A portrait of childhood

14th September 2016

News, Alumni news

A photographic portrait by Wadham alumna Cécile Birt (English and Modern Languages, 2004) will be exhibited at London’s National Portrait Gallery after being long-listed for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016.

  • Cécile's portrait of Zazie

    Cécile's portrait of Zazie

  • Cécile Birt

    Cécile Birt

Describing the portrait of her daughter, Zazie, Cécile comments that the casual family snapshot was taken during a Sunday lunchtime, at the kitchen table. “At twenty months, Zazie was just beginning to grapple with feeding herself; a poignant moment on our intimate journey from breastfed baby to independent toddler. There is a maternal longing to capture the transience of my daughters’ childhoods, to memorise the fleeting subtleties of their gestures, the nuances of their looks.”

After leaving Wadham, Cécile moved to Berlin where she initially worked in film production. She later trained with an international company as a professional translator before turning freelance, specialising in sub-titling and film-script translation, and writing advanced skills books for the language-learning publisher Compact Verlag. “I very much valued the warmth and stability of the Wadham community. The pastoral care was beyond compare and I’m still in close contact with my tutors, six years on."

Following in the footsteps of her father, Michael Birt, photography has been a natural part of Cécile’s life. “With my father being a portrait photographer, my interest in photography was pre-destined. We had a dark room adjacent to the kitchen; the smell of chemical developers is steadfast in my catalogue of childhood memories. I spent many a weekend accompanying my Dad to printers, galleries, studios, magazine editors and photo shoots; the constant eavesdropper of conversations on exposure, F-stops and editorial deadlines."
While at Wadham, Cécile joined the Oxford University Photographic Society but it wasn’t until she met her partner, a film director, that her interest was re-awoken. “We invested beyond our means in a Nikon D800 and I began in 2010 by documenting my first pregnancy. Over the years, my photographic interest has focussed on my children, driven by a borderline obsession with capturing their childhood - their gestures, quirks and mannerisms, constantly changing, eternally entertaining, and sorely fleeting."

"Inevitably, I have my father to thank for being long-listed for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. He has been included in the exhibition five times with images of Baroness Thatcher, Doris Lessing, Polly Stenham, Kiera Knightley and Hilary Mantel. It was his expert eye that took a liking to this particular photograph and he suggested I enter it," she added.

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016 exhibition will run at the National Gallery from 17 November 2016 to 26 February 2017 before touring to venues around the UK.

About the portrait

‘Zazie’ is an embodiment of love between mother and child; so simple, yet immensely powerful.

A beam of light shines down on her silky-soft, angelic being; her plump cheeks and chubby fingers, a diffracted reflection through the glass. The epitome of innocence and vulnerability fiercely contrasting with her determination to hold the spoon alone. The novelty of a still unfamiliar manoeuvre is tangible, the concentration reflected in her blue eyes and furrowed brow. No longer a baby, not quite a girl; a beautiful manifestation of her strength of character, and love of good food.