Exercise 2.3 – The Family Album

Question

Explore the family album and its iconography.

Provide six photographs (e.g. photomontage, work using found images) which reference the family album in some way.

The Project

There is more truth in the image of reality, which is perennially enduring, than the vision of the real, which is fleeting. (Fontcuberta, 2014, p.180)

On a recent visit to Hay-on-Wye, I was searching around the second hand bookshops and antique stalls for photographs much in the way that Erik Kessels, Joachim Schmid and others have done before me.

I stumbled across a photograph album developed by Mother Levine Murphy from the 1920s to the 1950s. From this example I was able to analyse “the family album of the mid 20th century”.

I believe it to be Mother Levine’s because there is a loose newspaper clipping in the front which shows her photograph, age 83 and a brief article about her life:

Mother Levine Murphy

On studying the album in more detail it became absolutely clear that these pictures had been taken by Mother Levine, starting in the 1920s. They are mainly pictures of her family, some fellow nuns and the various convents and locations she had visited during that time. There is one very interesting section where she went to Lourdes to visit the Bishop of Lourdes, Father Coffer and Canon Monk.

It suits my need very well that I did not know too much about this person as I intend to make an analysis of the family album of the 1920s rather than a historical record of the person..

I believe her job was to teach in the convent school at St Anthony’s convent in Sherbourne, Dorset.

She was professed in 1878 and so I guess she was born in the 1850s or 60s not so long after photography was invented.

More than that, I know very little about her as a photographer or as a person, only what the “snaps” tell me. Her photography was obviously a keen interest to her and must have been an expensive hobby in its day. She reminds me of Vivian Maier in her obsession but not in her ability.

My direct experience of 1920s photography to date is a visit to Chambré Hardman’s studio in Liverpool, a very interesting talk by Keith Roberts on his work analysing the Hardman portraits and part of the content of my attic in the shape of my own family portraits.

This was about the time when Edward Steichen was working for Vanity Fair. Portraits typical of this age are shown below:

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Family Albums were very much about groups of people dressed up either sitting or standing and always facing the camera in a formal pose:

imagesFZRXQO9XimagesJFUTPF5U

 

To try to understand iconography in relation to the family album, I purchased and read a few chapters of  Ancestral Images (Moser, 1998). It certainly gave a better understanding of iconography but I have had to work out for myself how that influences the interpretation of the family album. I think that the most important thing to understand is the positioning and formality of the people of the 1920s.

The family album which I have discovered covers the following subjects:

  • Single portraits
  • Group portraits
  • Buildings
  • Gardens
  • Beehives
  • Church interiors
  • The pope
  • Weddings
  • Ships
  • Cows

There are virtually no candid shots. People are posed facing the camera. The photographs are very much the interest of this one single woman. A strictly personal document, not in any way for sharing, perhaps for very occasionally showing a very personal friend.

Because this is the album belonging to a nun, it does not fall neatly into Erik Kessels’ categories of eight albums in a lifetime:

  • Man meets woman
  • Wedding
  • First Child
  • 4 albums assorted – holidays, children, dogs.
  • Final – man photographs woman in landscape

Instead her life is only really within the category of “4 Albums assorted”. It is interesting to note that this album may be the only one in her life. At first I thought that it was only about the 1920s as the first photographs were dated but, like most albums, the information attached to each picture has deteriorated and so much is left to supposition.  In the present day it would be possible to access much more metadata as long as the digital file were available.

I bought this album in an antique / junk shop and I presume the copyright is mine. I have reproduced some of these pictures so that I can put them onto this blog and my selection of six is as follows:

20160820 XPRO 054A

 

20160820 XPRO 040A

20160820 XPRO 043A

 

20160820 XPRO 033A

 

20160820 XPRO 031A

 

20160820 XPRO 042A

 

This traditional approach to producing a family album is not so common these days as social media has taken over and many of the pictures are more informal.

My own family photos have taken on a very different look as shown by this “outside looking in” picture taken recently for the “People and Place” module:

 

20150320 037 Raw Convert (Copy)

There are many ways of representing portraiture in the modern age. Only today, I attended a performance of the portraiture of Brazil where a performance artist / dancer used his own body to represent the portraits of Brazilian people. He interpreted photographs, text and voice , using his own naked body. Ref: Tiago Cadet: Alla Prima – Home Manchester – August 20 2016:

Tiago-Cadet-Alla-Prima-2-472x264[1]

 

The contrast in quality of presentation between the 1920s photo album and today’s many methods of representation is stunning but there is still something most compelling about carrying out a historical exercise to analyse early photo albums. Part of the excitement is in finding out about the person behind the pictures.

Conclusion

The family / personal portrait has changed significantly over time. The 1920s portrait was formal, sitter or group facing the camera showing a sense of pride and grandeur. By the 1950s the subjects were starting to relax a little.

Today the portrait is rarely so formal and the sitters do not demonstrate their sense of wealth and grandeur. The pictures are often shared immediately with friends and then lost for ever. Every conceivable emotion could be demonstrated by the images posted on social media and formality is rarely one of these.

There are also many other ways in which one’s portrait can be demonstrated, by performance, use of sound, video, interview techniques and many other.

References

Moser, S. (1998) Ancestral Images: The Iconography of Human Origins. Sutton

Fontcuberta, J. (2014) Pandora’s Camera:  Archive Noises. Mack

Schmid, J.    http://weareoca.com/photography/an-interview-with-joachim-schmid/

Schmid, J.    http://www.nowseethis.org/invisiblephoto/posts/678/essay/13

Kessels, E    http://lightbox.time.com/2013/09/04/the-vanishing-art-of-the-family-photo-album/#22

Chambré Hardman, E.   Study Visit – Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool – 9 February 2013, Peter Haveland and Keith Roberts

Chambré Hardman, E. 59 Rodney Street. The National Trust

 

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