I have spent the last few weeks writing on memory and supporting my parents with lockdown, illness and most importantly ensuring that what they want to happen to their estate in the future is what happens to it. Their estate is not large but it does include my fathers collection of many photograph albums containing the history of our family.
My writing has been principally focused on academic research as I complete by PHD by publication, and the transcription of eighty-nine of the audio contributions to my weekly A Photographic Life podcast. The family album has been central to both.
When transcribing the contributions the family album is repeatedly identified as a gateway to photography and the memories of the treasured artefacts within are recalled with incredible accuracy of detail. They are images burned into our brains that inform us today of how things were in the past. The family photograph album is a repository of memories. In episode 117 the photographer Jan Töve said this, “Let me start with an early memory. I am probably six or seven years old. I am laying on the floor in the living room, browsing my parents photo album with black and white photos from before I was born. I can still remember the feeling of being moved to another time and other places.” I can recognise Töve’s experience, can you?
I am no fan of Susan Sontag but I have read most of her writing and it is worth noting that she had something to say about family photographs and their importance. In On Photography she said “Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait chronicle of itself – a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness”. In addition to bearing witness to connectedness I believe that the photographic album and it’s associated memories acts as an instigator for the inquisitive mind, both to create new memories and explore the memories of others through the photographic medium. As a result these childhood memories often inform adult photographic practice concerning aesthetics and subject matter forming the identity of the photographer.
In effect the family photograph album performs two functions for the child that becomes the photographer. The first is as an introduction to a magical world of creation and representation. Access to a grown-up world in which the child can begin to have a voice, to show others what they see and what they consider to be important. The second is through curation and occasionally contextual notes, however short or limited the may be, the child realises the power of telling personal stories and visual storytelling.
My father’s photograph albums not only echo the times they document through the images contained within. They also reflect the decades through the type of binding, and covers the albums are constructed from. The early sixties album is heavy, perfect bound and gilt edged, requiring paper corners to hold images to its thick pages. The latter ones from the nineties are ring bound, glossy and reliant on peel back plastic as a photograph holding mechanism. They are historical artefacts in themselves.
The academic writing I have read concerning the photo album often leans heavily on anthropology and ethnographic studies to find meaning and support conclusions. Much of this is interesting and informative but in essence I think we all know that at its heart the family album is an emotional journey into the past we only vaguely remember. Reminding us of forgotten details and realities. Placing us within history, our own history and that of the places in which we have been present.
Today, in a digital world, the family album has become an anachronism, replaced by social media albums, and smartphone storage. More images are being created than ever before but they no longer exist within a physical form as an inheritable artefact. My parents do not have computers or smartphones, my father still uses his analogue cameras, he still spends evenings re-ordering the albums. My personal history is safe.
© Grant Scott 2020
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.