The Father And Son Photographing Shaftesbury’s Changing High Street

An ambitious project to document Shaftesbury’s High Street is in its second year and St James photographer, James McMillan, is now being assisted in his work by a young, up-and-coming Dorset photographer – his son Finn.

A quick browse through James McMillan’s website quickly reveals that he’s a photographer at the top of his game. His portfolio features portraits of national stars like Colin Firth and the late Terry Wogan as well as much-loved local artists Zara McQueen and Johnnie Walker.

When I joined James in his cottage for a chat, he was holding a bit of photographic history. “This is a 1947 Press camera,” he said. James enjoys history, and his historic record of Shaftesbury’s High Street businesses has become even more meaningful recently, as some long established traders have shut up shop.

“Just recently I photographed Edinburgh Woollen Mill and Turnbulls and they’ve gone. Superbooks has disappeared. Fork and Flowers, too,” said James. “When I started the project I knew that shops would come and go but it’s quite shocking when you start to document things and they disappear in front of your eyes. You’re aware very much that the High Street is changing very quickly.”

James McMillan and son, Finn.

James explained what he’s doing. “The project is essentially to document the changing High Street in Shaftesbury. I photograph the exteriors and then I arrange portraits of the interiors with the people who work there. It is so we’ve got a record of what the shops were and what they sold. It will form a nice archive for the museum, so that future generations can see what we were like.”

James has considered how this information will be of use in the future. “I ask each business to fill a questionnaire in. It gives a little bit of history about the business, when it was founded, how long it has been on the High Street, the nature of the business and little things like the best selling product or service. Of course, some businesses won’t exist, and the products they sell won’t be used in, say, fifty years. Anything that photography can do to aid history or education is really valuable,” he said.

James says most of the shopkeepers have agreed to take part. “In general, everyone’s very positive. A few people have been suspicious and have declined but I’m hoping that over time and the nearer I get to finishing the project, more people will get involved and be happy to be photographed. It will be nice to have as complete a record as possible,” said James.

He won’t contact the more corporate businesses until he’s nearer the end of the project. “I haven’t tackled any of the banks or the bigger chains yet. That’s going to mean having to approach head offices. It makes it difficult and that’s why it’s such a long-winded process.”

As you might expect, James is approaching this as a professional. “I set up lights and the camera on a tripod. I use high quality digital cameras to get the best quality possible,” said James. “It’s about recording in the most future-proof way possible to get to the best images that can be used by future generations.”

James is fitting this voluntary project work around his day job, where he often photographs pop stars for album covers and actors for movie posters. And scheduling the Shaftesbury project has been a challenge because some businesses want all the staff together for the picture but some workers might only be in the shop one or two days each week.

“I undertook this knowing that I’d have to be flexible and that it was going to take a long time. I started in 2017 and if I finish by next year, I think that’s reasonable, but I still think that it’s going to be difficult,” said James. He’s currently around halfway through the High Street shoot. “I’ve done 65 interiors and I’ve shot 110 exteriors. I imagine there will be 150. This year I have to work very hard and get a lot of people on board.”

James has to pick the time of day and even the season carefully, because of the differences in light. “I stopped at the end of November just because a lot of the shop interiors were a little bit too Christmassy. Using the interiors is fine because I bring my own lights and that enables me to light them well. For exteriors, I generally stick to spring, summer and into early autumn.”

James is getting help from his son Finn, who is studying photography at Bournemouth’s Arts University. Father and son have worked together before in slightly more glamorous surroundings. “We shot a film poster and Finn came along as a second assistant. It was all day, in a film studio, shooting the stars. The way the poster was composed, we needed someone to be with the star and the star would lean on them,” said James. “It was so you could Photoshop it together to make it look like they were leaning on each other,” added Finn.

“Because they were all being filmed, we could only get them one at a time,” continued James. “We had the lovely Joanna Lumley and Finn was with her and she was very charming. The assistant, the art director and myself were all excited that it was Joanna Lumley – and poor old Finn didn’t know who she was!” laughed James.

Finn’s photographic passions differ from his father’s but the pair share a love of photographing people. “We both really like portraiture and we’re both really interested in people but he edges more towards documentary and I’m much more commercial and into fashion,” said Finn.

“I think that benefits us both because we then spark ideas off each other. It aids competition in a positive way, rather than in a negative way,” said James. He’s had fun working with his son. “It’s been a pleasure to go over my old back catalogue and also relearn things that I used to do a lot in the past. I’m enjoying the whole process of passing it on,” James said.

But this has been a two-way street for learning. Finn has shared some tips with his dad, too. “Editing-wise, I have grown up around digital. I’ve learned Photoshop at uni, so I tell Dad how to do stuff sometimes,” said Finn. “The way that people use cameras has changed but you need to understand lighting and composition, and you need to have a bit of art history knowledge,” James continued.

“Having dad as a tutor really helps,” said Finn, adding that James is a tough but fair critic. Finn will be helping James complete his High Street project. “I’ll be holding flash guns and reflectors and doing maybe a bit of editing and that laptop work as well,” he said.

You can view some of James’ High Street pictures at JamesMcMillanPhotographer.co.uk. “Eventually, they’ll be arranged on the website in the order that they appear on the High Street,” he added.

James is keen to hear from any town centre businesses that haven’t been contacted, especially from representatives of national companies who can offer consent for the photo shoot.