I&P Exercise 1.4
Look through your own family archive and try to discover a series of portraits (four or five) that have existed within this archive, but have never been placed together before. The portraits can contain individuals or even couples; they may span generations, or just be of the same person throughout the years (chronotype). Whichever way you wish to tackle this exercise, there must be a reason or justification for your choices. What message are you trying to get across about these portraits?I&P extract p.34
A family archive is clearly just that. If there are no events on a national scale, be they disasters (a family member on the Titanic), triumphs (a medal, athletic or heroic) or notorious (any number of scandals and forms of violence come to mind) then the only newspaper clippings will be the announcements that the family pays for and the images will chart relationships as they come and go, the minor successes of everyday life, often academic, and visits: lots of visits. And occasional prosaically indexical passport renewal.
Tod Papageorge (1975) observed that ‘[t]he eye which created the family album is the heart’s eye’ and describes ‘its innocence, its very love-blindness’ to imperfections in both subject and execution of the photographs.
Geoffrey Batchen, writing in 2001, criticised the way vernacular photography has been largely omitted from academic histories of the medium and suggests that this is because their range of subjects and approaches makes them difficult to classify and to include in ‘a formalistic art-historical narrative’ (Batchen, 2001, p.57).
Photography is around 160 years old and my mother had lived through most of that, particularly the period when photography became readily available to all classes. For a normal, working class family, although the technology of the medium has undergone extraordinary changes in the last 100 years, the subject matter has altered very little.
My mother never had the chance to hold the next in this line, my grandson born in October 2019 as by the time he was old enough to travel, Covid restrictions were coming in and she was reaching the end of her life.
I have assembled what the course material refers to as a chronotype (Boothroyd & Roberts, 2019, p.47) a series of images from my mother’s life. The sources are my own collection and a video of images displayed at my mother’s church to celebrate her 90th birthday in 2010 (Newport Gateway Church, 2010 and fig. C1). I was not involved in compiling the video and so the images there would have been from my sister, my mother herself, or her friends.
My mother’s name was Lorna Betty Blackburn. I called her Lorna, most people called her Bett.
The limited and repeating range of subjects in the normal family archive has already been noted. There are babies, holidays, weddings, landmark birthdays, parties, the occasional ID photograph, but no funerals: the culture in which I was brought up does not photograph funerals. At least that used to be the case, but I videoed my mother’s funeral in June this year because the Welsh Covid restrictions only allowed a few to attend. I will not be showing any images from that and so the cultural inhibition remains.
There is one image that I wish I had, simply because it is so unlike the others. While in her 90s, Lorna tripped and fell on an uneven payment. On the advice of friends, she took a photograph of her cut and bruised face and complained to Newport Borough Council. She showed us the photograph at the time but it is not in my collection and, not surprisingly, it did not make it into the church video.
Another common theme is school photographs, clearly already a tradition in the 1920s (fig.D1). I remember taking part in them, but have not kept any of mine and so the second exhibit is one from my son’s prep school taken in 2000, 75 years later (fig.D2)
With all types of family photographs, identification of the subjects and the circumstances is all that prevents them from becoming meaningless miscellanea for anyone who was not there at the time. I used to know which child in fig. D1 had been Lorna, but I have forgotten (it might be first left in the front row): fortunately, there is a blackboard inscription to remind us of the occasion. Annette Kuhn, quoted in the exercise brief, takes exception to her mother’s inscriptions on family photographs, describing them as a ‘power play’. Lorna’s descriptions are pleasingly precise, benign and helpful as shown in fig. B2,
All taken at Rosemary’s second birthday party. (Nicholas almost six months).Lorna Blackburn, Family Album, c.1956
The family archive is not restricted to simply album photographs, there are also memorabilia, including the more documentary items. It is unfortunate and also, to me, surprising, that wartime identity cards did not include photographs.
