I made an entry into exhibiting my work at the next Belfast Photo. This was an early stage of the project and I was keen to consider the idea and create a statement of my submission to frame it as a starting point. The work is evolving, as expected, as I work through the archive and also start to react and respond to the images. Since this submission, I have also made submissions to two further photography festivals – Helsinki Photo, and Copenhagen Photo.
All three festivals have a different theme in order to develop each iteration of the work. I did question whether I should be submitting work to these festivals at a stage in the project where I am still experimenting and working through the materials and each of the submissions I have made is a variation and changed project from the last. However, the core of my concept being the unreliable narrator, I quite enjoy the idea of potentially being selected for more than one of these festivals and having the same project in different iterations exhibited at the same time, which really feeds the unreliable nature of the work. Of course, that is quite the long shot but it does create an opportunity to think more about the idea of iteration and how my outcome, if producing more than one, could be different and unique to the others in order to undermine the experience of each person reading it. I imagine, that if it were possible to produce a book that contained a number of wholly unique elements that two persons coming together to talk about the work might bring completely different readings of the work.
Now that I have collected together a range of images from my archive and created a number of experiments with the images, I thought that it would be a useful exercise to create a small book dummy to see how these elements might come together.
I aimed with the dummy to create physical ways of connecting the reader of the work with some of the themes that are running through the project so far. Themes of correspondence have started to run through the work as I piece together the narrative and also in the way that I have started to create letters and messages to reach out to family members (Fig: 1).
Figure 1: Phil Hill (March, 2021) ‘Unreliable Narrator’ Book Dummy version 1 spreads.
The use of carbon copy paper has become an interesting way to create links in the way that the photograph is indexical. The copy is also an indexical link to the object that it copies – usually a letter or some other kind of physical media. From the rubbings that I made, I decided to place a sheet within the book (Fig: 2&3). This creates an interesting page to look at and I could potentially use it to display either a rubbing or one of the copied letters and text that I have been working on. The carbon paper acts as a ‘memory’ of the letter, which creates a link to the idea of indexical and memory in my work. It also is an abstracted version of the original, another step removed from the object that it copies – much like the photograph. Another interesting use of the paper is the way that it continues to change and leave impression from anything that applies pressure, which is translated to the opposite page. I quite like this as an ongoing changing process in a book. Usually, the book is linear and static however, the use of carbon copy paper means that it is forever changing, much like a family narrative from an unreliable narrator might change their version of events.
A future version of the book could include a page opposite a blank sheet to show this transfer across.
Alternative to this method and possibly less destructive might be to continue to create a photographic reaction to the carbon copy paper in the same way as I have been working on with the back lit versions
It might also be possible to create an acetate version of the carbon copy paper and screen print it, which further abstracts the process and gives a higher level of craft to the book making process.
I have continued to apply ways in which I can create more physicality with the work. The images from my families archive are mainly based in the late 70s and the 1980s. My own memories of this are also from the 80s and based in the 90s. Aesthetically, there is an opportunity to reference the period in as many ways as I can, through the use of design, typeface, and materials. A typewriter is firmly rooted in this time period and I also have memories of them around the time that I did have a relationship with my grandmother (Fig: 4&5).
The typewriter creates a physical link to the person typing and the outcome of the letter (or other material). Of course, there would be more of a link to a handwritten letter, however, within the archive that I am going through, there are many typed documents too. There is an official nature to the typed document, which links to ideas of state and narrative and it also works really well with the carbon copy paper (as it was designed).
There are really nice aesthetic and conceptual links to my project in the use of the typewriter.
Basildon Bond Letter paper.
I started to use this to create my correspondence. In continuing to explore this, I then produced a number of images printed onto the paper using a laser printer, which creates a photocopied aesthetic. This in itself connects to the archive and indexical links to the object being recorded. I also quite enjoy the way that this creates another level of abstraction to confuse and obscure the image – and also the inherent narrative.
I have photographed these photographs by backlighting the paper to show the grain if the paper and also the watermark within the page (Fig: 6). For the dummy, I decided to include sheets of the Basildon bond paper from the letters I have written and also the images (Fig: 7). I like the idea of including different paper stock into the publication with the potential to lead to new discoveries each time that you review it. Having both letters and images on the same paper stock creates links between them in the way that I am purposefully utilising letter writing material.
