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



Ephemeral: Nicola Onion

Project 2: Exercise 2.2 (Digital Image and Culture, pg. 45)

Write 500 words in your learning log on a piece of work by one contemporary artist-photographer who uses the archive as a source material.

Photographs are essential to recording moments in life; they freeze time so you may relive your memories forever. However, you can not actually freeze time or memory. (Onions, 2014)

I had a look at artists involved with GRAIN and was immediately struck by the work of a young photographer, Nicola Onions. Graduating from Birmingham Institute of Art and Design in 2014 with a BA (Hons) in Visual Communication (Photography and Moving Image), she describes herself as having a passion for experimentation and working with different mediums and processes. She has self-published five photobooks, featured in a number of group exhibitions and won the GRAIN photography hub graduate award.

‘Ephemeral’ is a poignant, delicate and personal project. Following the death of her grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, Onions started a project based on memory. It is focused on her grandfather and his life following the loss of his wife and his own Alzheimer’s. The aptly titled ‘Ephemeral’ is an ‘extension of my focus on memory. I use ice in a conceptual way to visualise just how temporary memories are.’ (Onions, 2014)

I leafed through family albums, and discovered our family archive, using this to visualise memory loss, by changing the image, making them unrecognisable. I showed my Grandfather’s worsening condition through his eyes, so everyone could understand the horror that is dementia, and memory loss.

Many if not most of us will have some experience of dementia through our families and friends. The statistics from the Alzheimer’s’ Society are revealing:

  • There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to over 1 million by 2025. This will soar to 2 million by 2051.
  • 225,000 will develop dementia this year, that’s one every three minutes.
  • 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 have dementia.
  • 70 per cent of people in care homes have dementia or severe memory problems.

I recognise what Onion refers to as the ‘horror of Alzheimer’s’ and it seems to have become a topic increasingly tackled by photographers (Jean Jameson, Maya Daniels, Christopher Nunn, and the exhibition The Other Place, to name a few). Many have used a documentary style but I was struck by the impact of Onion’s more conceptual approach.

I use ice in a conceptual way, to visualise just how temporary his memories are. By creating a unique piece of art, that only remains for minutes, and can only be frozen by the use of a camera, I communicate the idea that not only is life transient, but so are the memories of my Grandfather. The ice obstructs the image encased, manipulating the memory, and as it melts, it shows the memory fading away. I also used this process to convey my feelings about the disease, and my own existence. (Onions, 2014)

The ice is obscuring each small photograph and as it transforms to a liquid state it interacts with the enclosed image. Warping, fading, distressing what is found inside. Something that particularly appealed following my recent experiments with water. All that remains of the original artwork is the photographic record; it almost represents an archive of an archive. It also raises interesting questions about photography’s relationship to memory as well as the fears that the thought of a fading memory can provoke.

Selfhood hinges on our ability to order memory, and connect a set of experiences to form a coherent autobiography of who we were and how we became the person we are now.(Leadbeater, 2014)

References and citations:

Leadbeater, C. (2014). The Disremembered.   Retrieved 30th November 2017, Aeon, from

Onions, N. (2014). Ephemeral.   Retrieved 29th November 2017, from


Archive Noises: Fontcuberta

In his speech of 1839, to the Academy of Sciences and Academy of Arts in Paris, Francois Arago introduced the daguerreotype and outlined that in his view photography would impinge on two realms of human experience – perception and memory.

This seems to have been incredibly prescient and as Fontcuberta (2014) suggests we are now moving from a period where the custodians of the history of photography were curators, critics and historians to now being photographers, designers and artists. This is not an issue that rests at an individual or community level alone but is something that has been seen in whole nation states. This is vividly described in the post-Franco experience in Spain.

…we are talking about an archive, a repository of memory, and the memory in question is one that half a century before had fractured the country into two halves, leaving deep and lasting wounds that have not been healed. (Fontcuberta, 2014: 171)

In highlighting the issues of the institutionalised memory it is suggested that there is a need for a ‘deconsecrating.’ Joachim Schmid is suggested as an example of this move away from the institution and three of his projects are cited as examples:

  • Masterpieces of Photography. The Fricke and Schmid Collection
  • Archive
  • Statics

Schmid perhaps controversially suggests that all the photographs to be taken have already been taken (a similar view is echoed by Kessels) and as such he calls for a recycling.

…we must recycle existing images because the creative act has shifted to identifying and taking advantage of exquisite garbage. (Fontcuberta, 2014: 175)

As an interesting side note to this I came across this camera designed to ensure you can’t take a photograph where others have already been taken – camera restricta (Schmitt, 2017) I’m still not entirely sure it isn’t a spoof but fascinating that it is raised as an issue!

A further issue that is highlighted in the chapter is that of the ‘photograph as information and as object.’ once again this raises the question of photography’s relationship with reality.  I also wonder if the notion of the photograph as object is shifting as the technologies of production change and the process moves from its origins in glass plates to pixels (and whatever follows). There have been some suggestions that in 10 years the current and arguably the most photographed generation ever will have lost most of their photographs because of digital format changes). (Yost, 2015)

“We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realising it. We digitise things because we think we will preserve them, but what we don’t understand is that unless we take other steps, those digital versions may not be any better, and may even be worse, than the artefacts that we digitised,” Cerf told the Guardian. “If there are photos you really care about, print them out.” (Sample, 2015)

Throughout history artists have tried to challenge the authoritative versions of the past. Louise Bourgeois saw it as a liberation to be able to free ourselves from the past. In exploring the work of Schmid what surfaces is the suggestion that our ‘vision is always partial.’ Perhaps Schmid is showing that the fragments are needed to show the image overall. It reminds me of what in narrative terms is described as terse tellings, these are ‘succinct or abbreviated stories that leave scope for the hearer’s imagination.’ (Boje, 1991)

The points I have taken from this chapter are threefold:

  • The archive is potentially boundless and on that basis unknowable
  • That there is a space between memory and forgetting in which the archive can ply a part
  • We ought to be privileging intelligence and creativity over the accretion of information

I am left with a slight confusion at the end of the chapter, and it may be a bit of a tangent, which is about how Fontcuberta sees the relationship between data and information.  In Cybernetics Ackoff introduced the DIKW (Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom) hierarchy model which has tended to suggest there are layers of filtration with data as the starting point. Maybe the white noise of the archive is the data and not the knowledge?

The Rock

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in the information?

T.S.Eliot, 1934

References and citations:

Boje, D. M. (1991). The Storytelling Organization: A Study of Story Performance in an Office-Supply Firm. Administrative Science Quarterly, 36(1), 106-126.

Fontcuberta, J. (2014). Pandora’s camera: Photogr@ phy after photography: Mack.

Sample, I. (2015). Google boss warns of ‘forgotten century’ with email and photos at risk Retrieved 1st December 2017, from

Schmitt, P. (2017). Camera Restricta: A disobedient tool for taking unique photographs.   Retrieved 1st December 2017, from

Yost, M. (2015). The Most Photographed Generation Will Have No Pictures in 10 Years!   Retrieved 11th December 2017, 2017, from