Tuesday, 3 December 2013

“If the purpose of writing is to record, how can other objects be textual?”

When I was a child, my parents - being around the age that I am now, and just as inclined toward a similarly neglectful attitude to record keeping – kept all of our family photographs in a large, thick-sided cardboard box. This, in effect, was our family archive, or at least was as close to a family archive as we are still to get. Within it were kept every single photograph that my parents had ever taken since they had been together. As a child this provided no end of fascination to me about the lineage of my own family. From a very young age I did not feel that I belonged in this world and the box of photographs, which was almost as high as me, this archive, was all the proof that I needed of this…

Both of my parents are Scottish but my paternal Grandmother is Italian so, when they first married my parents decamped to Rome where my elder brother was born. There the three of them spent what I can only picture as an edenic few years before they decided to return to grey old Blighty and have me. I have never forgiven them for this. The point of this is that by the time that I was barely eight years old I was already filled with a sense of nostalgia caused by the photographs in the box for periods of time and place that I had either not taken part in or not been cognizant of. Strangely, one of the things that I enjoyed the most was delving into this huge box in the hope of having my mother explain their connection to who I was and how I got to be there. In this delving, my relationship to, and an empathy with, my mother was formed. As Lorraine O’Donnell has stated: “Showing photographs involves storytelling, another narrative act in which the family makes its own history and image.”[1]

This connection between orality and maternity was clearly something that I drew a great deal of comfort and specific personal power from. The connection to a sense of history through photography has remained one of the only constants in my life and as the seemingly tangential threads come together in this form I am reminded of the power of photography as much more than simply that of an image platform. The photograph – as I shall refer to its many convoluted histories – can be at once a Mnemonic device, an anthropological artefact, and a document as well as a picture.

In this essay I will be discussing three largely forgotten forms which photography has taken – the Daguerreotype, the mourning, or post-mortem portrait, and the family album – to describe how a photograph can be a record of the passing of time. This essay is primarily about the many ways in which a photograph can be considered textual, but first and foremost it is also an object which preserves a period of time – and the people within it - forever.

I intend to give a short overview, given the time allowed, of the ways in which a photograph can exist in the world as a socially salient and material object, which, much like the concept of archives, has a life-cycle of its own and carries “meanings [that] are social as well as personal.”[2] Elizabeth Edwards suggests that photographs “demand tactile engagement” and that their materiality is central to the strength of power they have over memory, saying that we need photographs that “can be handled, framed, cut, crumpled, caressed, pinned on a wall, put under a pillow, or wept over”[3]

From the late nineteen seventies and eighties, an increasing amount of scholarly attention has been paid to the ways in which photography has infiltrated the world as a social and cultural device. Informed initially by the ‘material turn’ beginning in anthropology, the subject of photography as social, cultural and mnemonic device is now considered almost commonplace within the socio-anthropological framework. Indeed, within the world of archive and museum studies it is now impossible not to engage with the materiality of an object within ones research.

In the late 1970s and for most of the 1980s, a debate raged within the world of archives (at least in North America) an records management, which centered on the best way to archive non-textual documents within a record-keeping tradition. At this point Canada was a good way ahead in its thinking around the idea of the ‘total archives’ project’ which considered the rather hefty task of documenting all forms of records that made up the whole of history, not just those left behind by its elite.

Terry Cook stated, at the time, that the goal of total archives was “documenting all aspects of human endeavor at every level of society irrespective of medium.”[4] In theory this was all well and good for Canada but it was still rather behind in the actuality of implementing these theories when it came to its record keeping policies. Luciana Duranti identified the need for a series of diplomatic terminology for image-based documents and other media but gave few suggestions for how this could be done[5].

Within a series of articles published in the Journal Archivaria, a number of professionals, most of whom were employed within the Public Archives of Canada, debated as to the best practice for the storage of non-traditional documents as, up to this point, while many ostensibly agreed on the idea of total archives, the issue fell down upon the ways in which these ‘new documents’ would be stored. At this point the Public Archives of Canada departmentalised other forms of media. Were they to be considered as traditional documents and stored alongside them or within separated divisions according to medium?

Terry Cook, who became a sort of de facto leader for those in favor of total integration, complained that the context of an original document was lost once it was placed within the Public Archives of Canada. Forms of media in the sense of “records resulting from modern mass communication techniques”[6] were considered to be of extra importance to the Cook side of the debate, but when it homed in on photography it was considered only ’documentary photographs’ to be of importance as they were considered “unproblematically realistic and transparent carriers of “the past””[7]. Documentary photographs arere ‘evidential’ in nature and could therefore be considered as documents of a sort, but what about other forms of photography such as snapshots and the family albums that often hold them? O’Donnell asks how a records form might reflect its meaning, going on to infer that the social aspect of a photograph inform its meaning. So, where does that leave such photographs as those found in a family album? They might not be considered as documentary evidence, but they still constitute a document; of a life lived, of many lives lived.