The use if Basildon Bond places additional links to the decade that the images are coming from. The paper stock is very ‘of its time’ and people from the era would be very familiar with the use of it in comedic sketched by Russ Abbot, for example. My use of it might serve to continue to link to the time period of my family album and a kind of surreal and farcical nature to some of the materials in the archive. Basildon Bond paper was a way of projecting an air of quality to the recipient of the letter – it is quite a middle-class object, even if the person was not.
Further research might be useful however, to determine whether I could use this for publication and any copyright issues that might arise from the use of the watermark.
One of the main areas of interest I have had in the archive is in the ‘manual intervention’ photograph. The intrigue and mystery of what might be in the part of these photograph that has been cut out is something that I want to explore.
For this book dummy, decided to tear one edge of the booklet as if there was additional information outside of it (Fig: 8). I quite like the finish of this and there could be great potential in including something like this in the resulting book dummy. The impact of what I am trying to achieve with the tear is lost somewhat when the whole book is torn. It almost appears as a ‘Deckle edge’ that is seen in some paperback books (Fig: 9). Instead, I may aim to look into individual pages or groups of pages to create additional intrigue and mystery. This would work to serve the overall narrative and impact of the book.
Within the archive there was an album with the majority of images removed (Fig: 9). I like the way that this creates additional intrigue as to what might have been there in a similar way to the cut image. I also noted the absence of the image says as much, if not more regarding the context on its removal than any benign image that might have been there. The still life of the page also created an interesting photographic object of the empty pages and how the glue and sugar paper page has been damaged from the photographs removal.
I created an experiment where I glued a piece of paper to the cover of the dummy and then carefully removed it to reveal a similar trace to the ones left in the ‘snapshots’ album connecting the dummy to those images and also referencing the mystery once again (Fig: 10). With the project themes of unreliable narration, there is definitely information and confusion to be sort from the absence of images as much as the ones that are on display – also linking to an absence of memory.
I was quite pleased with the result of this experiment. It works well to feel the concept and ideas. It also creates a unique object in the way that the removal of the image degrades the page. If I make more than one dummy, each one will be slightly different, much like the way that the carbon page will do the same and again feeding the idea of how unreliable the narration and narrative is.
The book has been bound using a Japanese stab binding method (Fig: 11), which allowed me to piece together the different materials into one publication (Fig: 12). If I am to do this as a final outcome however, I will need to refine this process. Already, I understand the need to use a good book binding vice to keep the pages together and bind it neatly. I also would need to look at methods of uniformly cutting the edges that are supposed to be straight. The tutorial that I followed suggested that the margin needs to be quite wide, however I have overcompensated leading to the margin being far too wide to view the content. The method is quite useful as a way of putting together a book of this type and could lead to some quite aesthetic ways of sewing it. It is essentially a ‘perfect bound’ binding and could also be utilised as a way of streamlining the process or considering the cost and time of producing many.
I have become quite interested in why you would choose to keep an image that has been abruptly ‘edited’ and continue to display such an image within the context of the family album.
These images have been referred to by Quetzal Maucci as a ‘Manual Intervention Photograph’ (MIP) in that they have been visibly changed by the act of cutting, drawing, scratching, tearing etc. Is this some kind of Freudian ‘Death Drive’ of self-destruction that seeks to cause confrontation with those removed from the image? (Derrida, 1995, p. 14).
Liz Wells notes: “The photographs we keep for ourselves are treasured less for their quality than for their context, and for the part they play in confirming and challenging the identity and history of their users” (2004, p. 117). This is a way of understanding the MIP as a way of shaping the narrative, informing the identity of the person making these forms of ‘edits’ to photographs – a form of self-appointed control of self-identity over the person or persons within the photograph. To its most extreme, an MIP highlights the violence and trauma that exists outside of the frame and represents it through the physicality of the photograph. The political hierarchy of the family album having been irrevocably disrupted. The MIP brings this to the forefront of the image reading in a very overt way, even if there are no answers for this intervention, the emotive act of distressing the image is laid bare.
