Colin Pantall on Fatherhood
1. What's your first memory of your father? What was he like?
My father loves travelling. Not the getting there but the whole infrastructure and scheduling of travel. He loves the timetables, the transport hubs, the different ticketing systems and all the rest of it.
Some of my earliest memories, the ones I can’t really place a time to, are to do with travelling. I remember being at Victoria train station in Manchester, travelling up to see my grandmother in St Annes-on-Sea. There was this vast dark smoky hall, lights and echoey noises everywhere. Men in long coats were smoking and there was dust and grime everywhere. It was kind of horrible. Even the pigeons were horrible. But I loved it and I guess that’s one of my first memories of my father. Standing at Victoria Station waiting to get on this train.
2. My Dad always told me that at the same time a child is born a parent is born – has that been true in your experience?
For me it was true. I remember coming home with Isabel when she was a couple of days old. Everything was transformed. There was this sudden, huge responsibility that hadn’t been there before. Obviously you know it’s going to happen, but nothing can really prepare you for that shock. It’s quite traumatic actually, both for me and especially for Katherine, the mother. But at the same time there is a huge wave of love and you have this new person to cherish and look after. We couldn’t take our eyes off her, she was a complete object of fascination and there was this immense sense of responsibility.
My wife is a writer and when Isabel was one, she started travelling again. I remember her going to write about the town where Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were till the bitter end, and I was left on my own with Isabel. That was a different kind of responsibility and was really immense.
3. In the West it seems that men, when they are around children, are often under suspicion – has this ever affected you?
Yes, that happened but not too much because I spent a lot of time with Isabel right from the start. I picked her up from school and took her to the parks so the local mothers knew me.
Also she was always a very happy child and that makes a difference the other way. When she was a baby I used to carry her in a sling along the canal and down Pulteney Street into Bath city centre. And every time I walked down Pulteney Street, which is quite a grand street to put it mildly, I’d get wealthy older ladies, little old ladies in their seventies and eighties, stopping me to coo over Isabel. It only lasted about six months and has never happened since but I remember it so vividly. It was really odd.
4. How has photographing your daughter changed as she has grown older? Have you had to change the way you photograph?
Yes. Now that All Quiet on the Home Front is coming out, I don’t really photograph her in the same way as I used to, or as much as I used to. It would mean a different way of working and really I’ve been doing it for so long I’m ready to move on – though I’m sure I’ll come back to it one day.
When she was younger I photographed her watching TV. They were intensely still but physical pictures and reflected that physicality that all children of that age have. I think some people find that problematic but I think having small kids climb over you and fight and wrestle and generally be all over the place is one of the pleasures and terrors of being a parent. It’s beautiful and a model of how we should be. But it’s so exhausting. The Sofa Portraits are a kind of down time from that energy, made when she was exhausted. She was so much in her own world that there is a kind of magic to them. That sense of being in her own space, in her own world belongs to that particular age. They’re very special pictures of a very particular age.
At the same time, I also photographed that domestic madness and sadness and that is another way of working; in a very limited space with a very limited amount of time. You become part of the madness then.
As she got older, the worlds she inhabited changed and so my photography changed and I think that is visible in All Quiet on the Home Front. Things slowed down outside the outside and became more contemplative and immersed in the places we visited. There are different elements in there, you can see historical references in there and a certain sense of performance that corresponded to the places we found ourselves in. Now she has her own world and I don’t really want to try and photograph it. It’s hers.
5. Did she ever want to stop being photographed?
God yes. For All Quiet on the Home Front I would take my camera wherever we went but often wouldn’t be able to photograph at all. She would tolerate it up to a point, but nothing more. As she got older and began to perform more for the camera and take on different roles, I’d get a little more leeway – a couple of minutes say. But everything was made quickly and intuitively.
It’s completely different now of course, so when Sam Hardie and Alejandro Acin were making the promo film that goes with the book they couldn’t believe how easy she was to work with, how patient she was. They were looking at me saying, yeah it’s easy when you’ve got someone this easy to photograph! But she wasn’t!
6. Who photographs fatherhood, specifically, in a way that resonates with you? Why is it important to make photographs or art about fatherhood?
I don’t even know if I photograph fatherhood. I’m not sure I do. And I think the same thing goes for the people that I admire. Timothy Archibald photographed his son Eli and made this amazing set of images called Echolilia. It was collaborative, staged and used notes and objects to tell the story of how Eli inhabited and saw the world around him. It’s just fantastic.
And then just last week I got Matt Eich’s book on fatherhood, I’m Sorry, I’m Leaving. But it’s also a book about being a partner and it has a sense of absence and regret at its heart. I’m trying to put my finger on exactly why it sticks so much, and I think it’s because you have this flawed character trying to make good with his family and never quite getting there. But wanting to. And that’s really quite raw but also universal. It’s about fatherhood but it’s about much more besides.
7. What's something that's really challenging as a father?
Keeping hold of all the basic human qualities even when you’re exhausted and frustrated and feel limited by your domestic setting. Making money and paying attention to your partner when life and priorities have changed so irrevocably. Being honest is difficult but is worth it in the long run. And being kind. What goes around comes around.
8. What’s something most people don’t realise about being a father?
Father is such a loaded word that it comes with all kinds of preconceptions. There are no rules. You can make it whatever you want it to be.
9. What do you hope for most for your daughter?
I want her to be happy in herself.
Colin Pantall's new book All Quiet on the Home Front is available for preorder now, in signed or subscribers' editions. Thanks to Colin for his insightful writing which has given us much satisfaction over the years, and was one of the driving forces behind us opening this site.