Project 3 Exercise 1.4 Archival intervention
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.
Archival Intervention (~ 800 words)
The child pictured in Figure 5 is now an adult. The oldest photograph in the group of five dates from about 1860 and shows the child’s great-great-great grandparents (see fig.1.); next (see fig.2.) are great-great grandparents (c. 1900) and then a great-great grandfather (on left in fig. 3.) in a rural work setting circa 1950. Finally there is a group portrait from the 1930s (see fig. 4.) of farmers gathered in the process of mutual support in making hay, a relative likely being among them. The photographs of great grandparents are from both the maternal and paternal side of the child’s parent’s families and none of the five photographs have ever been placed together before. The two photographs of a couple would have the status within the family archive of ‘precious object’ (Stokes, 1992: 193 – 205), the remaining three less than this but none will ever experience ‘an autumn leaf ephemerality’ (Stokes, 1992: 193 – 205).
Why have I chosen these particular photographs? The fact that the image of the child is in colour suggests correctly that this is the only photograph of a person who is now living. This abrupt discontinuity could have been prevented by the inclusion of photographs of grandfather/grandmother and father (myself) /mother, however, this discontinuity highlights photography’s ability to span time and space.
There is no other way for the now adult child to know these ancestors. In an appropriate analogy Barthes (1980) suggests that ‘a sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, tough impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed’ (Barthes, 1980: 81). It is a truism that ‘family album viewing can be intensely boring’ (Stokes, 1992: 193 – 205), however, these five images from the archive convey immediately and emotively the gulf between the living and the dead and their linking by the ‘umbilical’ of photography.
The paradox present in these photographs is that between photography as a recorder of ‘lives heading towards their own destruction’ (Sontag, 1977: 70) and ‘its capacity to signify life’ (Hirsch, 1997: 20). As Hirsch (1997) remarks: ‘With the image of the umbilical cord, Barthes connects photography not just to life but to life-giving, to maternity’ (Hirsch, 1997: 20). Additionally, this paradox that photography can ‘bring the past back in the form of a ghostly revenant, emphasising, at the same time, its immutable and irreversible pastness and irretrievability’ (Hirsch, 1997:20) is compounded by the inclusion of the photograph of a living adult family member at the time when he was a child – this past and in a sense ‘dead’ childhood now stares back with the same ‘immutable and irreversible pastness and irretrievability’ as that of the dead ancestors. These five photographs therefore invite the second type of ‘punctum’ (other than the ‘detail’) identified by Barthes i.e. a ‘new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme (“that has been”), its pure representation’ (Barthes, 1980: 96).
Another consequence of the abrupt discontinuity in the generations is that Barthes’ first type of ‘punctum’, that of ‘detail’ (Barthes 1980: 27), is less likely to ‘shoot out’, ‘to wound’ since, excepting the child, all are unknown to anyone living. This leaves Barthes second element, ‘studium’, to predominate: ‘… for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions’ (Bathes, 1980: 26).
It is worth noting that the single archival childhood image such as the one included here may yield to a deep reading, for example Nelson (2015) and Kuhn (2003), however, the invitation to such a reading is not the intention here, but rather to invite a cultural reading of the photographs from the perspective of the child/adult — the family album is recognised as ‘one of the more complicated arenas of photographic representation and organised cultural evidence’ (Stokes, 1992, 193 – 205). Nevertheless, how likely is it that the familial gaze directed at the images will be able to overcome the alienating forces that the passage of time has inevitably created? For example the photographs from circa 1860 and 1900 (see fig. 1. and fig. 2.) speak of a husband and wife, and depict a pairing whose definition was unquestioned yet which today exists as something that evades simple definition. Shown in Figure 1 is an image from the early days of photography which propagates an ideal of family that photography was to go on to both sustain and undermine – by mobilising the ‘flow of family life into a series of snapshots’ (Hirsch, 1997: 7) photography perpetuated familial myths ‘while seeming merely to record actual moments in family history’ (Hirsch, 1997: 7); equally the depiction of real families showed these myths to be impossible to uphold.
Family archives inhabit a space between public and family, (private) history. The five chosen images deliberately contain a stark contrast – the black-and-white images of past historical time and the single colour image of today make material the transitions from childhood to adult, from living to dead, from rural to urban, from family as dependent upon strong mono-cultural community to one experienced as ‘nuclear’ and thriving in diversity. The five images reflect the constant stream of personal, familial and social change which we all inhabit, most within the comfort or otherwise of a family.
Gallery one — Figures 1 and 2 (click to enlarge)
Gallery two — Figures 3 and 4 (click to enlarge)
Gallery three — Figure 5 (click to enlarge)
Barthes, Roland (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Fontana Paperbacks
Nelson, Andrea (2015) ‘In my work it is the text that has counted most. And yet, the image was the beginning of everything.’ In: The Memory of Time. Washington: National Gallery of Art. pp. 72
Hirsch, Marianne (1997) Family Frames. Photography, narrative and postmemory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
Kuhn, Annette (2003) ‘Remembrance. The child I never was.’ In: Wells (ed.) The Photography Reader. London: Routledge. pp. 395 – 401
Sontag, Susan (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin Books
Stokes, Philip (1992) ‘The Family Photographic Album’ In: Clarke (ed.) The Portrait in Photography. London: Reaktion Books. pp. 193 – 205