Yet, even if the image had not been distressed, the influence and pressure of a situation outside of the frame still remains, as Wells goes on to remind us: “Personal pictures are deeply unreliable, but that is where their interest lies” (p. 118). MIPs are even a paradox of Well’s statement: on the one hand they are relatively more reliable, providing some additional information to a situation and context existent around them. However, they are still not reliable enough for anyone unaware or outside of this to understand, leading to additional questions, possibly more than if the image was merely left as is. Family photographs are read as innocuous, generic and harmless for most, and the inclusion of an MIP within this context brings these benign pleasantries to a crashing halt. As Marianne Hirsch discusses images left after the holocaust: “And it is precisely the utter conventionality of the domestic family picture that makes it impossible to comprehend how the person in the picture was, or could have been, annihilated. In both cases, the viewer fills in what the picture leaves out: the horror of looking is not necessarily in the image but the story the viewer provides to fill in what has been omitted” (1997, p. 21). A photograph on its own is never enough to grasp the reality of what is happening outside the frame. However, by manually intervening with the photograph any benign reading of the it is irrevocably interrupted.
Questions raised by MIPs, maybe uncomfortable ones. Would it not be better to have just removed the whole image from the album instead? This could depend on the expected audience for the album. When I look at the MIP images in my parents archive, I wonder who the person cut from the image is, however, my parents already know. Personal photography is rarely consumed or even understood outside of the nuclear family. Within, it is offered as a ‘greatest hits’ collection of idealised moments curated from, for example, holidays and events that bring them together. From this, we can consider the family as a form of ‘state’ aiming to provide an ‘official’ narrative to look back and be reminded of the good times. Family albums are not meant for anyone outside of it and the difficulty in decoding and trying understand nuances of an individual family structure is the reason why Barthes chooses not to show us the image of his mother – only he can appreciate the complexities of this image and its meaning to him (Hirsch, 1997, p. 2). It could then be assumed that the inclusion of a MIP is there as a reminder to the person that made the intervention and for no one else to see it.
But why? What value is there in keeping the image have over removing it fully? Potentially, there are elements of Identity, power and control at play here. Without knowing the reasons for the MIP, I can only speculate[i] however, it is quite a powerful thing to physically remove someone from the record, as seen in photographs of the soviet era (Fig: 1), and maybe it is the only meaningful way that this can be enacted when unable to do so in real life. The disrupted photograph becomes the manifestation of a form of control and power for the powerless. Michel Foucault argues that the only real power is sovereign power (Koopman, 2017) and sovereignty over one’s own archive of personal and family photography is key to understand why such a photograph would continue to exist within it. You have the complete power to do with what you will with the images that you possess and in private to take satisfaction that you have enacted this control.
Figure 1: Getty (1930s) Nikolai Yezhov, pictured right of Stalin, was later removed from this photograph at the Moscow Canal.
How does this translate into the way others see these images? The narrative is select and defined by a few parameters set by the archivist, or the person who puts together the album. If context and information is needed, then it is sort from the person who put the album together. When I first went through my family album, I briefly asked why there was a number of photographs with parts missing. The answer I received from my dad was that they were out of focus on that side however, on looking through the negatives I found one of the images (Fig: 2) that was being referred to, which was technically ok. This creates more questions about the images, which I intend to unpack further with both my parents.
Hirsch’s discussion of Post memory is also important to include in the evaluation of photography as an unreliable narrator. Specifically, it notes the distance of generations and history on those having the narrative relayed to them (1997, p. 22), creating opportunities for elements such as bias and personal subjectivity to enter into the narrative. Photography’s flawed position as an objective record of events also impacts this. Photography can be considered an unreliable narrator in itself by applying Wayne C. Booth use of distance (1975, p. 156), stating that a narrator [or photography in my use of the term] may be distant from authors, characters [or subjects], and even the readers own norms [considering Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ (1977, pp. 142-149)].
[i] I do intend on interviewing those who made the image in the case of my own family album
Barthes, R., 1977. Death of the Author. In: Image, Music, Text. New York: Fontana, pp. 142-149.
Booth, W. C., 1975. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 11 ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Derrida, J., 1995. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Diacritics, 25(2), pp. 9-63.
Hirsch, M., 1997. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. 2012 Reissue ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Koopman, C., 2017. The power thinker. [Online] Available at: https://aeon.co/essays/why-foucaults-work-on-power-is-more-important-than-ever [Accessed 12 March 2021].
At the end of the surfaces and strategies module, I pitched my project to Out of Place books who were interested in turning it into a small book. The aims of my project about place fit quite well with the ethos of Out of Place, so it felt like a good place to publish this project. Start to finish, the book took the whole of the next module to put together and publish, partly due to the pandemic. This did provide an opportunity to put together some additional images that also made it into the final book.
