Shutterings and Mutterings - photography blog

Lead toy soldier playing bugle with the Artillery Memorial, London, in the background

Toys Salute Real Heroes

I wanted to create something to honour the centenary of the Armistice that brought an end to fighting on the Western Front on November 11, 1918. My mind's eye saw a vintage toy soldier saluting the Act of Remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph in London.

There were two obstacles: First, I did not possess a saluting toy soldier and, second, I feared trying to photograph the real ceremony could be thwarted by security measures and, much worse, might cause offence to others present.

Lead toy soldier playing bugle with the Cenotaph, London, in the background

However, I had a guardsman figure playing a bugle and I felt he could represent the playing of the Last Post at the Cenotaph or another prominent war memorial if all else failed.

A search at Spitalfields Market in London turned up a saluting guardsman and a suitably weathered bugler in the stereotype "Tommy" uniform. I also paid a visit to the The Guards Toy Soldier Centre in Birdcage Walk, London, and asked if they had a saluting figure of suitably First World War period appearance. On seeing some examples of test shots, they scoured the catalogue and triumphantly produced a very handsome moustachioed saluting figure.

Lead toy soldier saluting with the Guards Memorial, London, in the background

Next came the challenge of finding the ideal vantage points to shoot from. I decided to make the most of the summer heatwave and utilise the strong sunlight which provided the additional challenge of identifying the right time to get the memorials in full sunlight. For example, I discovered the Artillery Memorial and the Guards Memorial were both ideally lit before 11am. The Cenotaph was similarly well lit around this time as well but it took several visits before I caught the engraved dedication to "The glorious dead" suitably lit so that it could be read in the background.

Lead toy soldier saluting with the Cenotaph, London, in the background

I also visited Lewisham war memorial because I noticed it had numerous wreaths placed around it, including some in the RAF colours. Ideally, a saluting airman figure would have been best for this but since I have yet to find one, the saluting guard will have to do.

Lead toy soldier saluting with RAF colours in the background

Notable omissions are the Navy - the search is still on for a saluting sailor - and the Commonwealth. Sadly, all the Commonwealth figures I've seen look like caricatures. Similarly, the huge contribution made by women is woefully unrepresented - I'm still hoping to find a suitable female figure other than a nurse. Sadly, vintage toy soldiers tended to be generally white and male.

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Where can I see these pictures? The set is currently being displayed in businesses and community areas in Forest Hill, London SE23.

But I can't get to London, let alone Forest Hill... How about helping me to stage a pop-up exhibition in your town? Send me a message and we'll discuss it.

Can I get a print? Of course, send me a message and we'll sort something out.

What camera and lens were used? I used a Nikon D700 with an AF Zoom-Nikkor 24-85mm lens with a handy macro setting.

What sort of settings? In order to get a recognisable background I used the highest aperture settings possible - f22 to f32. That's why I chose to work in strong sunlight.

Did that create any problems? Using such a high aperture setting meant the tiniest specks of sensor dirt showed up. I had to do a lot of sensor cleaning before going out and picture cleaning in post production but it was worth the effort.

Did you get any reactions from people while shooting? No problems with police, the one time there were a lot of police about in Whitehall I asked if it was OK to take photos and they said go ahead. A few passers-by who saw me shooting with the figures stopped and said wow, that looks really cool. I work on the principle of be polite and approachable.

Where did you get the figures from? The two guards figures and Tommy bugler were all found at Spitalfields Market in London. The saluting figure with the moustache came from The Guards Toy Soldier Centre in Birdcage Walk, London. I strongly recommend anyone with the vaguest interest in toy soldiers to visit. The display cases of figures set out in marching formations are magnificent to look at and the staff are very enthusiastic and helpful.

You can see more by visiting my Flickr photo stream.