On the surface the family photograph is a medium of representation, chronicling family rituals and memorialising a moment in the private history of the family; it is a trace that links directly back to event that it records.
The reality differs somewhat from this conjecture, it perpetuates the myth of the idealised family and panders to the social conventions of its time. They can be more an outward display of a wish for the cohesive family or the exemplary recreational activities whist the underlying tensions or anxieties are unacknowledged.
Roland Barthes interrogates our reading of photographs, the reference and indexical relationship to the past reality. He talks of the photograph as being ‘a message without a code’. Walter Benjamin also suggested the hidden meanings to be unlocked in the photograph ‘the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses’.
Many films investigate the clues present in the innocuous photograph. Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-up looks at the evidence to a murder hidden in an image.Terence Davies’ Distant Voices Still Lives portrays the underlying tensions in a family not seen in the family snaps. Before I Go To Sleep, directed by Rowan Joffe, uses photographs to piece together the life of an amnesiac. Stephen Poliakoff’s Perfect Strangers, the family photographs are a trigger to discover hidden histories.
My interest in the family photograph started out as a personal search for lost family histories but soon evolved into a fascination with the generic qualities of the photograph. I began to search though unknown family albums that still held the same qualities and similarities. An important part of this looking became the sifting and retrieval of information. In my work I have started to look at this filtering out and at how much information is needed for the images to still be triggers and repositories of memories.
Collage is a way of bringing interventions into the photographs without changing the fabric of the original image.
Collage mixing up has become part of our daily stimuli so we can visually link disparate images and unify the separate to create a whole. It is a way of reinventing the past by linking historical moments. The selection and editing that is involved in creating these photomontages reduce any emotional attachment or identifying with the images and they all take on the characteristics of the generic family photograph. I prefer to cut and paste the images by hand rather than digitally, as the materiality of handling the photographs is still important to me. Dan Coombs uses collages to construct images he paints from, so freeing up the process of creating compositions. Tom Wesselman uses collage to build scenes for his drawn figures, like a set designer.
The process is an important part of how I make my paintings. I first select from a large number of family photographs, both known and unknown to me.
I then photocopy them so that they are all monotone and it starts the distancing from the source material. Next, I collage images together so that there is a destabilizing of the image and perspective, and a merging of the frozen moments. The seams are visible but not dominant. I photograph the collage and transcribe this into a painting. As in John Stezaker’s Mask series, neither image carries more weight in the overall picture than the other. Using these collages I paint on small aluminium surfaces, bringing back muted colours that vary on each splice, helping to retain the fissure in the image.
This loaded word requires some unpacking. In my practice I am interested in triggers for memory, in particular the memories evoked by a photograph. These do not come solely from the image but they are also generated in an intertext of discourses shifting from the present and the past combined.
They are dependant on the viewer and on cultural and historical contexts. The image serves as a clue or key.
Where current thinking is now, as discussed in Jonathan K. Foster's Memory, we are increasingly aware of the fallibility of memory. These photographic triggers can facilitate cued recall, memory retrieval with a prompt, but it can also introduce distortion. There is also the phenomenon of false memory, one can be encouraged to remember something if it is linked to similar information or suggestion. According to the Psychologist Alan David Baddeley in his paper on working memory, it also has a further component, the episodic buffer. This allows us to extrapolate and change scenarios and create new scenarios by drawing on and adapting from our long-term memories. This all brings into play the blurring between which memories are of real events and which are generated from imaginary sources It becomes difficult to identify and distinguish external memories from internally generated ones.
In Synthesis I have drawn on these ideas about memory by presenting familiar scenes to facilitate the cued recall; there are scenes to build up a narrative but allow the viewer to bring in their imagination, and there is repetition, a way we use to help fix memories.
The Materiality of the Photograph
Photographs have become more and more detached from their physicality as it could be seen of as a distraction from their function as holders of the image. In the digital age it is almost as if they have lost their materiality altogether, as they are seen fleetingly on phones and screens so feel less able to retain the imprint of their source. The printed photograph is an anachronism and is becoming scarce.
When the photograph is an object it carries with it the wear and tear of human contact and indication of time passing. It has a symbiotic relationship with its method of display, the postcard, the locket, the frame, the album or even the shelf or on top of the television.
Jo Spence writes about the spaces used to display family photographs - they are a material presentation of the photograph as object. Rifling through boxes of photos and albums is a family activity that is repeated and repeated and comes with the stories that accompany them. The photograph was also seen as a keepsake and could be handled and held so it becomes a tactile as well as optical object.
The method of producing photographs has changed as technology has advanced and that has affected the physical make up of photographs.
My choice of painting on metal is referring back to the daguerreotype and early metal plates used to produce photographs. It has a solidity and permanence that is contrary to digital; it returns the image to object.
How my series of paintings is displayed has become an important part of the visual impact of the work.
In Album the paintings were dispersed around the space so that they could be ‘found’ among the other work on display. This scattering fed into the idea that they were single moments or memories. The individual pieces still related to each other, being drawn together by scale, tone and content, but could also be seen as stand alone works.
With Recollections the works were displayed closer together on one wall space, with careful selection in the placing. Some were put together in pairs so that there started to be a relationship read between elements in the images.
In Synthesis the series is displayed along, above and below a slanted shelf, a nod to the domestic origins, the album, but also to the archive. The paintings are seen in small groupings. There is a familiarity in seeing photographs with others - whether in an album, in frames or more recently on social media on computer or phone.
By leaving blanks or pauses, this also gives a break in the reading of a narrative between the images and emulates misplaced photos and missing memories.
The scale of the paintings has been an important consideration in my work. Using source material where the dimensions can be as small as a playing card, encourages an intimacy in the viewing, and I have tried to emulate this in my work.
Hearing art historian and critic Dr Virginia Whiles, give an ethnographic perspective on Pakistan’s School of Miniature Painting in the National College of Art in Lahore, and visiting Imran Qureshi’s exhibition at the Barbican, it was fascinating to learn about the divergence between the traditional and contemporary practice of miniature.
I have been influenced by Pamela Golden’s work. She paints on a small scale in oil and encaustic, often as tiny as 8 x 5 cm. Modernism has been associated with monumentality and working in these compact proportions is counter to this.
In On Longing Susan Stewart writes ‘The miniature offers closure of the tableau, a spatial closure which offers up the vocality of the signs it displays’.
Though diminutive in size the small painting can have a large impact.