In the total archives debate argument, many agreed that photographs possessed evidential over informational value, either as documents belonging in provenance-based fonds or as artistic expressions of their creator. As Elizabeth Edwards and others have pointed out, a photograph, at various periods in the past, has acted as a form of cultural capital that is transferred from person to person like a banknote in a form of social exchange. Duranti, whose articles discuss the interrelationship of physical form and intellectual content, refers to records as tangible physical evidence of a finite activity such as a will or charter[8]. To conclude, Brien Brothman stated in his article some ten years later that the argument largely centered around an ideological fixation on the linguistic form of records, stating that for many historians and archivists “texts have a primary rather than a collateral position in the discipline of history.”[9]

Around the same time, outside of intellectual scholarly reflection, Michael Lesy was making similar pronouncements in his book Time Frames, in which he simply interviewed the owners behind family albums about the lives that they had lived, here the evidentiary and the linguistic were on display within the book. At a time when modes of culture and thought remained heavily departmentalized, Lesy combined ideas based on the history of photography, sociology, and Jungian psychoanalysis to form a multi-disciplinary reading of snapshot photography:

“... I’d claim that the use of photographs as data was of the most remarkable importance for the humanities and social sciences... that it was a thing made to achieve an end like a letter, or to be an end to itself like a poem; that, in either case, it was tangled within a whole culture that was itself pinned within a social structure...”

Prior to this Lesy had published his PHD thesis as the book Wisconsin Death Trip which bore as its images prints made from nineteenth-century glass plate negatives depicting the inhabitants around the area of Black River Falls, Wiconsin between 1865 and the turn of the century. Lesy originally conducted the research that became the book in the mid-seventies when he discovered over five thousand collodian glass plate negatives attributed to one photographer, a Mr. Charles Van Schaik, having literally cracked under their own weight in the attic above the former studio. The heavy glass plates bore the effects of their usage and, on a metaphysical level, one could argue that they bore the psychical as well as the physical imprint of the times in which they were made; the weight and marks of those people existing in one of the coldest, barren parts of the United States in the nineteenth century.

“Many historians have become convinced that there was a major crisis in American life [during this time], some have gone so far as to call it a “psychic crisis” and have attempted to explain its existence or, even more commonly, to use the presumed existence of such a crisis as an explanation, for a wide series of developments in American domestic and international political life”[10]

Prior to the introduction of Wet Plate Colodion by Frederick Scott Archer, the earliest form of photography to reach an international audience was the Dagguerrotype, made famous in France by Louis Jaque Mande Daguerre and his co-inventor Nicephore Niepce and imported to The United States where it was taken up principally along New York, Broadway with a fervour so fierce it earned itself the name: ‘Daguerreotypomanie’. Taking after the silhouette portrait and the physionotrace fashionable in France and England since the late 1700s, it was partly a social necessity that the Daguerreotype came housed within its own casing to keep the delicate surface from damage – behind glass, held in place by pinchbeck foil and enclosed in a gutta-percha hinged case with suede or felt lining. This created a sense of preciousness in the Daguerreotype as both an image and as a physical object. The resultant image, when made well, is astonishingly life-like, due to a combination of the necessarily shiny surface and the razor-sharp focal range of the lenses.

The uniqueness and the image quality of the Daguerreotype gave it an almost holy aura that was intensely personal, moving the press to dub it the ‘mirror with a memory’. The Daguerreotype invited holding, caressing and speaking to, had a physical presence in the world and were unique, so they had a direct indexical relationship with the sitter. As Geoffrey Batchen put it, “as a footprint is to a foot, so is a photograph to its referent.”[11] Roland Barthe makes much of photography’s relationship to its sitter in his book Camera Lucida. Getting closer to the metaphysical aspects of photography’s power as a ‘certificate of presence’, Barthe states:

“The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here…a sot of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze”[12]

This uniqueness of the object and its direct indexicality, created an increased emotional tie to the image at a time when death-rates, particularly in infants were high.  In the United States particularly this created a market for what is now referred to as mourning photography[13]. The commissioning of a mourning portrait could aid in the grief process so that the image of the deceased would help the family members to move on. These early portraits conveyed both a literal and a metaphoric impression that the deceased was still within the family. A contemporary commercial practitioner wrote in his memoir:

“Sometimes, and at the suggestion of the family, I have filled out the emaciated cheeks of dead people with cotton to make them look plump. The eyes are nearly always propped open with pins or mucilage, but when people can afford to engage an artist it is an easy matter to paint the eyes afterward.”[14]

Bazin, in his essay ‘The Ontology of The Photographic Image’, states that once we made representations of the dead so that the image would “help us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death.”[15] In this respect, nineteenth century Americans sought to embalm the dead through photography, maintaining the anthropocentric, utilitarian purpose set forth by their ancestors.