Although family photographs are now taken by the million (or should that be billion? †), they are rarely printed, mounted and labelled. Images might be uploaded to social media with an inscription but there was a lag between the beginning of digital photography and the rise of the media so many images would have gone unlabelled and that still applies to the majority of photographs taken – discarded or lost with hardware failures or changes in technology, either personal (switching machines) or general (changing formats). One remaining advantage of digital media is the retention of EXIF data which can at least date the image and (if GPS is deployed) locate it too.
There is a significant difference between the care and deliberation that used to be part of using a film camera — brought out for special occasions, not always to hand; results eagerly awaited after a visit to the chemist (sometimes months later when the film was finished), not instantly available; unrepeatable moments and events, so if the few photographs typically taken didn’t work, the chance was lost. The ubiquity and excess of the mobile camera has diminished the value of the image, perhaps proportionally.
Papageorge wrote, 45 years ago, of family snapshots being created from the heart and that is my experience, and while Kuhn describes how such images can be weaponised through false inscriptions, she nevertheless acknowledges that this is only possible because of the special affection that families hold for their albums. The additional connection felt by families viewing their family album when they have actually lived the events being depicted can, in my view, constitute a strong and collectively reinforced version of Barthes’ punctum ‡ and a more direct experience of Tina Campt’s haptic image effect, described in the course material (Boothroyd & Roberts, 2019, p.50).
While Batchen’s comments on the absence of vernacular imagery from the ‘formalistic art-historical narrative’ remains largely correct, there is some flow of archives into gallery spaces. Items from the Peter Cohen collection (vernacular images assembled by subject matter) appeared in the inaugural exhibition at the new V&A Photography Gallery, opened in 2018; the work of Nicky Bird and Broomberg & Chanarin was introduced in the Context and Narrative course (Boothroyd, 2017, pp.118-120) and work on several photographers’ archives has been discussed in Identity and Place (Boothroyd & Roberts, 2019, pp.46-48). But while I find æsthetic interest and kindly amusement in the Cohen Collection and academic interest in the others mentioned, recycling archives, especially other people’s family archives, is essentially a cold and perhaps cynical process because their true meaning can only be realised within the family context.
To end, this is the last photograph that I took of my mother while she could still converse with and recognise us, fig. F2. Coming full circle, this is paired with fig. F1, my grandmother, institutionalised in a ‘mental home’ (St. Cadoc’s, Caerleon) in the early 1980s, a few years before her death (that’s what we did with dementia patients before Margaret Thatcher’s care in the community reforms). They are, of course, the subjects of fig. B1.
† According the Stephen Heyman writing in 2015 in the NewYork Times, ‘Kodak announced that consumers around the world had taken 80 billion photos’ on film in 2000 and in 2015, ‘according to the market research firm InfoTrends, global consumers will take more than one trillion digital photos’.
‡ Barthes regards the punctum as a specifically individual manifestation (“it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there” 1980, p.55) but this is not necessarily always the case. If Barthes had had siblings, then they might have reacted strongly to the Winter Garden Photograph, not identically to Roland but in response to their own memories. Their collective reactions, if experienced together would have reinforced and heightened their feelings.
Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Random House.
Batchen, G. (2001) Each wild idea. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Boothroyd, S (2017) Context and narrative [C&N]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.
Boothroyd, S. and Roberts, K. (2019) Identity and place [I&P]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.
Heyman, S. (2015) Photos, Photos Everywhere [online]. nytimes.com. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/23/arts/international/photos-photos-everywhere.html [Accessed 22 October 2020].
Kuhn, A. (2002) Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination London: Verso.
Newport Gateway Church (2010) Happy 90th Birthday Faithful ‘Auntie’ Bett. Newport Gateway Church. Issue 6, August 2010, p.1.
Newport Gateway Church (2010) Celebrate Bett 2 – photos [DVD] Newport, Gwent: Newport Gateway Church.
Papageorge, T (1975) The Snapshot. Aperture. Vol. 19 No.4, pages 24-27.