Photography shows us both as we are and how we wish to be seen. These are, however, often conflicting expectations, falling between the actual and the ideal. As a result, the familiar roles, gestures and situations that make up our photographic albums represent conventional ideas of class and culture as they are played out in the private, domestic sphere. Such photographic conventions evolve as a means of articulating participation in the norms of a social context and so photography becomes a key way to demonstrate that belonging – what we want to show and what we try to remember tells us who we are. This does not, at the same time, detract from the deep emotional investment we often have in family archives. In fact, it is this tension between their public and private meanings that makes the family album so complex.
The consistency with which these conventional themes repeat themselves in family albums, however, must also alert us to the idea that the albums themselves are very much constructed narratives, statements that perhaps express more in terms of how the family story is being told than it does in the particularities of the story itself. While appearing to be an informal collection of pictures gathered over time, the album is, nonetheless, an attempt to fix a definitive version of recorded events according to certain presumptions of how the should be seen. In that sense, these conventions are an expression of the time and place in which the pictures are made, so that the album as a whole necessarily reflects its social context, not just in the limited sense of describing particular events, but also in terms of how these events are being shown (and understood).
The album is both a way of expressing and reinforcing social values. This is all the more effective because it is largely unnoticed, concealed by the understanding of photography as a medium that merely references past events. All forms of communication are subject to certain conditions that determine what kinds of statements can be made – and how they might be interpreted. The case of photography is that much more complicated just because a picture appears to not be a “statement” at all. Those forces that structure a society are also what shape how we see ourselves and photography is the means by which this notional image is rendered tangible, perpetuating given forms of social and economic organization.
The photo album is, in turn, an extension of the ideological constructs that underlie these forms, manifested by how we represent ourselves and how we wish to be seen. It is no coincidence either that the same themes repeat themselves so insistently in our albums. The choice of subjects speaks to our deeply held preoccupations and desires. If these “snapshot” images seem merely a haphazard collection of fugitive moments, however cherished, they are also embody a particular set of concerns and the social order that shaped them, speaking through the pictures. Photography facilitates the need to order our experiences; in showing how we see ourselves it is an attempt to reaffirm participation in societal norms. But we must also consider the tensions between the public and private roles of the album, being at once an intimately meaningful record of particular events and a way of demonstrating how those events fit the expectations we have of ourselves. When looking at these albums, then, it is necessary to consider all that has been left unsaid – and that remains unseen in the history woven so deeply (if unconsciously) into their pages.
Darren Campion, 2014