In modern psychoanalytical terms normal grief is typified by an ability to move on from the loss of a loved one and develop a new life for oneself outside of that shared with the deceased. Freud believed that “mourning has a quite specific task to perform: its function is to detach the survivors memories and hopes from the dead”[16] Whereas acute grief is described as an inability to disconnect oneself from the dead ‘Love-Object’. Sometimes a fixation on a fetish object can occur and the mourning photograph could serve as such in enabling a ‘turning away from reality’ toward a ‘hallucinatory wish-psychosis’[17] where the photograph becomes a fetishised replacement for the missing ‘Love-Object’.

The importance of touch as a part of the grief process in Victorian mourning photography is not to be underestimated and the need and ability for the mourner to hold and to touch these photographs is central to their ability to console and this clearly helped in their becoming a part of late-Nineteenth Century consumer life. “External symbols represented the physical memory of the deceased, which was especially important in the ‘searching’ period of grief, following the shock of death’[18]

This “conduit of memory”[19] is evident in certain Daguerreotypes, which show a family in mourning, holding another Daguerreotype of a deceased family member, showing that photography’s physicality stood as a totem of memory to many families. As Geoffrey Batchen writes, when we look at a photograph of a family looking at a photograph, it is to “acknowledge their sustenance of memory: someone may be gone but is certainly not forgotten.” The living want, in other words, “to be remembered as remembering”[20]

This last  point can also be applied just as effectively to family albums, which serve for the modern family a similar job to the nineteenth century mourning photograph. The tactility of the album invites us to sit quietly with a book. The contemplation of the images produces emotions in us but the tactility of turning the pages of a family album or scrapbook invites us to engage with them physically. The action of turning the pages reveals new images and invites us to explain each new image as it comes. “We touch and are touched”[21]

One album in my personal collection is a Victorian collection of snapshots taken around the 1890s through the turn of the century. It is a small book with a purple felt cover and the word ‘memories’ embossed into it. Inside are around 4-6 albumen print photographs per page – all feature the same child from a baby, held in her mother and fathers arms, then images of her as a young girl and eventually a young woman where -  assuming she is married or goes to university, the book finishes. One of the most striking aspects of this album is its commitment to a simple linearity – one person, one life. Most family albums and scrapbooks generally tend to be chaotic affairs, with images placed seemingly at random and over vastly different years. What strikes me about this album is the progressive logic of the images. Finally, one can imagine that upon the girl’s embarking upon her own life, this album would have provided a great deal of comfort for her parent’s whose source of joy and love she must have been for them to produce an album so intense and yet so complete.


From having a physical presence in the world, to being a direct referent of the sitter – the photograph and the collection are documents, recordings and objects in one.
Photographs speak to us, they offer us comfort through memories as we hold them in our hands and we speak to them in return. Lesy relates the mnemonic power of the snapshot to the petit madeleine of Proust’s Rememberence of Things Past in that on the surface they might seem as “banal as a teabiscuit”, but it is in their ability to conjure memories and a nostalgia for the past that their strength lies[22]. In this sense, Snapshots carry with them the weight and cultural power of Communion wafers, Sabbath candles or Eleusinian sheaves, in that they stand for something more powerful than their materiality, yet we don’t think of them as having the same rhetorical power[23]. These images have the ability to make us stop in our tracks as we recall a scene from our past. The various forms that photographs take, as discussed here - the Daguerreotype, the mourning photograph and the photographic album - all reveal what Alfred Gell refers to as “a congealed residue of performance and agency in object form” where we, as actors, hold the object, caress it and speak to it[24]. We engage with others and with our own past through the object. In this sense the photograph has agency as an object and its social use is informed by this agency. The visual experience of the possessor is informed in the way the photograph is used as an (social) object. Its social use is as important as any scroll or charter and should be thought of as equally important to our notion of society in the modern age. They are records of the things that have happened to us and the people we are connected to. In this respect a photograph is as important as a written document, as it displays more information than mere text. Michael Baxendall makes a similar argument for 15th century Italian paintings as social documents, stating that “approached in the proper way... the pictures become documents as valid as any charter or parish roll.”[25] A photograph is an object first, and secondly it is a carrier of information that gives us, based on our cultural understandings, information. Thirdly, and most particularly, it is a mnemonic device, and a time-machine.

