For a number of years the remnants of Danish deceased estates have made their way to second hand markets in Adelaide, South Australia—a distance of over 15,000km. The explanation given in these markets, for the presence in Australia of what were once highly personal objects originating from the other side of the world, is that death duties in Denmark are so high, deceased estates are often settled overseas to avoid paying inheritance tax. Of interest here is that some of the most sought after objects bought in these markets are old family photo albums containing images taken as far back as the 1870s.
The first thing that comes to mind in considering such an object displaced and sent to the antipodes through the inevitability of death and taxes is that of distance—both emotional and geographical. Through this global displacement, the function of memory at first seems to be disengaged and the images reduced to the mere semiotic function of a Barthesian Studium—to a social generality or typology through a familiar form; to that of the image of family.
However at the same time, the removal of the images from the familial and their transposition to another place problematises rather than affirms or negates the familiar and coherent narrative structure that family albums present. The expanding distance between the referent; the ‘there/then’ of the photograph; and the ‘here/now’ of its viewing, is paradoxically made fraught and prone to collapse. This is most evident in the complex way the objects are performed. Holding an album of family photographs in ones hand, and performing its internal narrative through the opening and turning of its pages enacts its temporality—its past and its present. The closing of the pages, then returns and reduces this performance of time to that of a still object placed and displaced.
This article considers how the key terms ‘time’ and ‘place’ are rendered problematic and collapse into each other, through the familiarity of a family photo album, its narrative construction, and its performative mode of display. The article explores how a collection of images originating from a particular family located in a particular time and place in Denmark provide something resembling a disjunct surrogate memory when removed and sent abroad to Australia—when viewed far beyond its original context. Rather than the presentation of a definitive statement on the operation of memory in/on vernacular photography, this article seeks to locate these particular albums in relation to a number of texts and persistent themes. The overarching theme of the equivalence of the spatiality of proximity and distance, with the temporality of then and now, is arrived at via a reading of Tony Bennett’s Archaeological Autopsy: objectifying time and cultural governance (2002). Bennett’s text (in part) explores late 19th century museological practices of display, which—like a family photo album—attempted a coherent and unproblematic narrative of time, place, and memory.
The albums of Gunhild Andersen
I’ve been collecting old photo albums from second hand markets for about five years. A few years ago I asked the stall holder at a market that I go to why a lot of what he sold came from Denmark, and he told me it was because death duties in Denmark are so high, that when a deceased estate is settled, the person’s belongings are sent overseas—even as far as Australia—to be auctioned to avoid paying tax. In recent times, these old albums have become too expensive for him to buy. When he goes to the auction house that he buys them from, he is regularly outbid by another retailer who—he says—breaks up the albums and sells the individual photographs on EBay.
Recently when I went to the market, the stall holder grinned at me and pulled a large box of photo albums out from under a table. The EBay guy had been sick and had missed the auction. The box contained eight family photo albums all from the same Danish family—the earliest image is dated 1872, and the most recent is from 1960. There was one album that he kept for himself because it contained images of ornately decorated interiors that appealed to his interest in antiques. He was however kind enough to let me scan the album, and has given me permission to show some of the photographs here.
The eight albums contain 870 photographs of the grand parents, parents, younger brother and sister of Gunhild Andersen, and are presented in what appears to be a coherent historically linear form. Her name appears in some of the albums, and she is seated here, at the left of this picture (fig. 1, below), taken in about 1921.
Figure 1. Gunhild Andersen, brother, sister and Mother. Denmark.
Circa 1920. Courtesy of Leigh Ring. Adelaide. South Australia.
In these albums, many of the earliest photographs from the late 1800s are formal studio portraits, while many of those taken during the 1920s are larger and slightly less formal in that they have been taken either inside the family home, outside, or elsewhere whilst on holidays. While often formally posed, in terms of their materiality these photographs from the 1920s don’t appear to be commercially produced, suggesting that a family member took, developed and printed them. The sense one gets that they were taken and developed by a member of the family is also suggested by the content of one or two photographs which seem outside the norm, at least in terms of what appears in other family photo albums. For example, the level of intimacy in this particular image (fig. 2, below), raises the question of audience.