Figure 1: Phil Hill (2021) ‘I hope this finds you safe and well’ published by Out of Place books
The resulting book was published as an edition of 60 (Fig: 1) with a risograph printed card cover and an additional print for anyone who bought the Book in the pre-sale. This was a great addition on the part of the publisher and was really well received by those who bought one.
I found it really useful to be involved in the process of producing a book. There have been times where I have questioned the value of photobooks as a sole outlet for a photography project owing to the limited nature of the audience willing to buy into the object. I have shifted my opinion to consider the book as part of a wider range of methods to disseminate work. My book was published as an addition of 60, with a fair few of those being bought by friends and family, so I am in essence preaching to the converted with the book. However, it has created a certain platform that gives a small amount of authority for then work – the publication is an automatic signal to consider my work more seriously. It has also generated conversation and increased audience over social media, which has been useful to raise profile, albeit still in a small way. As a springboard, this has been a fantastic opportunity to get people to look at my work. For example, off the back of the publication, I was interviewed by the online platform Nowhere Diary (Fig: 2), which has also led to an increased following and dialogue with peers. I do still consider the photobook not the end of a project necessarily, but potentially a central focus in which other opportunities might be afforded, such as exhibition, talks and workshops.
Figure 2: Phil Hill & Nowhere Diary (2021) Book feature and interview on Nowhere Diary platform
I am already discussing the project together with my research into my FMP project at the Communities and Communication conference at the end of April. I will also be talking to the photography course at the college where I work about the project and the book making process.
The book was really well received and in a few weeks had sold out, which has completely surprised me. The support for the work was really validating and feels as though I am on to something with my direction of research. Out of Place have also been incredibly supportive in putting the work together and getting it published under the conditions of lockdown. It is worth noting however, that because of the pandemic, I was not able to meet Chris from Out of Place in person, so much of the conversation about putting the work together and decisions over sequence and output medium were done remotely. If I am to do another, I would be really keen to be more immersed in the process of creating the work. Not to take away from the resulting book, which I absolutely love and happy with the result.
Taking the experience into the FMP, I have mooted a book as part of the potential outcomes for the project. I am not sure that at this stage, the imagery that I a m working with would necessarily fit the type of publications that Out of Place do. However, there is potential to create another publication with them that considers the sense of place and exploration around the area that I grew up, which feed would off the themes that I am exploring. Out of Place are interested in looking at creating another book with some of the images that did not make it into ‘I hope this finds you safe and well,’ and they are encouraging me to continue with the project, which is really positive moving forward.
In thinking about how to apply ideas of memory into my project I was thinking about ways of extending the twin-check label idea. I was then considering the way that we record and make copies as I have been creating copies of negatives from my family archive (Fig: 1 & 2).
Listening to Sara Davidmann’s guest lecture (2016), I was struck by the mention of how Davidmann’s mother used carbon copy paper to make and keep a copy of correspondence, which is something that I distinctly remember my grandmother doing. I have also got a great deal of items within the archive from my parents wedding that include things like receipts and invoices that have used the carbon copy method of creating a copy of the original text. It feels very indexical to create a copy of something this way, much like photography does. To experiment with this, I wanted to see of it was possible to use the carbon copy paper photographically and create a unique photographic object using it.
For the most part, what I was able to create was a form of rubbing drawing over an object, such as the St Christopher necklace (Fig: 3 & 4). Although this is not photographic yet, I did think that it yielded some interesting results in the sense of the trace left by an object. I did try to do this with a negative as there are subtle differences in the relief of the surface of a negative between the way that shadow and highlights translate into the emulsion however, not nearly enough to make an impression on the page (Fig: 5) That said, I also enjoy the idea of an image being present at the time of this rubbing, even if you cannot see it in the carbon. In a sense, playing with the Barthes idea of the not being able to deny that the thing had been there (1981, p. 76). There was an image on the negative – just not one that is able to be resolved by the carbon paper. The reality of the carbon versus the photographic image are two distinct objects that diverge in the reading of them through the qualities of the medium. Perhaps to add intrigue to the carbon rubbing, I could play around with the text that accompanies it. Then, the image that cannot be seen on the negative could be whatever I wanted it to be.
Figure 5: Phil Hill (March, 2021) Various rubbings over black and white negative
The rubbings, although interesting, are clearly not photographic unless scanned or photographed themselves. This then creates a photograph of an object over the use of the carbon within the photographic practice. To further explore methods of adding carbon to the process, I attempted to apply the rubbing directly onto photographic material (Fig: 6), knowing that through chemigram processes, there is the possibility of an image being resolved under the parts of the image that developer and fix are unable to get to. I didn’t have access to paper, so I used film stock instead. Unfortunately, this didn’t create a result as the carbon washed off the print before it had a chance to create an impact. Now that I have access to a darkroom, I may attempt this process again with photo paper instead of film as the slower processing time will provide much more control over the outcome.
