Whatever it is within your own family collections, you’ll find it.

Black and white photograph of a seated woman

My Grandmother, (who loved cream teas)!

If you have any questions about the technical stuff please feel free to get in touch. Have fun going through your own collections. Keep well everyone. Rachel 🙂

Family Archives in Lockdown

Thinking About Family Archives During Lockdown

Black and white photograph of a man and woman standing in a garden

My Great Grandmother and Great Grandfather.

As much of the world is living through lockdown due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, the way we experience ‘Home’ is changing. Our domestic spaces, for many of us, have become a hybrid space where we work, play, socialise, exercise, create, communicate and do all the usual domestic chores of everyday life. Each of us, individually and as families, communities or work places, will be affected differently by the pandemic. Many of us will not be able to imagine what others are going through, and many people will be at a distance from their loved ones. It can feel hard to stay connected and keep dialogues going. However, the current situation has also allowed for new conversations to evolve and for new ideas, projects and connections to emerge.

Black and white Photograph of a seated woman

My Grandmother

Although my research project ‘ looking for the Matriarchive‘ is currently on hold, and the planned research events for April and May have been cancelled, I wanted to reach out and thank all the research participants who were due to attend the sessions. The plan was for us to share and discuss items from our family archives, with a focus on photographs and the narratives and memories that go with them. I hope to reschedule these events when it is possible and safe to do so.

Photograph of a pressed leaf

From my Grandmother’s flower press.

As I spend time isolating in my home, I have found myself thinking even more about family archives than usual! And, I finally have the time to go through my family collections and begin to document them. I am making use of the equipment I have at home, primarily a DSLR camera, good natural light (a very rare commodity in Brighton flats) and lots and lots of family photographs. I have decided to share the images I have been taking of my own family collections by posting them here on this blog. I would also like to encourage others, if you have the time during the lockdown, to spend it researching, organising and caring for your own domestic archives or family collections/photographs. It has definitely helped me to be reflective, and given me a focus outside of the anxious and uncertain times we are all experiencing.

Photograph of three pressed flowers

From my Grandmother’s flower press








Please leave comments here on the blog (public), or contact me here (private) to let me know your thoughts. I am also working on some guidance for how to make a mini studio and photograph your own family collections at home. Thank you again to those who were due to attend one of the research events originally scheduled for April and May, I am so grateful to you all for the interest and emails already shared. Keep following the blog and I’ll be in touch to re-schedule the events when possible.

Black and white photograph of field and haystacksHandwriting on the back of photograph that reads November 1959Stay safe, keep positive and dig out those old photos!

With best wishes,




Cancellation of Research Events

All scheduled research events for this project have been postponed due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Apologies to those who had booked a place on one of the events scheduled for April or May, I am so grateful for your interest and input into this project.

The project is still continuing remotely and I will re-arrange these events when it is safe to do so. Please continue to get in touch if you are interested in becoming a research participant for this project, or if you would like to find out more. I am hoping to create some online content very soon, including a guide on how to document your own family archives from home. Keep checking in with the blog. Thank you and stay safe everyone. Rachel 🙂 

Hello and welcome to my new blog!

This is my first blog post about my research project ‘Looking for the Matriarchive‘. I am the University of Brighton/V&A Research Fellow for 2019/2020 and here is a little bit more about me and my fellowship project:

Rachel Maloney is the Victoria and Albert Museum Research Exchange Fellow for this academic year. She currently works as a Technical Demonstrator in Photography at the University of Brighton after gaining her MA in Photography in 2015. Rachel is an artist and researcher whose work currently focuses on memory and personal narrative within family photographs.

Her most recent body of work Pressed (2019) was an installation piece focused on a collection of items that belonged to her maternal Grandmother, including a flower press they made together. The work was created using flowers and leaves from the flower press, instead of photographic negatives, to create a series of colour darkroom prints. The installation of a darkroom and working enlarger within the gallery space mirrored both the environment and intimate process used to create the work. The piece was an insight into personal memory and a family archive.

Rachel’s current research project ‘Looking for the Matriarchive’ is focused on uncovering the female narrative of materials held in the V&A’s Royal Photographic Society collection. Initially  looking at the mysterious “Mary” whose name is inscribed on the cover of a highly decorated Victorian album comprised of family photographs collaged with handpainted flowers, birds, insects, and butterflies. Rachel will also carry out practiceled research engaging a public audience to inform the narrative and outcome of this project. Including running workshops that invite members of the public to share and discuss their own personal family photographs. 

Please keep keep your eyes peeled for more blog posts as this project progresses! Thank you 🙂