Sunday, 12 April 2009

Stick It In The Family Album Part II

I mentioned a while ago that I had been approached by a gallery in Innsbruck (from whom, btw, I have heard nothing since -- the ways of galleries are very strange ... Maybe it was someone's idea of a joke, after all?). Anyway, as I had recently inherited the family photo hoard, this prompted me to look out the album of snaps from our holidays in the Austrian Tyrol in 1965 and 1966.

What I found was interesting, in several ways. First, more of the photographs than I was expecting had been taken by me. Clearly so, as many were of my parents, or of the things I alone had found interesting (I had a thing about Austrian graveyards, with their elaborate wrought iron crosses and little photographs of the deceased), or of my parents standing in front of the things I had found interesting, or pointing at those interesting things, and relatively few were of me.

Now, it's true, there does seem to be a Law of Parenthood that decrees children are no longer considered photogenic after their 10th birthday. I've noticed it myself. It had become an annual ritual to gather together the twelve best shots of our kids to make up a yearly calendar for the grandparents. In the early years, I had an embarrassment of riches: smiling toddlers doing cute things were spread thick and deep and even across the year, and making a final cut was quite hard work. But in more recent years -- despite the sheer volume of my photographic activity -- the challenge was simply to find twelve decent photos of the kids, never mind the twelve "best" shots taken in appropriate months and/or weather. I could speculate why this is but, let's be honest, scowling tweenies and teenagers who howl or gurn grotesquely whenever a camera-toting parent hauls into view are best left to the professionals.

We're all looking forward to Wales next week!

The second interesting thing was that my reading of these familiar images has changed. My sister -- eight years older -- had recently flown the nest and, in retrospect, it's clear we had been profoundly unsettled by this. These were the first holidays taken without her, and her absence had deconstructed us from "a family" into what the photos now reveal to me: a tired and preoccupied middle-aged couple with a precocious and neurotic pre-adolescent boy in tow. It can take 40 odd years for plain old reality to shine through, sometimes. I felt a real pang of fellow feeling for those two, actually rather younger in those pictures than I am now.

The third thing was that I found quite a few commercially-produced duplicated slides, originally bought in packs at tourist spots. I had forgotten about this adjunct to the postcard racks, and I imagine it's an outlet for local professionals that has no contemporary equivalent. Does anyone now buy memory sticks or CDs with ready-made views of the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Roof in Innsbruck? Assuming the answer is No, it's an interesting question why this should be. Partly to do with the loss of control over copyright inherent in digital imaging, I imagine, and partly to do with the easy availability of stock imagery on the Web (which has seen a corresponding decline in income for professionals from stock photo agencies). But largely to do with the blessed decline in the holiday slide show session. It's curious how the expression "slide show" has survived into the digital age, and escaped its association with suburban tedium in a darkened room: the ker-shlik sound of a carousel has become as nostalgic (indeed, as skeuomorphic) as the racy whir of a motor drive. Actually, virtually no-one used to own a motor drive, but the sound became universally attached to "taking a photograph" because it made such a groovy sound on TV and film soundtracks.

These slides made me think about the difficulty of getting past the obvious, photographically, when visiting somewhere unfamiliar. The sheer talent of, say, a National Geographic or Magnum photographer, hitting the airport tarmac with a few weeks to produce world-class images of somewhere utterly foreign under less than ideal conditions is simply awe-inspiring. Any keen photographer knows the more usual arc -- the miraculous first few images of first contact are followed by the disappointing next few hundred, as you rediscover every cliche in the photo equivalent of "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." Most of us never get beyond this stage; it's one reason why postcards will still be selling in Lunar and Martian giftshops.

But the curious thing about family snapshots (and by extension that whole area of photographic interest known as vernacular or "found" photographs i.e. photos which have fallen out of their albums) is the way the repeated ritual meeting of camera and family occasion has generated sub-genres which are common to thousands of albums, the contents of which are as private but as similar to each other as bank accounts. Sitting in a deckchair; standing in an alcove being a statue; admiring a view, posed ironically like explorers; giggling over an icecream -- little pauses of self-consciousness in a holiday, when the camera came out, and everyone conceded to go on the record. One for the album.

People do change, though, like fashions. I think it used to be more common to develop and practice a social "camera" smile-- it was part of being well turned out. My father had a particularly wolfish toothy grin for the camera which I never saw him use in real life until the first time we went in a pub together, when he used it on the barman to useful effect. I then realised that we were being actors in a film from the 1940s.

My mother, on the other hand, hated being photographed and developed a particular frozen half-smile, coupled with a thousand yard stare, which I tried to avoid photographing and which I also never saw her use in real life until she was overtaken by dementia, and then her expression rarely changed to anything else. It was as if she had lost track of whether she was in front of a camera or not, and was keeping her face on just in case. Not being, at heart, a proper photographer, I never photographed her again from that point on, and destroyed any photographs well-meaning relatives sent me. The album was already complete, as far as I was concerned.

Grandmother & grandson, ca. 1993

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