Interestingly, there is a long established printing process called carbon transfer (Fig: 6), that I could eventually resort to. Although, this would effectively produce images that would not directly show the medium, it might be useful to reference the idea through this form of printing. That said, at the moment this is a very small idea within a larger whole and I must be careful not to find myself in some kind of dead end – potentially the printing process might lend itself to some additional subtle referencing.
One interesting development from this experimentation however, was the impression the rubbing left on the sheet of carbon copy paper (Fig: 8). I attempted to scan this and the result was heavily banded, possibly as a result of the scanner software trying to resolve the heavy black tones over a large area. However, I quite like the merging of qualities of each process – creating a slightly more photographic result (Fig: 9).
Figure 10: Phil Hill (March, 2021) Twin-Check Label Experiment
Another small experiment was to use the twin-check label in some way and apply the sticker before I made any photographs. My aim here was to see how the sticker would impact the emulsion, and if I could create an ingrained double exposure as in my family archive (Fig: 10). The results were varied, with some interesting outcomes from the images I made. Mostly, they created a rectangle image, where the light was unable to penetrate the sticker surface, reminding me of the Roy Striker ‘killed’ images from the FSA archive (Fig: 11). This however could feed into the idea of state control, narrative, censorship, and the idea of absent memories that I have been exploring in my work.
It was noted by Ross in the portfolio reviews that as I have switched back to shooting colour, there is a certain ambiguity in the work in determining images from my archive and those made by me. This confusion could be useful in creating the mystery alluded to through the feedback from Hanah-Katrina Jedroz. There is potential to carry the Twin Check idea into the images that I am shooting somehow as a reference to everyday vernacular processes of photography.
Barthes, R., 1981. Camera Lucida. 2nd ed. s.l.:Vintage Classics.
I want to start experimenting with the physicality of the photograph. It is something that I have spoken about and considered in terms of the qualities of the medium inherent already. There have been a number of times where I have looked at this a bit more closely in previous module, yet I don’t think that I have truly considered the impact the my experimentation could have on the surface of the image, in the sense of how mark making and physical manipulation of the image could also be a reflection of the concepts I am aiming to put across.
Wellcome Photography Prize
During the live brief challenges, I came up with a concept for the Oxfam challenge that wasn’t used. I also felt it was better suited to the ‘health in a heating world’ theme of this year’s Wellcome Photography Prize. My concept is based on a change in the way that pathogens may survive at human body temperature:
When my daughter was born, she was cold. Cold enough for the doctors to suggest keeping her under observation within the hospital ‘special care’ unit and followed by regular checking of temperature. Ever since her temperature is normally recording at 36.5 degrees, which is lower than the average of 37 degrees Celsius for body temperatures. This is a trend that is becoming more and more common with body temperatures steadily dropping over a number of decades and has been linked to the healthcare system taking the place of the human thermal barrier.
Alarmingly, at the same time a fungal infection called Candida Auris, which is suspected to have existed for thousands of years has been attributed to a series of infections in people around the world. This fungal infection is beginning to breech the thermal barrier, where previously it has not normally been able to survive in the human body owing to our relative hot temperature compared to the environment. It has been suggested by Arturo Casadevall, et al (2019) that these fungal infections are effectively being ‘trained’ to survive through a series of consistently hotter days year on year, caused by climate change.
It is thought that there are potentially millions of microbes that exist just below the human thermal barrier, some of which may be able to cause disease. Increased temperatures are evolving the capabilities of microbe through mutation to allow them to survive at higher temperatures, just as modern medicine is effectively lowering ours. The next pandemic may take the form of one of these threats, impacting all of us.
For my entry (Fig: 1), I aimed to ustilise elements of the challenges faced by Candida Auris. As I have been using black and white film in my practice and processing it at home, I was able to develop the negative at my daughter at her body temperature. Although this is considered a marginally low temperature for humans, it is extremely hot to process film, speeding up the time and also impacting the emulsion on the negative’s surface.
