Abstraction again

Marianne Hirsch makes a number of interesting observations on personal connection to the family album, which allows me to make a start on this project. Hirsch is looking at an image of her mother and grandmother, finding it challenging to really study it, owing to her connection to the people in it: “Perhaps it is the familial look itself that makes it difficult to read this picture which will not reveal any identifiable truth” (1997, p. 104). Although I don’t think that Hirsch believes that there is an objective truth that can be found within the image as she is quick to remind us that:

“Photographs are exciting and helpful because of their ambiguity, because of the reading they demand, because they do no transparently offer a single truth”

(p. 75)

Hirsch is suggesting that the task of ‘reading’ is made all the more challenging because of the emotional connection to the photograph. This of course is something that I need to seriously consider too, working with my own family archive of images that I have seen many times before and also some of the existing stories that accompany them. Hirsch does offer some insight into this, as when referring to Cindy Sherman use of titles, she notes:

“They refuse to participate in the narrative frameworks with which we are comfortable and instead insist on existing in the space of their production”

(p. 111)
Figure 1: Cindy Sherman (1981) Untitled Film Still #34
Figure 2: Unknown (1970s) Accidental panorama – film wind error

Sherman creates ambiguity by removing any sort of descriptive title for her images, which creates opportunity for audiences to create their own meaning (fig: 1), and whilst I was going through my own family’s archive of images, I have found a series of what would be perceived as ‘mistakes’ – those images that did not make it into the album (Fig: 2). However, although there are plenty of technical errors omitted from the ‘edit,’ there are plenty of images in the album that would still be considered the same: exposure, cropping etc. Not that I am particularly interested in the judging of technical qualities of images in terms of why they make it into a photo album, it does highlight the importance of the content of some images over others. Again, Hirsch offers a reasoning behind this as well:

“Family albums include those images on which family members can agree and which tell a shared story. Pictures that diverge from then communal narrative tend to be discarded as ‘bad’ or ‘unrepresentative’”

(p. 107)
Figure 3: Unknown (1960s) Manual Intervention photograph from family archive.

That said, one of the reasons for my interest in my own archive are the so called ‘manual intervention photographs’ (Maucci, 2020), which Interrupt this shared narrative even further (Fig: 3). It is what is not being shown that becomes even more intriguing than what is readily consumable within then fading albums. This is much like the ‘Winter Garden’ image of Roland Barthes’ mother described by Barthes in Camera Lucida (1993) but never ever seen, and may never have existed at all – perhaps used by Barthes as a tool to show the pervasiveness of the image to supplant memory (Photoworks, 2013). Hirsch uses this as an example to make a point about family secrets, which I feel is incredibly valid (even if the Barthes’ Winter Garden Image never existed):

“Barthes refusal to show us his mother’s picture, are designed to keep family’s secrets and protect it from public scrutiny”

(1997, p. 107)

It shows us that what we don’t see is just as important to those presenting the images as for those reading the images.

There is a real interest in what we choose to exclude. This has appeared in my research before, even from Barthes’ when speaking about the way that we live together within our communities but also very much separately. Barthes’ here perhaps offers a reasoning behind why my own family chose to keep ‘manual intervention photographs’ within the album, knowing that this would lead to further questions: “What’s excluded is included, but retains its status as excluded. It’s the contradictory status of the pariah: rejected and integrated, integrated as a reject” (2012, p. 81). As I am in the early stages of my investigation into my family archive, I have yet to closely look at the reasons why the ‘manual intervention images’ exist. I am interested in the images that have not made the edit but still remain in the print envelopes, so have chosen to focus on these first.

Twin Check
Figure 4: Parrallax Photographic (2021) Twin Check Label for photo processing.
Figure 5: Unknown (1970s) Twin Stamp Label over image.

There have been quite a few images in the archive that are obscured by the label that the processing lab would have attached prior to the film going through the machines (Fig: 4). Interestingly, some of the numbers from what is known as a ‘Twin Check’ label have ingrained themselves onto the first, or last images of the roll of film (Fig:5). I am drawn to these images, they instantly remind me of Hirsch’s comment of Sherman’s image titles – merely referring to the means in which these images are produced. The labels are a direct link to this production. They also provide a direct link to how the production is linked to ideas of memory, Twin check labels are a way of matching up the processed film to the owner of it once it has been processed. Here I have a visual means of highlighting the way that the family album is a poor keeper of memories. I am moving towards this more and more as a way of exploring my core themes. Abstraction and obscure images provide the ambiguity to remove my own personal connections (albeit no fully), and allow multiple readings of them, which is important if I am to construct my own narrative as the project develops.


Barthes, R., 1993. Camera Lucida. London: Vintage.

Barthes, R., 2012. How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of some Everyday Spaces. Translation ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hirsch, M., 1997. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. 2012 Reissue ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Maucci, Q., 2020. London College of Communication: Family Narratives & Working With Archives. London: London College of Communication.

Photoworks, 2013. The Great Unknown. [Online]Available at: https://photoworks.org.uk/great-unknown/ [Accessed 07 February 2021].

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