Family Frames: Introduction


Hirsch, Marianne., Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory (London: Harvard University Press, 1997)


Barthes cannot show us the photograph because we stand outside the familial network of looks and thus cannot see the picture in the way that Barthes must. To us it would be just another generic family photograph.

The picture of his mother provokes a moment of self-recognition which, in the reading process, becomes a process  of self-discovery, a discovery of a self-in-relation.

Only words could pull back the curtain, but can words reveal, can they empower us to imagine what’s behind the surface of the image?


If Barthes can recognize his mother’s essential being in the winter-garden picture of her, it is only possible through the description and narrative in which he articulates his response to her image.

In his book, his mother’s picture exists only in the words he uses to describe it and his reaction to it: the image has been transformed and translated into a “prose picture,” what W. J. T Mitchell has called an “imagetext.”

A verbal overlay hides the image from our view even while disclosing its structure and effect: the multiplicity of looking, the relational network that composes all of family pictures and the stab of recognition that selects this one among a plurality of choices.


Writing the image […] undoes the objectification of the still photograph and thereby takes it out of the realm of stasis, immobility, mortification – what Barthes calls “flat death” – into fluidity, movement and thus, finally, life.


The winter-garden photo defines for Barthes a certain photographic reading practice, a certain relationship to photographs, even as it allows him to mediate on the phenomenology of the photographic image.


Barthes makes photography – taking the picture, developing it, printing and looking at it, reading it and writing about it – inherently familial and material, akin to the very processes of life and death.

Photographs, as the only material traces of an irrecoverable past, derive their power and their important cultural role from their embeddedness in the fundamental rites of family life, the rites barthes peforms in Camera Lucida and buttresses with his fundamental belief in photographic reference.


With the slogan “You push the button, we do the rest” the camera entered the domain of the ordinary and the domestic. Thus photography quickly became the family’s primary instrument of self-knowledge and representation – the means by which family memory would be continued and perpetuated, by which the family’s story would henceforth be told.


Now, more than one hundred years later, photography’s social functions are integrally tied to the ideology of the modern family.

At the end of the twentieth century, the family photograph, widely available as a medium of familial self-presentation in many cultures and subcultures, can reduce the strains of family life by sustaining an imaginary cohesion, even as it exacerbates them by creating images that real families cannot uphold.

The structure of looking is reciprocal: photographer and viewer collaberate on the reproduction of ideology. Between the viewer of the recorded object, the viewer encounters, and/or projects, a screen made up of dominant mythologies and preconceptions that shapes the representation.


[Hirsh] would like to suggest that photographs locate themselves precisely in the space of contradiction between the myth of the ideal family and the lived reality of family life.


Barthes passionate desire for recognition, satisfied, curiously, by means of a picture he could not possibly recognize, raises the possibility of adistinctive form of looking that emerges in familial interaction.

The familial look, then, is not the look of a subject looking at an object, but a mutual look of a subject looking at an object who is a subject looking at (back) at an object.

Familial subjectivity is constructed relationally, and in these relations I am always both self and other(ed), both speaking and looking subject and spoken and looked at object; I am subjectified and objectified.


If we turn to photographs themselves for clues to the family’s unconscious optics, we have to take the intervention of the camera into account and see how it in itself interrupts and shapes visual relations. But if we read imagetexts, the forms of familial looks and gazes can emerge more forcefully and through a variety of lenses.

The family album, shaped through its own particular perspective, is the most basic of such imagetexts, and the novels, exhibits, and photography books I analyze in this book are all, in some sense, published and aestheticized family albums.


Our memory is never fully ‘ours,’ nor are the pictures ever unmediated representations of our past. Looking at them we both construct a fantastic past and set out on a detective trail to find other versions of a ‘real’ one.

The etymological roots of theoria define it as an act of viewing, contemplation, consideration, insight, in other words, in terms of visuality.

[Hirsh] will suggest that theory as a form of reflection and contemplation emphasizes mutual implication over domination, affiliation over separation, interconnection over distance, tentativeness over certainty.

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