Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

Looking at the Family Photo Album: A Resumed Theoretical Discussion of Why and How

Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

Looking at the Family Photo Album: A Resumed Theoretical Discussion of Why and How

Article excerpt

In the spring term 2014, I taught an MA level class called "Photography--art, medium, image" at the University of Copenhagen addressing MA students of art history, cultural studies, and visual culture. It was a survey course and when I talked about my own research on the family photo album and tried to inspire the students to study this kind of material, a few of them were strongly provoked by the fact that such material should be included on their curriculum. The rest showed great interest combined with frustration about what could be called lack of tools and theoretical framings. This article is written for them--and for colleagues from my own academic field, which is a combination of art history and aesthetical studies, cultural studies, and photography studies.

Family photography is one of the most common types of photography in terms of its sheer numbers. Yet even if most people in the Western world have created an album in one sense or another, at least since the early 1900s until the early 2000s when digital archiving took over, only recently has the family album entered survey histories of photography. Beaumont Newhall's influential The History of Photography , which has been through several editions since the 1930s and has served as a standard reader for generations of photography historians, does not mention the family album, for example.

In 2002, Mary Warner Marien's Photography: A Cultural History declared war on Newhall's writing of photographic history in fine-artistic terms. She wanted to investigate the medium of photography across all genres and explore the boundaries between amateurs and professionals. The 530-page long, richly illustrated book, towards the end, contains a small section headed "Family Pictures." Here the genre is described almost exclusively with the following sentences: "The content of family photographs was dominated by celebratory occasions, such as weddings, birthdays, and vacations. Few families resolutely set out to record the look of everyday life, such as messy kitchens and unmade beds. Fewer still made visual records of emotionally trying times, or used the camera for psychological self-study or therapy."1

We all know stories about people who saved the family photo album as the most cherished object when they fled from their burning house. Most people agree that family photos represent "something emotional" for the individual owner, no matter what the images actually show: staged ritual events or snapshots of the everyday.

Apart from inspiring my students and colleagues from my own field, a central goal of this article is to challenge Marien's rather definitive statement by enhancing that family photos contain emotional, psychological, and affective qualities that reach further than the individual owner and that should be put forward, in histories of photography as well as in more thorough and specialized academic analysis. Marien's survey history, like most other national and international histories of photography, does not find family albums interesting enough to deal with extensively, or she (like so many other scholars) may simply not know what to make of these "large image collections," as she calls them.2Photography: A Cultural History thus continues to discuss artists whose work is inspired by family photographs; these examples dominate the remainder of the book's 15-page section on this vernacular genre.


Until recently the history and theory of photography have been especially concerned with what a photograph is , rather than with looking at what a photograph does .3 Family photography has most often been regarded as a ritualized and deeply ideological bourgeois self-representation. Geoffrey Batchen is one of the newer pioneers in photography research to take an interest in family photography. In an essay from 2008, he observed that "they don't easily fit into a historical narrative still anxiously, insecurely, focused on originality, innovation, and individualism. …

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