Figure 2. Gunhild Andersen’s Sister and Mother. Denmark.
Circa 1920. Courtesy of Leigh Ring. Adelaide. South Australia.
The selection and presentation process of arranging an album is in effect a form of an address, such as, ‘this is me, when…’ Quite often highly personal images aren’t included in an album, unless the albums themselves are intended to remain out of the public’s gaze. It is the intimacy that this particular image from a Danish family photo album presents, that makes most profound the distance between the referent, the ‘there/then’ of the image, and the ‘here/now’ of its viewing—in Adelaide, South Australia.
I come to this topic tangentially via a research project that considered how—in the context of a neo-liberalist political economy—representations of recent contemporary art practices can be seen to perform a function of role modelling and by extension government, through a recuperation of the familiar rhetorical truth claims of externality, autonomy and agency, made by earlier avant-garde movements. The research applied a reading of Foucault’s term governmentality (1991) to art practice—a discourse in which the concept of a constructed subject seems at times to be an anathema, given the persistence of the romantic paradigm. The overall aim of the research was to show how representations of creativity operate as a form of government through a curious opening and closing of the rhetorical space between public and personal acts of conduct. Examples of vernacular photography such as these presented in family albums provided a highly appropriate analogy to the discussion.
Historically an artist’s self location within the discourse of art is often presented—in both visual and rhetorical terms—as the public address; ‘Look at me. This is a picture of me, here, looking’. Think for example of Jan van Eyck’s ‘I was here’ statement on the back wall of the Arnolfini Wedding (1434), and Velasquez behind a canvas, and within a canvas in Las Meninas (1656). They constitute an indexical ‘there/then’ statement which describes both a temporal and spatial self location through a shifting temporal deixis—in which the viewer occupies the time and space of the artist/speaker.
In the introduction to his text ‘The Body and the Archive’ (1986) Allan Sekula briefly presents a description of the early history of the photographic image as a panoptic space that orders the behaviour of those that it presents, and in many cases the representation of an artists’ studio is also such a panoptic space in which the artist is observed performing a familiar behaviour—that of observation itself. As this studio portrait postcard suggests, (fig. 3, below), even in vernacular photographic practice, tropes relating to creativity and the scopic regime of the discerning gaze hold a certain currency.
Fig. 3. Studio portrait postcard. Australia, 1910.
Collection of the author.
This photograph from Australia taken in 1910 shows two sisters posed as artists—observing and creating. More importantly, as a photograph printed as a postcard, it was made specifically for the purpose of distribution andd thus performs the same public address of; ‘Look at me. This is a picture of me, here, looking’. This is what I have in mind, when I refer to the curious opening and closing of the space between public and personal acts of conduct—between an act and its idealised representation. Such a posed photograph is also reminiscent of Roland Barthes observation in Camera Lucida, (2000) in which he writes that prior to being photographed; ‘I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image’ (10).
In a sense, both the image of the artist and the image of the individual within a family album, ask the viewer to perform the discourse in which they are seen, through the recognition of a familiarity of form, or what Bourdieu (1990) refers to as a ‘recognition of genre’ (89). Earlier in Camera Lucida Barthes wrote; ‘Show your photographs to someone—he will immediately show you his: “Look, this is my brother; this is me as a child,” etc.’ (5). A photograph, considered in these terms of an address calls to mind Roman Jacobson’s linguistic term ‘shifter’ (1957), or rather Rosalind Krauss’ (1977) description of the term when she writes;
‘As we speak to one another, both of us using 'I' and 'you', the referents of those words keep changing places across the space of our conversation. I am the referent of 'I' only when I am the one who is speaking. When it is your turn, it belongs to you.’ (69)
By itself this introduction of the term ‘shifter’ may be problematic; however it is analogous to the reflexivity of the gaze that occurs when looking at old photographs. This conflation of ‘I/you, there/here’ is articulated well by T.J. Clark (2006) when he writes;
‘When I am in front of a picture the thing I want most is to enter the picture’s world: it is the possibility of doing so that makes pictures worth looking at for me. Though of course the process of looking is egocentric, and I write ‘I’ all the time, the moment that the looking and the writing are always waiting for is that of being in the picture’s place – within the structure of experience the picture opens up for others to inhabit.’ (222)
This entrance of the viewer into the space of the image is perhaps best described in Michel Foucault’s first chapter of ‘The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences’ (1994) in which he writes of the complexities of the Velasquez painting ‘Las Meninas, (1656). The engagement with the picture plane in which the viewer enters the photograph by means of a shifter-like operation is facilitated by representations of the familiar. At the very least, a family photo album presents relationships that we recognise as familiar, familial—and through their representations of absent generations—as temporal.
