‘Photography is seems is finding a place in the world by being able to relate to it with detachment –by bypassing the interfering, insolent claims of self. But between the defence of photography as a superior means of self expression and the praise of photography as a superior way of putting the self at reality’s service there is not as much difference as might appear. Both presuppose that photography provides a unique system of disclosures; that it shows us reality, as we had not seen it before. P119
The family album is a transportable volume of experiences, constructed and presented at the right time, to the right people. It is a tool of historical ‘truth’, photographic and emotional ‘reality’. The images fill in our gaps, related or not to the images themselves; they offer us a method of reconciling our existence. The images bear witness to our connectiveness with ourselves, our family and humanity, the only proof, even, of our existence at all. They tell the viewer what there is; how it was and they make an inventory of life. It creates a link with the past and the future and eventually, they provide the one and only link between ‘us’ and ‘there’ or ‘them‘ and ‘then’. Cameras go with family life; they escort us around so that we can prove we where really here at all. A family’s photographic album is generally about us now, but becomes a historic document of the extended family and often, is all that remains of it.
The Family Album, as a document, is a way of acknowledging ‘that fun was had’ that it was all-worthwhile, that we created an important link in the chain of humanity. It seems you cannot claim to have seen anything, been anywhere or ‘belonged’ unless you have photographed it. One can lay claim to having a loving family, one can claim your very existence once the proof is presented in an album.
‘Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph. Of course, photographs fill in blanks in our mental pictures of the present and the past.’ p23
Of course, any photograph, even in an age of photographic manipulation, at least, for a while longer, is a proof that the person existed, that he was there in that place. Photographs furnish us with that evidence, the evidence that, even though it may be distorted there is the presumption that the contents of the photograph did exist.
Another key function of the family album is of course for our need to face mortality. A way of reminding us of our insignificance perhaps, subconsciously dealing with the undealable-with while still giving us a reason for our existence. Being part of a past and having invested in the future is important. The family album is an opportunity to invest in a more positive relation with that process
As a document, it is also a defence against other such anxieties. Family albums actively promote nostalgia, and as Sontag states ‘photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art’ and that ‘most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos.’ p15
To participate in this process of the subject’s mortality, we continue to create what has been. All photographs show the past, of things that are either dead or dying, ‘Like the dead relatives and friends preserved in the family album, whose presence in photographs exorcises some of the anxiety and remorse prompted by their disappearance.’ P16
‘Photography states the innocence, the vulnerability, of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death still haunts all photographs of people. ‘P70
However, there are aspects of any image that say more than simply the documentation of the scene. The ultimate wisdom of any photographic image is its’ saying, ‘There is the surface. Now think-or rather feel, intuit- what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way.’ Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy. P23
Through the production of the family album, we want an idolised image of the world and our place within it. Essentially, photographs of us looking our best, both visually and emotionally. Images within the album are praised for their candour. By the audience that are sought to view it, ‘this is a good one,’ ‘you have got her off to a tee’. The pictures are commended for their honesty. This fact indicates that ‘most photographs are, of course, not so candid’. p86 The family album has its truths of course, but the ‘justification is still the same, that picture taking serves a high purpose: uncovering a hidden truth, conserving a vanishing past’. P56
One could argue that photography, far from documenting the truth, succeeds more in hiding it, than it does revealing. The Family Album records by disclosing, but also hides the truth and discourages disclosure.
There is another world within this one, perhaps, that demands viewing. A world that becomes interesting, once sought. While viewing a portrait, it is the beauty of what the eye cannot see, the scene behind the image that the camera ultimately brings us. Says Susan Sontag, ‘the cameras rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses.’ p23
Shrouded by sentimentalism and history, we are distracted by the location, the wardrobe of the day. Distracted by the order, the presentation of the images, of the presenters’ bestowing of the story. Persons that have an emotional stake in its presentation construct these albums. Strangers, the portrait studio photographer of the past, the historic interface between the commissioner and the sitter, no longer take portraits. Today they are taken by friends or family and edited by them. There is no longer even potential for an objective view.
Sontag states that, ‘photographic realism is more and more defined, not as what is “really” there, but as what I “really” perceive’ p120. So the family album, as with any photograph, can be interpreted differently. That a photograph does and can evoke memories; however, these are dependant on the quality of the viewing of the photograph and whether these are instruments of memories, invented memories, or replacement memories involved in there viewing.
‘Astute observers noticed that there was something naked about the truth a photograph conveyed, even when it’s maker did not mean to pry.’ p87
The photographer discloses more than the image shows to us, and the viewer can interpret this in two different ways. Of conscious ‘knowing’ and also, as Sontag states, ‘a pre-intellectual mode of encounter.’ ‘A noetic exercise, an advance form of knowing without knowing; a way of outwitting the world, instead of making a frontal attack on it.p116