I read the book Family Frames, photography, narrative and postmemory while inside during a period of ‘social isolation’. I admit that I might not otherwise have managed to finish it in one sitting (albite over several days) because of its complexity. The book is a combination of an autobiography, a discussion of others work; written, photographic and cinematic and a description of how Hirsh sees both photography and writing as a way to describe memories of yourself, postmemories (of the past), and ways of making portraits (allo-portraits) by combining all of these together. It is interlaced with feminist and sociological theories and also other people’s thoughts on photography (specifically Barthes). Much of the book is based on ways of imagining the Holocaust and its description in photography and writing. It ended by raising more questions in my mind than it resolved – but maybe all books should do this.
While I was reading this, I walked around our local park and looked at the memorial benches in the formal garden. They all have a simple plaque, with a name, a date and sometimes a few additional words. I knew none of the people commemorated – but they still brought back memories of my own. These are family memories in themselves.
Some notes from this (very complex) book and added thoughts in italics.
- Talks about Barthes and the picture of his mother that he refused to show. Gazes circulate. The mother becomes the child. The punctum is private. Text and image together tell a story. The photo is linked by an umbilical cord to the viewer. The referent (the thing that was photographed) is/was present and now absent. ‘Photographs, as the only material traces of an irrecoverable past, derive their power and their important cultural role from their embeddedness in the fundamental rites of family life’ (p.5). The photograph is evidence. It shows time.
- Eastman production of Kodak was aimed at everyone – the means to tell a family story. It tells the family myth, a collaboration between photographer and the viewer. The photograph often shows what we wish – not was actually was.
- Looking within a family is mutual – self and other, subject and object. How do we describe this? But what about the external gaze? Each culture has an ideal – and the images are read though that.
- ‘Family photography can operate at this junction between personal memory and social history, between public myth and personal unconscious’ (Holland and Spence, 1991).
Mourning and post memory:
- Pictures can become emblems, especially if disseminated widely (both for the family, and wider world)
- Photographs represent both life and death; note Sontag quote ‘Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading towards their own destruction and this link between photography and death haunts all photos of people’ (Sontag, 1978) v. Barthes connection to life (umbilical cord)
- Pictures can show horror (holocaust, but also any major trauma) – context helps. The horror is in the imagination of what happened and also the ‘might-have-been’. Family images do not always make for painless reading. I have a selection of images from my mother’s time in Germany in WWII having a great time with the army – her memories were of fun – but not linked to anything else occurring then.
- Postmemory – the memory of a child of something that happened before they were born, mediated by stories from the past, especially traumatic ones. Memory itself is ‘a double-coded system of mental storage and retrieval’ quoted from W.T.J. Mitchell (p.22)
- Photographs as leftovers, fragments, building blocks!
- Does an image anesthetize horror – and therefore make it less (especially in the context of the amount of truly horrific ‘fantasy’ films and novels circulating at present). Are people desensitised by this as much as by repeated looking?
- Photos can keep memory alive – but a shrine – any picture will be altered by other memories, altered by words (especially if modulated via someone else’s memory). The photo as a memento mori. The living may compete with the photo (and can never win). A photo can stand in for anyone (especially if indistinct).
Reframing the human family romance:
- Family images act to consolidate the group – it may include ‘guests’ but they still remain ‘other’. There will be a familial gaze. Much photography has a function o support the family group. Photos are taken of the ’best bits’.
- Photography came to show the idea of a global human family – the Family of Man, a ‘universal brotherhood’. A post-war attempt to show human universality.
- The freezing of the image acts to perpetuate a myth of the family as stable and universal (very much a Western view) – a nuclear family. A romance. An ideal.
- The family is constituted by ‘familial’ looks, the family album makes the relationship (or the shoe box of pictures) – the idea of a back and forward gaze – ‘the mirror sees you’. But how does that work in the context of an exhibition? Steichen’s idea of producing a sense that ‘everybody is the same’ depended on the photo’s being of individuals, seemingly private rather than public, a fantasy of love (although all white and heterosexual).
- How does the fantasy of love fit against the images of war? How do the different races show similarity? Or does it actually point out the differences (and the American/European feeling of superiority)? ‘They can become like us, but we don’t have to become like them’ (p.58). Why are most of the photographers American or European even when the subject was not?
- Paula Rabinowitz – “the story that seeks to ‘know’ though what it can ‘see’ of the other finds, not the other, but itself” (Rabinowitz, 1992) very relevant to identity and looking at images of other people
- There is not a simple/single notion of a human family (true when she wrote this in the ‘90’s, even more so today in the 2020’s)
- How are images different if they are taken by the person themselves rather than an outsider? What would they choose to show? (How much can you immerse yourself in another culture?). What does someone of another culture say about you?
Masking the Subject:
- What do photos of relations taken many years ago tell you? How do they link with the people you know? What do they tell you about yourself and your relationship to them? Do they become autobiographical? How is it affected by history – both world history and family stories?
- The familial look defines a boundary, an idea. The inclusion of people within your story is due to your interpretation, and only yours.
- Family pictures can be self portraits, self portraits include the other
- As we pose we assume masks, as we read the image we project masks (ideological frames) onto the image (are they the same?). Whose face are we photographing?
- Lacoue-Labarthe’s idea of the ‘allo-portrait’, subject exists in time as “other”, as a mirror (Lacan’s theory), as a construction of the self, externally recognised, and as a previous self that was taken at a specific moment in time.
- Do relationships construct the universal artist with ‘the power to express universal feelings’?