Considerations of how Gunhild Andersen’s family photo albums operate in relation to time and space brings to mind an overwhelming number of texts. The texts that immediately spring to mind are Barthes’ Camera Lucida (2000), Susan Sontag’s On Photography (2002), and John Berger’s About Looking (1991). There are others that describe the photograph as an object of sociology, such as Pierre Bourdieu’s Photography: A Middle-brow Art (1990), and David Chaney’s Fictions of Collective Life: Public drama in late modern culture (1993). Chaney’s text engages with that of T.J. Clark, when he writes that the ‘contextualising narrative’ of an image—the context in which it is read;
‘can be described as a directed seeing or as a look and the direction of a look can always be reversed—or rather the relationships of fore- and background can be thrown into question’ (93).
In another important text Of Other Spaces (1986) by Foucault, the author presents a variety of definitions of heterotopias—problematic spaces which contain other spaces within them—in relation to slices of time, or what he terms heterochronies and chroniques (26). Heterochronies are suggestive of an accumulation of time or duration, while a chronique suggests a singular imminence. It is tempting to think of a family photo album as an heterotopic space (especially if one considers it as a mobile displaced object similar to Foucault’s ideal heterotopic model of the boat (27)), however for the sake of this discussion the temporality of the photograph and its enactment as a performed object is of more importance here. As an object performed by a viewer, a family album resonates strongly with such definitions of heterochronies and chroniques. The photograph as the trace of an imminent singular event—(as a chronique), taken, collected, accumulated and layered (as heterochronie)—within the pages of a family album also resonates with Christian Metz’s distinctions between the photograph and cinema, (1985) when he writes;
‘the snapshot, like death, is an instantaneous abduction of the object out of the world into another world, into another kind of time—unlike cinema which replaces the object, after the act of appropriation, in an unfolding of time similar to that of life.’ (84)
Metz continues; using an analogy that calls to mind Balzac’s concerns of the photograph, as described by Felix Nadar (1978), writing that; ‘Photography is a cut inside the referent, it cuts off a piece of it, a fragment, a part object, for a long immobile travel of no return.’ (84) Prior to this, Metz writes that;
The importance of immobility and silence to photographic authority, the nonfilmic nature of this authority, lends me to some remarks on the relationship of photography with death. Immobility and silence are not only two objective aspects of death, they are also its main symbols, they figure it. (83)
It is interesting to read these particular family photo albums of Gunhild Andersen in relation to Metz’s conceptions of immobility and silence as the authority of both death and the photograph—in Adelaide, South Australia. While the albums, read from a distance, don’t negate such notions of the silent immobile indexicality of the photographic image, they certainly render it problematic when considered as objects performed. I would suggest that in turning the pages, the images that the albums contain present a shift from a chronique to heterochronies. The still image, or slice of time, is put into a narrative relation with the other images in the albums that—while not cinematic—is neither immobile nor silent.
The choices that are made in how these slices of time are arranged into a broader narrative duree are interesting when considered in relation to the text ‘Archaeological Autopsy: Objectifying time and cultural governance’ by Tony Bennett (2002)—which of itself has little to do with memory, and nothing to do with photography, but does discuss how time is conceived and displayed as an object to be performed. Bennet (34) uses a reading of Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory (1987) as the basis for an exploration of the development of museological practices of display used in European museums in the late 19th century—arguing that objects collected and arranged performed specific narratives of empire through the constructed representations of time and space.