I was Inspired by an approach of Korean artist Seung-Hwan OH, who uses bacteria to interact with the image (Fig: 2) creating surreal and abstract portraits that a text on the work by Boraam Han suggests “The visual result of the symbiosis between film matter and organic matter is the conceptual origin of this body of work” (Han & OH, 2014). I aimed to introduce a fungus in the form of mould formed from bread onto the image, which creates the degraded look to the final image. My approach was not to create an image as abstract as OHs, as Darcie is an important part of the image together with the methods I used to degrade it.
The process of making this image has been really valuable in creating the space in the FMP to consider ways that I can interact and intervene with the image that has links to the outcomes and concepts I am aiming to put across.
Considering ways of introducing a physical interaction to the image that relates to the concepts, I have started with an idea of a lack of archive.
During discussions in my second supervisor meeting we spoke about the range of archive based projects. I noted that when I look at my own archive, there is a distinct lack of images present and I as I have mentioned before, this archive effectively ceases in the mid-late 90s as my father’s camera broke and not replaced (until cheap digital cameras made it possible for my dad to buy another). There is also a print album amongst the other images that has had most of its prints removed from the sugar paper pages – a future exploration will be photographing the pages of this album once I have access to a proper studio.
One area of exploration is linked to this idea of memory. I have already identified a number of images that have the ‘Twin-check’ label ingrained onto the image (Fig: 3), which creates link to the process of photography and memory in the way that these numbers are used to match the negative to the person who placed the order. These numbers could become quite important in the development of the work and I am working on some ways that I can include these into my project.
Appropriation of the image is something that I am returning to. During Surfaces and Strategies, I invited others to photograph and then I copied the negatives onto a new roll of film – my film. I felt that this was a kind of appropriation and me taking some kind of ownership over this image (Fig: 4). Although I did not make any of the decisions in taking the original, I did make a series of technical and aesthetic choices to copy the image onto a new film. It can be argued that photographing is a step removed from the reality in which it has been photographed – for me I am only able to see the representation of the reality. I created a further step removed from this reality in the re-photographed version as you are then only seeing a copy of the representation, which I have no connection to – even though I might claim that this version is ‘mine.’ As Walter Benjamin reminds us:
“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, it’s unique essence at the place where it happens to be”
(Benjamin, 1968: 220)
To further explore this idea of appropriation and memory, I have started to look at Carbon Transfer Paper used for copying invoices and letters. The idea came from watching the Sara Davidmann guest lecture (2016), where she mentioned all of the carbon copies of correspondence in the archive for ‘Ken, To be destroyed,’ which triggered a memory of my own experiences playing with a carbon copy pad as a child, when I did have a relationship with my grandmother. She had a bureau full of these items and also a typewriter – all things I could consider exploring. Much like the ‘Twin-check’ label, carbon copies of documents are a way of creating a memory of an object, which might usually be associated with being a ‘one off’ prior to digital technology.
For initial explorations using this material, I have been attempting to transfer a negative onto paper. There is a subtle relief on the surface of a negative; where there are highlights there is no emulsion and where there are shadows there is emulsion present. In this first attempt however, I am only getting an outline of the negative. This does create an interesting image in itself and I quite enjoy the idea of this being a direct impression of the negative as an object and that there is an image on its surface even if you can’t see it in this representation (Fig: 5).
Benjamin, W., 1968. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In: Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, pp. 217-252.
Casadevall, A., Kontoyiannis, D. P. & Robert, V., 2019. On the Emergence of Candida auris: Climate Change, Azoles, Swamps, and Birds. American Society For Microbiology, 10(4), pp. 1-7.
The idea of the unreliable narrator, or as Wayne C. Booth also describe as being a ‘fallible’ narrator (1975: 157) is usually applied to fiction writing, however it is a fairly apt description of photography when we consider its definitions. Novelist Sarah Pinborough puts it best “story tellers that cannot be trusted” noting:
“we’re all unreliable narrators of our lives who usually have absolute trust in our self-told stories. Any truth is, after all, just a matter of perspective”
Truth in photography has been discussed many times and clearly shown to have a slippery grasp on the concept. Yet, we still tend to believe the image as presented, even when the photograph is a step removed from the reality when it was taken. John Berger reminds us: “The photograph is about this actuality” (2013: 8) and it is important to place further emphasis on the statement ‘about this actuality’ as in the image is not the actuality but a description of it and never a full one. When thinking about the ways in which literary critique can also apply to photography, It is also worth considering the links between the novel and the image with a prime example being Jack Kerouac’s introduction to Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ (2014) in which this bastion of the documentary photography genre also sets up the idea that what you are looking at is absolutely a blend of fiction and non-fiction, or as Vanessa Winship describes as “chronicle and fiction” (2015) just as Kerouac does in constructing his partially autobiographical ‘On the Road’ (2000).
