Family Albums: A Practical Analysis Essay, Research Paper
Since their inception in the 1860s, family albums have played an important role as the promoters of familial ideology and treasures of familial memory. ?Most family photograph albums in containing a great variety of items, both identified and unidentified, from different periods and of varying quality,? held together by their collective identity with the family (Schoeman, 1996: 8). The function of familial photography is to ?fix perception and memory, represent a method of preserving memories, document important moments and confirm social relationships and fact of belonging? (Tobiassen, 1990). When photographs are stored in albums the process ?resembles the writing of family history? (Tobiassen, 1990), and are thus a resource constituting an important mnemonic aid in the construction of a family narrative, although Tobiassen omits any thought that the photograph album is probably the closest that most families will ever approach to narrativising and transmitting their individual and collective familial experiences for later generations. Early portrait photographers stressed the importance of the photograph as a moral stabilizer for families and the social fabric, “? family photographs sustained sentimental ties in a nation of migrants.” (Alan Sekula, 1986) These sentimental ties, especially those produced by viewing photographs of deceased loved ones, enabled families to document their lives as they happened, and to remember those who had predeceased them, thus forming a seemingly cohesive “history” on which to build a nation. Therefore, family photographs can be considered cultural artifacts since they document the events that shape families’ lives and so the recording of family history becomes an important endeavor. In many cases, photographs are the only biographical material people leave behind after they die (Boerdam, Martinius, 1980). However, the impact of family photo albums extends beyond merely recording history. Interpretation of family structures, relationships and self is possible through viewing family photographs.
Interpretation of meaning behind photographs assumes that they are a means of communication (Entin, 1979). Much like family storytelling, photographs indicate relationships within and among the family. The family photo album is indeed an easy way to initiate outsiders to family history (Boerdam, Martinius, 1980). Photographs pose as good conversation starters allowing potential family members, such as future daughter/son-in-laws, to be introduced to family customs and traditions.
An important factor to keep in mind when interpreting photographs is the fact that they are produced by choice. Choices about who, what, when and where to photograph can reflect much about the photographer as the subject. The camera records not only an event but also what the photographer chooses to see. Photographs display one?s view of the world. They are a reflection and definition of self. If that person has a happy family, then others may perceive him to be a good husband or wife. Parents’ innocent snapshots are important in constructing their sense of identity (Merz, 1988). Traditionally, photographs have been taken from a male perspective. The father is most often absent from family photographs because he is the one who usually commands authority, poses the family and takes the picture (Trend, 1992).
The family photographer is not the only one who has authority to shape the family image. Other people may edit the photos. Some photographs are selected for presentation in an album while others are rejected. This is also known as ?selective amnesia? where only happy events are documented into photographs, for instance weddings and birthdays, while negative events, such as funerals, divorces, are conveniently omitted. Control of the editorial process can be as important as control over production of the photographs. Decisions regarding what to keep, throw away and display can provide valuable information about the person assembling the album.
“It’s only smiles that count in photographs,” states Laurie Taylor in her cynical yet humorous view of the family photo album. Photographs of family members often are constructed with a skewed concept of reality. They usually show an idealized nuclear family, meaning a husband, wife and children, enjoying life?s happy glorious moments. The obsession with depicting the family as a united, happy entity is clear. Pictures of the head of the household’s divorced spouse are rarely seen in pictures, and very few photographs depicted people as depressed or lonely, even pictures of a crying baby is hardly flaunted. The message is obvious: heterosexual marriage and children produce a fun and satisfying life (Merz, 1988).
Photographs are far from a complete and accurate depiction of reality. Family image, not family history is depicted in the photographs that are displayed. Major events that strongly influence peoples’ lives are completely ignored. One of the most obvious situations that is missing from the family album is work or anything associated with work (Merz, 1988). This is unfortunate because labour-related relationships and achievements form a significant part of peoples’ daily lives. Also conspicuously missing are photographs of dead children. Celebration rituals such as weddings or Christenings are recorded; divorces and funerals are not (Merz, 1988). Death and work appear to be taboo subjects in most photo albums.
Physical groupings also are important. Most family photographs are displayed in clusters. Pictures are huddled together even if the people in them are not. People are very rarely presented alone. Only children are often depicted alone, but they are too young to be expected to maintain meaningful relationships, which are subjected to change. Today’s high divorce rate looms over the nuclear family, which is why the method of displaying photographs may parallel the instability of modern-day relationships. Most pictures are likely to stand free on tables, dressers, as opposed to walls as photos that are not hung on walls are more easily interchanged.
An examination of photo albums was made to determine if differences occurred in the portrayal of people as they assumed the role of parents (Titus, 1976). Repetitive patterns in the parenting role can be observed through photographs including feeding, holding the child and interactions with relatives. Photographs of mothers and fathers caring for their first child were far more prevalent than with subsequent children (Titus, 1976). The number of solo portraits also decreased after the first child although this may not signify a more biased form of affection toward the first born, but simply an accustomisation to new roles (Titus, 1976). Even though one spouse may be more inclined to take photographs, both spouses were significantly represented in parenting photographs (Titus, 1976). However, most photographs that are chosen to be displayed in albums are mostly of pleasant tasks such as holding and feeding, instead of unpleasant tasks such as diapering and bathing.
By viewing family photographs, much can be discovered about family structures, relationships, and the self. Family photographs primarily serve to remind people of good times with loved ones. This is apparent as the image of the nuclear family is constantly repeated in the photo albums of most families. However, Much research remains to be done in the study of family photographs. Even though the general society is obsessed with presenting the image of a happy nuclear family, more research should be conducted on the portrayal of alternative lifestyles. Gay and lesbian couples, alternative families and single parents need to have their family photographs analysed to determine if differing lifestyles significantly affect photo content. In addition, photo content produced during transitions in relationships such as divorces, separations and sibling rivalries needs to be studied. Historical documents, such as family photographs, can provide essential background information as well as indicate important people and relationships within a story.
ReferencesAlan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” 3-64, October, 39, Winter, 1986, p. 8.
Boerdam, Jaap and Warna Oosterbaan Martinius. (October, 1980). “Family Photographs – A Sociological Approach,” The Netherlands Journal of Sociology, v16, n2, pp. 95-119.
Halle, David. (Summer, 1991). “Displaying the Dream: The Visual Presentation of Family and Self in the Modern American Household,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 22: pp. 217-229.
Merz, Caroline. (August, 1988). “Smile, please,” New Statesman & Society, v1, n10, p. 42.
Tobiassen, Anna Helene (1990) ?Private Photographic Collections as an Ethnological Source.? Ethnologia Europaea 20.1. 81-94.
Titus, Sandra L. (August, 1976). “Family Photographs and Transition to Parenthood,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 38: 525-530.
Trend, David. (February, 1992). “Look who’s talking: Narratives of Family Representations,” Afterimage, v19, n7, p.8.