In this text, Bennett writes of the equivalence of time and space that occurred when—through the late 19th century revival of ‘conjectural history’ (32)—conceptions of regular time applied to regular sedimentary stratification on a vertical axis within the emergent discourse of archaeology, were then applied to the horizontal plane of geography. In archaeology, the deeper one digs from the surface defined as the present, the further one travels back in time. Applied to geography, the further one travels from an idealised centre defined as the present, the further one travels back in time (35-36). This principle lay beneath the collection of specimens from geographically distant lands, that were then presented through new museological practices of display to construct a linear temporal typology which, on the one hand provided evidence for Darwin’s thesis on evolution, and on the other allowed for a European world view in which the centre was developed, civilised and located in the present, while the periphery was barbaric and lay in the past (42).
Two elements of Bennett’s text are interesting to read in relation to these albums. The first concerns the construction of a temporal narrative through the collection of images that are indexical to a particular event. The second element concerns the presentation of these objects, in such a way that their typology of content—the family on holidays, the family at meal time, the internal documented space, etc— become exchangeable with another time, or even another family. In other words, the content and display of a photo album can work both for and against a desired or presumed coherent temporal narrative.
These temporal and spatial strategies of constructing difference, simile, and exchangeability—grounded in a conjectural construction of linear time as narrative form that the colonial empires of the late 19th century used to construct systems of documentation and display—find subtle expression in the vernacular. This occurs not only through representations of difference—but also sameness—or rather a typology of the familiar through formulaic systems of documentation, display, and ritual practices of viewing.
The album as archive
Both Bennett’s text and these family photo albums describe practices of display that attempt a normative coherent narrative through the presentation of a highly constructed duration of time within a familiar, contained and isolated collection of objects or images.
What appears at first to be an overall coherent linear narrative in the photo albums of Gunhild Andersen is set up by a series of formal studio portraits of her grandparents, parents and siblings. These are then followed by images of the everyday—in and around the house, or elsewhere on holidays; photographs that are immediately recognisable as relating to a particular moment captured. A significant number of the photographs were taken during the 1920s, when her younger sister was born, and this is interestingly where time seems to slow due to the abundance of baby photos such as fig 4, (below).
Figure 4. Gunhild Andersen’s sister. Circa 1920.
Collection of the author.
Occasionally though, as with the museological practices that Bennett describes, the very materiality of display in these albums undermines the apparent coherence of a temporal narrative construction. While the pages of the albums are mostly brown or green in colour, there are remnants of black paper stuck to the back of some of the images that have started to fall out. This suggests that they have been literally torn from other albums, rearranged and re-presented in a reconfiguration of memory—perhaps even a re-authoring of someone else’s ordered memory. The albums are a rethinking of time—or rather a rearranging of the layers of time. Further still, a closer look at the content of each album shows that while they construct an overall linear narrative, the parts also re-present the whole, through temporal overlap and repetition. Each album seems somewhat self-contained. Copies of some images from the 1920s, or similar ones that were taken on the same day, appear in the other albums, in one respect disturbing and disrupting the overall narrative—but in another—reiterating the key thematic of a remembered childhood and the significant relationships of that time. In this respect, the arrangement now seems less that of documentation than a process—or performance—of remembering.
Like the museological mode of display that Tony Bennett describes, family photo albums rely on a typology of the familiar—in both content and form—both inside and outside of their apprehension. Familiarity of type relies on a process of recognition, something which, by inference—suggests a degree of exchangeability. By extension, this undermines the intentionality of the personal and familial narrative that the family album, above all else, is supposed to be. For me, this is suggestive of the curious opening and closing of the rhetorical space between public and personal acts of conduct that I mentioned earlier in relation to representations of art practice.
Over the years one of the most persistent themes in the discourse of photography and other practices of representation has been that of the ‘archive’, as developed by Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) to a point at which it could be said the discourse is determined by it. This fact became clear to me when in the later stages of writing this article, I was directed back to Foucault’s original text by the many other texts that cite it, and encountered this definition.