Photography is assumed to be more reliable than reading a novel, as you are aware of the book’s construction. Even non-fiction, or autobiographical works of literature are assumed as being embellished, fictionalised, and as Pinborough stated, all about perspective. Booth discusses a distance between the author and the reader of the text and this is created in the use of the narrator within it, whether reliable or not:
“the distance can be on any axis of value. Some successful authors keep most of their characters far ‘away’ in every respect”
This distance of the literary narrator in our case is the camera and photography. However, It is much harder for authors of photographs to distance themselves from their narrator to the reader, owing to the direct link of the author clicking the shutter in the same space and time as the thing photographed. It is much harder to separate these things as a reader of the image as the actuality of the object is always present.
This is still a flawed translation of the object. The camera places its qualities on the result – limits of technology, time and light; and human qualities of our own orientation mean that the object photographed can never be resolved in its total existent self. We do our best to interpret the object, and maybe photography is more reliable than other methods but it is still a means of subjective construction telling only one side of the narrative – this limits create an unreliable means of narrating. As Booth also points out: “the author cannot choose to avoid rhetoric; he can only choose the kind of rhetoric he will employ” (p. 149).
The reliability of photographs is believed to the point that when a deception occurs, the shock resonates. Within the novel, this is a useful plot device to create intrigue within a narrative. Within photography it is an immutable quality remaining undetected for the most part and once the discovery has been made, the message of the work is irrevocably changed for the reader (p. 158). A good example of this can be seen within the images of photographer Bob Rodger’s father (Fig: 1) standing next to the boat, which is not his. A simple but deceptive image designed to project a certain class and social status to the viewer of the image unaware that he has not the means, yet for Roger’s Father:
“He understood, too, that the photographic image created its own reality: in the world of that image, he was a boat owner … And the picture, created by the ‘objective’ lens, certified the reality of this claim”
(Heiferman, 2012: 239)
After suggesting that photography is an unreliable narrator using Booth’s literary analysis, what about clues left by other unreliable narrators, supposedly to further weaken the case for actuality within the image but instead creates intrigue for the story that they instead want to tell. Photography is an unreliable narrating tool used by us as unreliable narrators of our own stories. What I find really interesting about my own family archive is the way that the photograph has been disrupted to hide one truth but create another from what may have been another innocuous image within the album. Why not remove the whole image from the archive completely? As with images doctored during the time of Stalin (Fig: 2), it feels like a form of control, or as Ingrid Pollard suggests, a state sponsored voice (2021). This idea has come up in my research before: the idea of a state instantly creates thoughts of political powers creating narrative to suit agendas and there are similarities to the way that the family album is collated and images collected together. It is mentioned in ‘Shape of Evidence’ (Berrebi, 2014) of Michel Focault’s discussion on ‘state assembled archives’ (2014, p. 42). A version of the state could be argued to be the family in my own case, and the archive is no less assembled. As Berrebi points out: “there are no such thing as ‘found objects,’ but only objects that are ‘set aside’, selected and re-contextualised” (p. 41), which highlights that everything within the archive is not there by accident – including those images that has been manually intervened. This raises the question of who the album is in fact for? Is it to be front facing for public consumption? Surely, awkward questions would then be raised as to why the image is there. Or, more likely, is the album for private reflection, so that the image can be viewed as a reminder why the expunged are no longer part of the photographic print, linking back to Barthes idea that we wish to hold on to those we expel from our communities as reminders of what we wish not to be (2012, p. 81).
Barthes, R., 2012. How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of some Everyday Spaces. Translation ed. New York: Columbia University Press.
Berger, J., 2013. Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin Classics.
Berrebi, S., 2014. The Shape of Evidence: Contemporary Art and the Document. Amsterdam: Valiz.
Booth, W. C., 1975. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 11 ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Frank, R., 2014. The Americans. Göttingen: Steidl.
Heiferman, M., 2012. Photography Changes. 1st ed. New York: Aperture Foundation.
Kerouac, J., 2000. On the Road. New Edition ed. London: Penguin Classics.
Pinborough, S., 2017. Top 10 unreliable narrators. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/04/top-10-unreliable-narrators-edgar-allan-poe-gillian-flynn [Accessed 17 February 2021].
