Christchurch-based photographer Cass English creates warm timeless documents of the many little lives that are bundled through her studio doors. Having photographed about 300 newborns in the three years that she’s been working as a photographer, she explains that, with subjects so special, it’s always safety first
We humans like to think of ourselves as fixed, defined individuals, but, the truth is, from cradle to grave, our personhood is in a continual state of change. At no point is this more evident than during the first few weeks in the life of a newborn — eyes, ears, nose, head shape, hair, skin colour, and weight can change drastically from day to day. It is the privilege of the photographer of the newborn to freeze a second in this rushing torrent of development, preserving a unique moment in a new life that will never be the same again. Cass English is a Christchurch-based photographer who takes that charge very seriously and relishes the opportunity to produce warm, timeless documents of the many new lives that come through her studio doors. Having started her business, Hazel and Cass, just three years ago, the mother of two has quickly become known as one of the country’s leading photographers of tiny humans. New-parent word of mouth is a potent marketing tool, and the online chatter of excited new mums and dads is clear testimonial to Cass’s classically styled newborn photo shoots: clean, simple, organic. “I don’t follow fads; I don’t want the photos to feel silly later on; I don’t want anyone looking back and feeling it’s a joke,” the photographer explains. “I don’t do trendy — I’m quite oldfashioned, and that suits babies.” When it comes to photography of the early years, it’s impossible not to recall one of the greats who also hails from our region; Anne Geddes made an undeniable impact on the landscape with prop-heavy set-ups that have been widely imitated by new parents and amateur photographers far and wide. In order for Cass to carve out her own distinct niche, the self-taught photographer looked inwards to find her own aesthetic, asking herself what she would want in a photo of her own child. The answer: “It wasn’t photos in little teddybear hats or caterpillar outfits or anything like that. It was just nice, simple, beautiful, classic. That’s what I follow to this day.”
As a result, Cass’ images radiate an affectionate warmth in gentle, natural tones. To complement this style, an impressive collection of wraps, shawls, smocks, headbands, and bonnets — usually knitted from vintage patterns — is displayed on a rack in the studio. “The parents come and choose everything they like, and I’ll say, ‘Yes, this colour will be really nice’, or ‘Maybe not that colour on your baby’ — if I get a purple baby, I don’t want to put it in purple. The skin tones of newborns are crazy. They have pink feet, purple tummies, sometimes they get jaundice and are quite orange.” Such attention to tonal detail is unsurprising, with Cass coming from a graphic-design background, before she made the overnight decision to jump into newborn photography — with no prior photography experience. However, design brilliance counts for naught if a photographer can’t accommodate and connect with the tiny stars of this type of shoot. In this area, Cass’ most valuable experience is as a mother — initially to Hazel of the business name, who is three, and now also to Hazel’s one-yearold brother. “I always say that newborn photography is only one per cent clicking the camera; the rest is being able to keep a baby warm and safe and happy for three hours,” Cass states. “If you can’t do that, you won’t get the shots.” In addition to her experience in the trenches of motherhood, the photographer has studied infant communication by talking with neonatal nurses and other care specialists, who she has access to thanks to her mother’s work in the baby ward of a local hospital. This culminates in what can seem like her preternatural ability to understand the difference between a cry of discomfort and a plea for food, or the warning bleat of impending gas.
“It’s my job to get to know that baby: what it likes, what it doesn’t like, how its head likes to be turned,” she elaborates. “When babies first come in, I check their head and their hips — because each baby is so different in the tummy. If I can figure that out, I know the session will go better because I can keep the baby comfortable.” A big contributor to that comfort is the idyllic studio set-up that Cass has developed in her childhood bedroom of the family home. Clients arrive at the tree-lined suburban street; enter past the rose-strewn garden; and make themselves comfortable in the cozy, carpeted bedroom-turned-studio. As well as being fastidiously sterile, the room is kept at 29 degrees and a white-noise machine (or ‘baby shusher’) pipes in the noisy-yet-soothing soundscape of the womb to help little visitors feel safe and comfortable for the duration of the shoot. “I toss and turn with the idea of getting a more commercial space, but I don’t think [that] it would have the same appeal,” the photographer declares. “I feel as if I am inviting them into my space; it’s close to my heart.” You won’t see any quirky, viral-hopeful images coming from Hazel and Cass; no babies dumped in a bowl of gumballs, propped up on motorcycles, or suspended perilously over running streams. Instead, she looks to her little models to supply more wonder and whimsy than any photographer could ask for. Her ultimate advice for anyone looking to make beautiful photos of their newborn is to simply respect their subject and let their baby shine as it was always meant to. “These are the most vulnerable little human beings on the planet — they have no say, they can’t control anything. It’s up to us to keep them safe,” Cass implores.
CANON EOS 6D, SIGMA 50MM F/1.4 DG HSM ART LENS, 50MM, 1/160S, F/2.8, ISO 200
CANON EF 100MM F/2.8L MACRO IS USM LENS, 100MM, 1/125S, F/2.8, ISO 200 CANON EOS 6D, SIGMA 35MM F/1.4 DG HSM ART LENS, 35MM, 1/160S, F/3.2, ISO 320
CANON EOS 6D, SIGMA 50MM F/1.4 DG HSM ART LENS, 50MM, 1/160S, F/3.5, ISO 320