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Dialogues

The video above documents the online talk ‘the doing and the unfixing of family photographs’ with Annebella Pollen and Rachel Maloney from 9 September 2021. Please find a PDF of the slides here.

Below is a commissioned essay written by Annebella Pollen to accompany the exhibition.

Paper, Scissors, Glue: Doing and Undoing Family Photographs, On and Off the Page.

By Annebella Pollen

Family photographs, as the cultural geographer Gillian Rose has described them, not only comprise a certain type of subject matter (the depiction of family members) but they are objects with which a certain set of practices are done (the performance of familial relationships). The doing of family photography can include making, keeping, arranging, displaying, sharing and narrating. These acts create and animate family photographs as miniature representations of who we are and how we connect to one another. This is an intensely gendered matter; photographic practices of relationship maintenance and performance have long been associated with women. Family photograph albums, too, have been an enduringly female domain. Their pages offer spaces where familial order and sequence, togetherness and grouping, are laid out for personal pleasure and public scrutiny. In the 1860s and 1870s, in Britain, these practices took on a distinctive character. The increasing availability of high street studio portraiture, in the form of cartes-de-visite photographs, enabled the new and widespread depiction of friends, lovers and relations. Albums with pre-cut apertures enabled their owners to slot faces and bodies into familial arrangements and also into juxtapositions with celebrities and dignitaries, whose cartes could also be purchased for a few pennies. The album became a place of record but also one of imagination and possibility.

This was especially the case in the hands of album-makers who played with the creative dimensions of albums’ pages and made their own settings with scissors and paint, pressed flowers and paper. These proto-collagists, mostly well-to-do Victorian women, cut the heads from photographic portraits and floated them in soap bubbles, took sitters out of their armchairs and mounted them on horseback or clustered them in imagined landscapes. The Burnip album, c.1870, in the Victoria and Albert Museum collections, embodies this feminine creative play. On one page, a photograph of a tousle-haired infant rests serenely on a painted lily pad in a pond. On another, the formal interior of a photographic studio is brought into the wild by a hand-painted frame of insects and plants. The identities and relationships of the toddler on the knee of an adult man have been lost, and the photograph is spotted with age and has become torn over time, but the wild strawberries and butterflies that encircle them retain their freshness. The red leather album includes family portraits alongside military and royal figures, and its cover is embossed with the name Mary. Beyond these golden capitals, no more of the maker’s history is known, but the tenderness and care she felt towards those depicted is evident in the album’s visual and material embellishments.

The artist Rachel Maloney, for her 2019-21 University of Brighton / V&A Research Institute Research Fellowship, began with the Burnip album. She asked: How might the female spaces and practices of historic family photograph albums create new opportunities for thinking about transgenerational memory? How might their power and potential as imaginative spaces for the rethinking of relationships provide insight into overlooked female narratives, past and present? How might the doing of family photography, as a practice, reactivate old stories and enable new ways of telling? Ultimately, she wondered if, through these explorations, she could locate a kind of matriarchive.

For Maloney, the process firstly involved revisiting her own family photographs, specifically an album compiled by her great-grandmother, Beatrice Mary Bradley, in the 1910s, alongside other inherited items from maternal family collections including a flower press, floral silk scarf and red jewelled brooch. These were disparate remnants, but for Maloney they became artistic tools. She brought them together in a range of new creative forms including floral photographic close-ups and a 16mm short monochrome film that layered the textures of photographs and textiles with interspersed footage of the sea’s turning tides. This meditative piece, entitled The Unfixed, encapsulates the impossibility of reconstituting memories but also of the power of personal photographs and worn objects. Both are intensely peopled things. When they narrate the complexity of family dynamics, they are further invested.

A key aspect of Maloney’s investigation has been to work with family photographs and stories though public workshops. These were intended to be in-person but took place online during the pandemic. A key concern was how the materiality of photographs could be conveyed on computer screens. Remote videoconferencing proved surprisingly advantageous, however, as participants discussed domestic collections in their own homes. The stories were all the more profound for being produced in times of social distancing, where families could be a long way away. The memories shared, as family memories often are, were complex, and ranged from the joyful to the sorrowful. Participants spoke of photographs carefully treasured and others stolen or ripped apart.

Working with family photographs, historic or contemporary, is always a reflective exercise. In writing this piece, I am implicated. I recall the album my mother compiled in the 1970s, one hundred years after the Burnip example. Its form was modest compared to the leather museum artefact, but it had some surprising resonances. Its cushioned plastic covers featured a photograph of the Queen to mark the Silver Jubilee, so the royal family was still present. Inside, cellophane pages could be lifted to position prints on the sticky backing beneath. The mounts were lined like an exercise book, suggesting a more regulated space than the Burnip’s blank pages. In the 1970s album, photographs were to be positioned between the lines rather than arranged freestyle. But there was still cutting (my mother sliced herself out from several prints, feeling she was too fat to be seen) and tearing, on my part, as I destroyed a humiliating photograph my father took of me, aged four, crying jealously at my sister’s First Holy Communion.

As one of five children, I squabbled constantly with my siblings about family hierarchies. My mother forbade us from lifting the albums’ cellophane sheets, worried that the pages would lose their glue, but we regularly rearranged the photographs to narrate our lives the way we wished them to be. Those albums are long lost, and their photographs dispersed, as my parents died decades ago, but when my daughter was born, I found similar albums second-hand, with plump cushioned covers and plastic-coated pages. Their stickiness had dried up, but I filled them with family photographs nonetheless. The prints slide about every time they are moved, suggesting new arrangements and new sequences. I leave them deliberately unfixed so their meaning remains mobile.

Dr Annebella Pollen,
Reader in the History of Art and Design,
University of Brighton, July 2021

 

About Bella:

Annebella Pollen is Reader in the History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton. She regularly writes about photography, especially about vernacular photography, for the photographic press as well as for academic audiences. Her books include Mass Photography: Collective Histories of Everyday Life, about an archive of 55,000 amateur crowdsourced photographs all taken on one day in 1987, and her new book, Nudism in a Cold Climate, is a study of nude photography in Britain since the 1930s. She has written the essay to accompany The Matriarchive exhibition.

About Rachel:

Rachel Maloney is an artist and researcher and currently works as a Technical Demonstrator in Photography at the University of Brighton. In October 2019 Rachel began a Research Fellowship in partnership with the University of Brighton and the V&A Research Institute (VARI). This project aimed to investigate and re-frame the female narrative of domestic photographic materials from the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) collection held in the V&A archives, in the hope of uncovering the often-marginalised memories and experiences of women in the home. The project was paused in March 2020 during the 1st national lockdown in the UK and restarted in January 2021.

 

Further links and resources:

The Matriarchive blog

V&A Museum Explore the Collections. The Burnip Album

Annebella Pollen

Rachel Maloney website

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