‘The archive is not that which, despite its immediate escape, safeguards the event of the statement, and preserves, for future memories, its status as an escapee; it is that which, at the very root of the statement-event, and in that which embodies it, defines at the outset the system of its enunciability.’ (146)
There is a subtle and intentional doubling here, of this statement and the way that I’ve introduced it. Like a hall of mirrored representations, the photographs in a family album reflect each other and the viewer as they enter its space.
Fig. 5. Student stage play documentation. Denmark. Circa 1955.
Collection of the author.
Interestingly, the last two photo albums in the collection of eight albums don’t show any images of real family—as such. I don’t know if Gunhild Andersen had any children, (although one could speculate that the absence of any images later than 1960 may suggest she did and that they held onto the albums that contained them). At first I wasn’t sure if these last two albums even belonged to the same person, until I noticed that Gunhild Andersen’s name appears in some of them, and that they also contain press clippings in which her name is mentioned. They both contain a collection of documentary photographs of the stage plays that her students put on in the late 1950s when she worked as a drama teacher in a school in Copenhagen (see fig 5 above and fig 6 below). These two photographs are from a performance of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ and while they don’t present images of actual family, they never the less present a faux familial narrative both in respect to the quasi-family relationship between the characters in the play, and within the pages of the album—especially when figures 4 and 5 (above) are presented within the same overall narrative space.
Fig. 6. Student stage play documentation. Denmark. Circa 1955.
Collection of the author.
In ‘Forget me not’ Geoffrey Batchen (2004) points to the performativity of a family album, in writing;
‘Some albums even incorporated home altars, blurring the distinction between photography’s secular and spiritual capacities. Today, we usually encounter historical albums in museums, displayed behind glass, in a vitrine. Yet albums are tactile objects with moveable parts, and to be experienced fully, they (…) demand that we add the physical intimacy of touch to the more distanced apprehension of looking. And when we do touch an album and turn its pages, we put the photograph in motion, literally in an arc through space and metaphorically in a sequential narrative.’ (49)
This last sentence has significantly informed the central thesis of this article—that the performed gesture of turning a page enacts the image as an address that incorporates a shifter-like operation which compromises the still indexicality that the photograph is said to present. Batchen continues that in engaging with such photo albums, even when they are contained within the distanced space of the museum vitrine, they still call to mind, ‘the murmur of laughing voices that would have animated and shaped the experience of leafing through them.’ (49) Interestingly in this context of the relationship between image and utterance (though in this instance it is in a written form), in his text, ‘The Remembered Film,’ (2004) Victor Burgin juxtaposes two similar scenes from two different films that he has seen at different times. In describing them he quite poetically repeats and slightly alters particular phrases, and in doing so, further collapses the difference between them (58-59).
In respect to the literature against which to read the images from these albums—and the albums themselves as objects—a text that I encountered very late in the writing of this article, which has affirmed rather than directly informed it, is that of David Green and Joanna Lowry’s From presence to the performative: rethinking photographic indexicality (2003). In this text the authors consider the relationship of the indexicality and performativity of photography in contemporary art practice, and argue that performativity designates rather than represents the real. They write that; ‘the intent [in contemporary practice] seems to have been not to confirm but to ironise the documentary status of photography (…)’ and conclude that the indeterminacy of the photograph’s indexicality; ‘far from confirming the status of the visible world, subtly puts it into question and draws our attention to the ways in which notions of the real are discursively produced.’ (8) This indeterminacy—in terms of their temporality—is clearly at play in how these photo albums operate. The albums combine with other images to form the shape of a memory within the viewer. This is how they operate when viewed far from their original context—as something familiar, reduced to an exchangeable type through the collapsed equivalence of time and distance, but at the same time, rendered problematic by such reduction.
In a way, the actual content of these last images (figs 5 & 6) points to how the albums operate as a whole, through their documented representation of scripted performances—arranged, re-enacted, and performed as personal memory. They operate as problematic slices of time—as heterochronic layers—arranged, presented, exchangeable and removable to another space, exiled to the antipodes through the inevitability of death and taxes, and performed through the turning of a page.
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