Photography is how we see ourselves – and it is how we project the ways in which we wish to be seen. What this means is that, more often than not, the uses of photography involve certain conventional forms, where roles, gestures and identities can’t help but be repeated across a surprisingly diverse range of contexts. The family album is an excellent example of this, where legitimate historical and cultural differences are collapsed by the necessity of creating a particular image in the often piecemeal accumulation of photographs that make up an album, as a sort of personal archive. This is not to suggest, of course, a spurious continuity of family types or narratives outside of the cultures that shape them, but it is indeed striking that in almost every case a family album presents a recognizable, in fact, almost archetypal, set of tropes that model specific experiences onto the familiar conventions of such photography. Here the picture is evidence, not just of a given moment, but also of the way we perform certain roles and it is how the performances of those roles within the “constellation” of the family itself, as well as with the wider community, can be defined as fitting within the norms of that culture. It proves, then, what happened, but also that it happened in a certain way.
To call the family album an “archive” perhaps seems a little presumptuous, given that is generally an improvised collection of images from different places and times. But the strategies of the album and the archive also have a great deal in common, in the first place with regard how they are structured, but more importantly in terms of how we relate to (or make use of) the material that they contain. Photography is the ideal means for both endeavours, not just because it results in a kind of object that can be collected, but also because it is a technology that can actively shape how we understand a particular reality; the photograph suggests that its meaning (the visible subject) is transparently available to our understanding by simply being there, somehow in the photograph and accessible without mediation. The presence of the subject remains a given, indisputable quality of the image and so whatever approach the archive (or the album, for that matter) might take, it seems to act directly on the subject of the images; the myth of the archive, then, is that it operates merely as a neutral frame. The family album works in much the same way, torn between the overall narrative that the images produce and concealing the ideological constraints of representation.
What we want to show and what we try to remember tells us who we are, or rather, constructs that identity as a set of (figurative) images, many of which are borrowed from our respective cultures; photography plays a central role in this complex intersection of forces. What is to be gained, then, in considering the family album as an archive, even one accidentally formed, is a direct access to those ideas and to a record of the actual lived experiences that have been shaped by them. More importantly, this is visible not only in the images themselves, what they show and what, conversely is absent from them, but also in how a particular notion of the family, as well as the otherwise unseen histories of a culture, have come into being though this process of representation – photography is an agent of those pervasive cultural forces and yet it also makes them visible, allowing us, in the present, to stand outside of their influence. The album communicates a mythology, at work in the personal narrative it contains and in the culture at large. It is what moves beneath this conventionality, the untold stories, amounting to a social history in miniature – indeed, what might even be called the “unconscious” dimension of the archive, and of the album – that is at stake here.
- Darren Campion.
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