Project Three: The digital family album

Exercise 2.3 (Digital Image & Culture, pg. 51)

In your exercise for this section you’ll produce a piece of work that explores the family album and its iconography.

Produce a series of six photographs (these can be photomontage, staged photography, work using found images, work including images from your own family archives, etc.) which reference the family album in some way.

As I recorded in my learning log I have not looked at our family albums for some time. I suspect there are several reasons for this:

  • We don’t have children so their role as a social, historical and communicative tool is perhaps lessened
  • They are now associated with death and loss as much as life and celebration
  • We tend to share through social media and keep our images only in digital format

I decided I would therefore reacquaint myself with some old friends and use our family albums for this exercise. I thought it would also be useful as preparation for assignment two. I didn’t have a predetermined theme or concept and decided I would just start working through the albums and see what they suggested.

I was taken completely by surprise when the first album I opened was full of negatives, some 35mm and a number in a square format, a mix of both colour and black and white. Some of them I thought I recognised but others I wasn’t sure of the content. There are too many to have them developed commercially without knowing what I might be getting so I decided to try and digitise a few myself to see what happened.

At the time I didn’t have a very high quality scanner so did some online research and found a negative scanning hack using silvered card. Using this and Photoshop I was able to process some of the negatives. After inverting the images they all came out with a blue hue that I decided not to adjust, I also didn’t clean up the images in any way. Linked to some of the background reading I have been doing I recognised a quality in these images that spoke to me of memory and personal history, the fact that the images are slightly obscured and faint felt important in conveying their age and possible reliability as documentary recordings.

I don’t remember these particular instances as I was obviously too young but I do recognise my Mum and other relatives, which enables me to locate them within my family’s history. That said their faces are not in sharp focus so interpreting them is still left slightly open, I know it is me because I am told it is me but I do not have personal recollection of the events. I’m sure this opens up some interesting existential questions.

As part of my research for this exercise I looked at a very wide range of other photographers (I imagine there are many others!):

  • Lorraine O’Grady – Miscegenated family album
  • Larry Sultan – Pictures from Home
  • Sally Mann
  • Mitch Epstein – Family Business
  • Tina Barney – Theatre of Manners
  • Elinor Carucci – Mother
  • Doug Dubois – All the Days and Nights
  • Nan Goldin – the Ballad of Sexual Dependency and other works
  • Richard Billingham – Ray’s a Laugh
  • Gillian Laub – Family Matters
  • Alessandra Sanguinetti – The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams
  • Angela Strasshelms – Left Behind
  • Tierney Gearon – The Mother Project
  • Chris Verene – Galesberg Series
  • Briony Campbell – The Dad Project
  • Angela Kelly – Sundays at Sea
  • Eugene Richards – Dorchester Days
  • Shizico Yi – Family Album on Loss and Love
  • Jo Spence – Beyond the Family Album
  • Ralph Eugene Meatyard – The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater

It was interesting to see those who used their own family album to explore essentially autobiographical issues and those for whom it represents a site of activism; a space to explore and expose the politics of representation. It is also noteworthy to see those photographers, who have, created family albums as part of their oeuvre rather than using those taken as snapshots by other family members. In researching just a few photographers it is clear that this is an extensive field in its own right and includes approaches from documentary to composite; from constructed to found images.

The artist that particularly caught my attention as I was researching, someone I hadn’t come across before, was Bohumil Stepan and his ‘Family Oddities.’

Their surreal quality and quirky humour really appealed and surfaced something interesting for me in terms of the relationship between the family snaps and the oral history that often accompanies them. I decided I would start with some stories and then use found images to create a series of portraits that linked to my family album. I came up with a number of family traits and myths and created the following characters (scroll over the image for captions).

What started out as something playful has really made me think about the relationship between the visual and oral tradition, and the fact that family albums are partial tellings. For example, the traditional image of the family dog may tell us they were regarded as significant enough to photograph but it says little of their backstory, which is often only known to the immediate family.

Photographer links:

The full document for Bohumil Stepan is out of print but it can be seen here as a PDF (as featured by Design Observer)

Bohumil Stepan’s Family Album of Oddities_ Design Observer



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