“Taken together these approaches allow us to see the family photograph as a product of a specific kind of technology lodged in a certain ideological system and as a form of visual expression mediated through ideological rules of representation…..The meaning of a record is determined by the social and historical aspects of its form. Archivists must accept that the history of each physical form is central to understanding the meaning of records, including private records and records not based on words.”[26]


Alpers, Svetlana, ‘The Museum as a Way of Seeing’, in Exhibiting Cultures. The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, eds. Washington: Smithsonion Institution Press, 1991, pp.25-41

Batchen, Geoffrey, “Snapshots”, Photographies 1: 2, 121-142

Barthe, Roland, Camera Lucida, London: Vintage, 1993

Bazin, Andre, ‘The Ontology of The Photographic Image’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Summer, 1960), pp.4-9

Boon, James, A. “Why Museums Make Me Sad”, in Exhibiting Cultures. The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, eds. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, Washington: Smithsonion Institution Press, 1991, 255-277

Bown, Nicola, ‘Empty Hands and Precious Pictures: Post-mortem Portrait Photographs of Children’, Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies 14:2, 2009

Brothman, Brien, “Orders of Value: Probing the Theoretical Terms of Archival Practice.”, Archivaria 32 (Summer 1991): 78-100

Cook, Terry and Gordon Dodds; eds, Imagining Archives: Essays and Reflections by Hugh A, Taylor, Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2003

Duranti, Luciana, “Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science”, Archivaria 28 (Summer 1989), pp.7-27

Edwards, Elizabeth and Hart; eds, Photographs, Objects, Histories: On the Materiality of Images, Janice, London: Routledge, 2004

Freud, Sigmund, ‘On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia’, London: Penguin Books, 2005

Jay, Bill, ‘Momento Mori: Photographs of dead babies – the “positive” aspects of a tragic subject’, http://www.billjayonphotography.com/writings.html

Kaplan, Louis, ‘The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer’, Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008

Lesy Michael, ‘Time Frames’, New York: Pantheon Books, 1980

Lesy, Michael, ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’, New York: University of New Mexico Press, Random House Inc.,1973

Metz, Christian, ‘Photography and Fetish’, October, Vol. 34 (Autumn, 1985), pp.81-90

Nora, Pierre, “Les Lieux de Memoire”, Representations 26 (Spring 1989), 7-24

O’Donnell, Lorraine, “Towards Total Archives: The Form and Meaning of Photographic Records”, Archivaria 38 (Fall 1994): 105-118

Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984

[1] O’Donnell, Lorraine, “Towards Total Archives: The Form and Meaning of Photographic Records”, Archivaria 38 (Fall 1994): 105-118
[2] Holland quoted in O’Donnell, p.112
[3] Edwards, Elizabeth, Cited in Bown, Nicola, ‘Empty Hands and Precious Pictures…’ p.17
[4] “Archivists document the history of all society, and not just its elite; archivists should acquire all different forms of archival material; they should control the entire life cycle of records; and they should create archival networks” - Terry Cook, quoted in O’Donnell, p.106
[5] Duranti, Luciana, “Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science”, Archivaria 28 (Summer 1989)
[6] O’Donnell, p.107
[7] Ibid, p.107
[8] Duranti, “Diplomatics”
[9] Brothman, Brien, “Orders of Value: Probing the Theoretical Terms of Archival Practice.”, Archivaria 32 (Summer 1991), p.79
[10] Warren I. Susman in his introduction to Michael Lesy’s ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’. Emphasis mine.
[11] Batchen, Geoffrey, ‘Ere the Substance Fade’, in Edwards, Elizabeth and Hart; eds, Photographs, Objects, Histories…, p.40
[12] Barthe, Roland, Camera Lucida, London: Vintage, 1993, p.80, my emphasis.
[13] It is also referred to variously as post-mortem portraiture and memorial photography but here I use the term mourning photography.
[14] Cited in Jay, Bill, ‘Momento Mori: Photographs of…’ p. 5
[15] Bazin, Andre, ‘The Ontology of The Photographic Image’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Summer, 1960), p.4
[16] Freud, Sigmund, ‘Totem and Taboo’ in ‘On Murder Mourning and Melancholia’, p. 65
[17] Ibid, p. 212
[18] Jalland, Pat, Cited in Bown, Nicola, ‘Empty Hands and Precious Pictures…’, p. 8
[19] Ibid, p.15
[20] Batchen, Geoffrey, Cited in Flint, Kate, ‘Photographic Memory’, p. 3
[21] Bown, Nicola, ‘Empty Hands and Precious Pictures…’, p. 20
[22] Lesy Michael, ‘Time Frames’, New York, Pantheon Books, 1980, p, 12
[23] Ibid
[24] Gell, Alfred, quoted in EE sound of history, p.31
[25] Baxendall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy, p.152. My emphasis.
[26] O’Donnell, Lorraine, “Towards Total Archives: The Form and Meaning of Photographic Records”, Archivaria 38 (Fall 1994), p.113