Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Photog 2: Family Photo Albums

Going into our discussion of family photos in class this week, one of the things that I found lacking most in the articles we read was the consideration of emotion in dealing with something as intimate as family photos. I think it probably had a lot to do with having read several articles on feelings and emotions for the last session of our theory class. To be clear, I'm not trying to say that the authors didn't deal with emotions at all. McAllister and Chambers addressed emotionality head on because they were dealing with their own family photos and family history. Both recognized their attachment to the photos' contents. Where I found awareness of emotion most lacking was in the authors' analysis of the purpose of taking photos and compiling photo albums.

Chambers contends the function of family photographs is to immortalize the high points of family life, to connect families to symbols of nature and high culture, and to record white colonization of suburbia. Langford argues says that the purpose of a photo album is to record the story of a family, that the photo album is a performance. Smith maintains that albums - baby books in particular - are a product of eugenics and a need to chart the proper growth and evolution (or devolution) of the white race and that these elements are still present in the moments that we choose to memorialize in our photo albums. To an extent, I agree with all of these assertions.

Yet, I feel there is something more here at work that none of the authors addressed to my satisfaction. What about the emotional element of a family photograph? Yes, typically we take the camera out at special occasions. We take photos to memorialize the important moments of life or to chronicle our life as a whole. But, particularly dealing with family photographs, is it not possible that a person might take a photograph because they love the person they photographed? (Although I suppose that could count as

To explain, I'm going to use a few pictures of my neice, Anastasia Leone. I call her Mija.

As any dutiful aunt might, I photograph my little niece extensively. As Chambers suggests, I've taken photos to memorialize her childhood. The picture below is a picture of Mija and her mother Annie making fish faces at each other. It was something she did for a few weeks this summer and knowing kids as I do, I knew it wouldn't be something that she'd always do, so I wanted to get a photo of her doing it. To my mind, the fact that their lips making the fishie face are almost dead centre of the photograph suggests that was my purpose.

This photo most fits under Smith's umbrella of charting a child's life, although I can assure you that I didn't do it for eugenic purposes, I would be willing to concede that the idea that we need to photograph and chart a child's life from birth to kindergarten, graduation and beyond stems from a eugenic past.

I'm also willing to accept Chambers' contention that part of family photography and family photo albums is a need or desire to record what a particular culture deems to be hallmark events. Below are two photographs - both are from Mija's first birthday. The one of the left, as I mentioned in class, is the aftermath of her birthday cake. Until seeing Jim's baby book in class I had no idea that this was a eugenically promoted pose. I took it because it was her first birthday erego her first birthday cake. The photo on the right is also from her first birthday. It's one of her presents, but in my mind I took it because she was still learning how to walk. Another milestone.


My brother's friend also took this photo, much like those McAllister examines, it suggests the coherence or unity of the family unit. Or it could memorialize a holidy.

However, humans are not fully rational creatures and even our rational decisions are influenced by our emotions. The choice to photograph something or to include a photograph in a particular album in a particular spot may not have a rational explanation. I took the photo of Mija making her fishie face to remind myself ten years from now that she did it. It could also be argued that I took it to memorialize that moment and to record it as a part of my family's story.

Then there are photos like the one below that I really couldn't tell you why I took it or why I kept it, except that it's of Mija and I love her. As a photographer, the photo irritates me because of the bad lighting. As a "family chronicler" I have no need for it. It was taken the same day as the fishy face photo. It wasn't an important day and there's no important event. There's no consumer aspect to the photo as she's not posed in front of a car or a house. I really can't understand why I put this photo in my album except that it's my niece and I'm not sure where that reasoning fits in all of the articles we've read. I'm not sure that it does.


Sometimes what motivates people to take pictures or keep them is emotional and there isn't a strictly rational reason to be found, like the pictures McAllister mentions of the unidentified children playing in the snow. Why were those photos kept? And why did people continually sneak cameras into the internment camps to take photographs? I feel there is something that goes beyond wanting to keep a family record, suggest family coherency, attempt normalcy, or control the way families appeared to outsiders. I think all of those motivations are contributing factors, but to me they're not enough to explain why people took photos of houses they were ashamed of, families that were struggling, and children that weren't their own. There's something more there, although I can't criticize McAllister for not identifying it. I can't. But I think emotion needs to be considered.

More than any other, this week has brought back a question I started pondering at the beginning of our class: why do we take photos and why do they matter to us?

1 comment:

  1. love reading your posts, Katy. I think emotions are a very big part of photography, not just as a means of chronicling the subject, but it reflects the photographer, too. As an avid scrapbooker, I look for photo ops to memorialize a story, but more importantly, a journey. I hope my photos will reflect what is going on inside our hearts and minds, as we continue on our own journeys.