- Different theoretical frameworks allow different understandings of images (all could be correct, or at least, equally valid)
- What happens when you actually wear a mask? (Lucybelle Crater), becomes surreal, comic – but does the relationship stay? The images were taken in the lead up to death – and have become allo-portraits, self-images.
- We all function as both subjects and objects in a ‘complex visual field not entirely determined by the gaze, but also the product of a series of more individual , local and contingent looks, which are mutually constitutive, reversible and reciprocal’ (p. 102).
- Reading is affected by race, gender, class, historical moment, age, nationality etc
- Lacan – looking and being looked at are identical processes
- Images can be used to question, looked at alongside others, talked to, tell stories – they are not the truth always
- Sherman’s images do not show a familial look – why not? And does it remain a human subject?
- Why do we put up family images? What do they mean? what do they tell us? Are we more likely to put us family pictures or other objects that are linked with earlier stages of our lives?
- Optical processes that are invisible to the eye can be seen by the camera. It can expose hidden dimensions of actions, tension in photographs between flatness and illusion of depth, between what it des reveal and what it does not
- Family pictures can be read differently by different family members and also over time (re novel Family Pictures)
- Family memory is both shared and vulnerable, exposed in photos. ‘The mystery of the family’.
- Jo Spence’s work on constructing and reconstructing images and phototherapy (need to read more of her work first hand) – her project is ‘begin to re-imag(in)e who we are’, talks about absence of photos that show much of her life. Using family photos in therapy – giving permission to make the stories work in our interest, also taking images that can allow memory to become conscious
- Images of illness, images of sexuality – allowing them, making them real.
- Carrie May Weems – reversing the traditional gaze of white people looking at black as poor etc, concentrates on the unseen, absence as well as presence
- The camera can be a space for both reflection and self-reflection – you look at yourself
- Can use a mixture of text and images to tell the story, one fills the gaps in the other, may have an incongruity – but that adds another layer
- Mann’s images of her children – controversial/beautiful/eerie/disturbing – loving images by a mother of her own children. How does the ‘position of power’ affect the maternal role?
- What are the social pressures on mothers who want to be artists? And how does this affect the family dynamics and the type of photos taken?
- Are the images of children ‘allo-portraits’ of the mother rather than representations of childhood?
- How does it impact on the child to see themselves reflected in the lens of the camera rather than in the mother’s eyes? What are the implications for their relationship? Is the mother taking pictures to recreate her own childhood?
- How much control does the child have? Every picture of a child is, too some extent, a picture of the mother. How vulnerable is the mother?
- Where does the father fit into this (CarlVision), or the foetal image?
- What happens when there are no family pictures? does it stop you understanding your history?
- Family images/albums show the past – but does that make us happier?
- Images and stories can be manipulated to reveal alternative stories, reinventions of the events and the social roles
- Can you erase parts of the images, tell a part story, join them together again? A different start, a tabula rasa
- Not all memories have photos, could have been taken but wasn’t! Can you (should you) construct an image to match them, words? Images? Collage?
- Mutilating images may reveal an underlying anger, a rage (rage, rage against the dying of the light)
- Cutting up images lets you out of the family frame (see Novak for examples)
- A ‘maker and reader of images…. can make a space for see[ing] differently…. she can also reveal, through splits and contradictions, through incomplete suturing, the complicated and painful process of identity’ (p.215)
Pictures of a displaced girlhood:
- Translation from child to adolescence can (usually is) be traumatic
- Pictures can mediate the changes
- Autobiographical reading can act as a pre-text, an ‘allo-portrait’, with shared resemblances
- Do all people who have had a form of displacement end up ‘on the border’? In a shifting space.
- How do past lives in the family, our experiences of their history affect our views of the world? Their stories (if they tell them) occupy a place in our childhood (and if they don’t, there is a gap) . Is there a sense of exile?
- What about mourning, grief, rage, parental trauma, ‘absent memory’?
- Are the actually too many stories? Leaving those who come after to wander, disenfranchised (from Nadine Fresco, p.245)
- Memorial book as acts of witness, public mourning
- If you alter an image does it still maintain its indexical nature? Or does the changes of reference take it away (thinking about Boltanski’s work on the holocaust and aftereffects)
References and suggested reading:
Barthes, R. (1988) Camera lucida : reflections on photography. New York: The Noonday Press.
Hirsch, M. (1997) Family Frames, photography, narrative and postmemory. London: Harvard College.
Holland, P. and Spence, J. (1991) Family snaps : the meanings of domestic photography. London: Virago.
Kelsey, R. et al. (2019) Vision & Justice: Around the Kitchen Table – Aperture Foundation. At: https://aperture.org/blog/vision-justice-around-kitchen-table/
Norval, E. (2018) Ralph Eugene Meatyard – Anything But Normal. At: https://www.compulsivecontents.com/detail-event/ralph-eugene-meatyard-anything-but-normal/ (Accessed on 20 March 2020)
Novak, L. (2020) Lorie Novak. At: https://www.lorienovak.com/ (Accessed on 20 March 2020)
Rabinowitz, P. (1992) ‘Voyeurism and Class Consciousness: James Agee and Walker Evans, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”’ In: Cultural Critique (21) p.143.
Sontag, S. (1978) On Photography. London: Allen Lane.
Spence, J. (1988) Putting myself in the picture : a political, personal, and photographic autobiography. Seattle, Washington: Real Comet Press.
Spence, J. and Dennet, T. (2005) Jo Spence : beyond the perfect image. Photography, subjectivity, antagonism. Barcelona: Museu D’art Contemporani De Barcelona.