Pollard, I., 2021. Four Corners talk: Out of the Archive, London: Four Corners.
Winship, V., 2015. A Small Voice: Conversations with Photographers – 082 – Vanessa Winship: “And Time Folds” Special [Interview] (11 September 2015).
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”
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”
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’”
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.
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].
What happens in the absence of memory, or if the memory is born from a one sided narrative?
This will be the start of my investigation.
As any family would, I have an archive of images in albums. These were never really displayed around the house I grew up in. If you are to visit my parents now, there are not that many images present. Even within the archive, there are no images from after the mid-nineties. There are practical reasons for this. My dad’s old Russian film camera broke about this time and he could not afford to replace it with newer digital technology. However, even where there are images present, those images of extended family ceased. This was around the time that my parents effectively stopped communicating with them – I don’t know why. There are a number of images within the albums that have been cut as well, suggesting of some kind of family rift that I was too young to understand and never really questioned when reaching adulthood (Fig: 1). Now that I have a family of my own, I am becoming interested in why this has happened and if there are inherent traits that exist as a result.
Objects are an important way of understanding a culture in the absence of first-hand deposition. And this creates a link to my exploration of the photograph as an object in previous modules. What I find intriguing about images that have been cut is the willingness to keep the object that has been so noticeably ‘edited,’ creating a new object of intrigue. The cut print in fact creates more questions about the image where I might have merely flipped past otherwise and is the very reason why I am wanting to investigate it here. Erik Kessels acknowledges this in his series ‘My Family’, where he notes:
“So we opt for self-censorship, hoping that excluding “bad” images will somehow cause the memories themselves to evaporate. This saddens me, because reflecting on an unpleasant occurrence can give you insight and broaden your perspective. I want images that reflect life in its complexity. Sure, that sounds like a mighty demand, and likely impossible, but let’s give it a go.”
Kessels refers to the forms of propaganda that exists within the family album (Clark, 2013) and this feels confirmed within my own, where persons have been removed. There of course is a precedent in the removal of undesirables from photographs. Hannah Adrendt discussed the vulnerability of truth (Gessen, 2018), referring to the way that Trotsky had been removed from the official soviet record (Fig: 2 & 3), is there much of a difference between this and my own families removal of ‘undesireables?’ Roland Barthes contextualises this within the idea of community, noting the paradox of exclusion within it: “Perhaps there’s no such thing as a community without an integrated reject” (2012: 81) as if it is important to maintain awareness of what we reject to confirm our positioning. This is potentially the reasoning behind keeping a cut image within the album (Fig: 4) to show that control can be exacted over the undesirable, and to be reminded that they can be removed in some form.
Kessels also recently shared a series of vernacular images (Kessels, 2020), noticeable in the way that they have been cut (Fig: 5). There appears to be images in this set, which are similar to the ones that I have within my family’s archive. However, there are others in Kessels post (Fig: 6) that might be something else. It was noted during my first peer to peer session that this might in fact be due to someone cutting a print to place that part of the image into a locket, and suggests that there is a positive outcome from the editing of a print.
During the last module, I started to use constructed narratives more openly and applied traditional story telling structure to my sequencing. Within my family archive the narrative is more political through censorship. This is something that I am really keen to explore here and also utilise. My aim will be to construct a new narrative in the absence of one, or as an alternative to the ‘official’ one that has be told to me through the years. In effect, this is a question that exists in all family archive (an indeed photography) – they are deeply constructed, political and steeped in presenting a propagandised view of the family.
Barthes, R., 2012. How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of some Everyday Spaces. Translation ed. New York: Columbia University Press.
Clark, T., 2013. The Vanishing Art of the Family Photo Album. [Online] Available at: https://time.com/3801986/the-vanishing-art-of-the-family-photo-album/ [Accessed 29 January 2020].
Gessen, M., 2018. The Photo Book That Captured How the Soviet Regime Made the Truth Disappear. [Online] Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/the-photo-book-that-captured-how-the-soviet-regime-made-the-truth-disappear [Accessed 29 January 2020].
Kessels, E., 2016. My Family. [Online] Available at: https://www.erikkessels.com/my-family [Accessed 29 January 2020].
Kessels, E., 2020. Erik Kessels instagram – Collection of photographs where ‘unwanted’ people got removed from. [Online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/CJ0ecdShnVP/ [Accessed 28 January 2020].