History, Memory and the Family Album


Patricia Holland, pp.1-14:

Holland, Patricia., Spence, Jo., eds. Family snaps: the meanings of domestic photography (London: Virago, 1991)


Unlike the social historian, the owner of an album does not look for the ‘truth’ of the past. Instead, we give it our own recognition, just as, when we make a picture, we commit our present to be recognised by an unknown future.

Small wonder that  a family album is a treasured possession, nervously approached for its ambiguities, scrutinized for its secrets, poignant in its recall of loves and lovers now dead. It interweaves the trivial and the intense, the moment and the momentous, as it challenges any simple concept of memory.

Family photography does not seek to be understood by all. It is a private medium, its simple imagery enriched by the meanings we bring to it. An ‘outside’ interpretation, an assessment of someone else’s album, moves into a different realm: of social history, ethnology or a history of photography.


[But] its meanings are social as well as personal – and the social influences the personal. Family photographs are shaped by the public conventions of the image and rely on a public technology which is widle available.

Private interpretations which subvert collective meanings are considered disruptive and discouraged.

The personal histories [family albums] record belong to narratives on a wider scale, those public narratives of community, religion, ethnicity and nation which make private identity possible.


[On conventions of family photographs] Pictures which match up to expectations give enormous pleasure, partly because their familiar structure is able to contain the tension between the longed-for ideal and the ambivalence of lived experience. This is not to suggest that we should compare the image and ‘reality’, but that we are offered a framework within which our understandings of various realitites can come into play.

[Discusses technology’s control of family photography] Technological change influences the stories we tell ourselves about family life.


Often guarded by an self-appointed archivist, albums construct their own versions of family history, in negotiation with the ideal. […] Problems are suppressed, if only for the split second that the shutter is open.


Snapshots are part of the material with which we make sense of our wider world. They are objects which take their place amongst the other objects which are part of our personal and collective past, part of the detailed and concrete existence with which we gain some control over our surroundings and negotiate with the peculiarity of our circumstances.


[discusses ethnic and cultural identity in families]


The difference between a folkloric sense of the past and one which is dynamic in the present is at the heart of the discussions in this book.

Family photography can operate at this junction between personal memory and social history, between public myth and personal unconscious.

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.


3 Responses to “History, Memory and the Family Album”

  1. 1 Elizabeth

    This is really interesting, thank you for sharing. I have ordered the book you are referencing here. I have been pursuing a series of photographic works based on identity via the family album. Do you have any other suggested reading?

  2. 2 milewicz

    good references are also

    G. Batchen: “Forget me not: Photography and Remenberance”
    and R. Chalfen: “Snapshot versions of life”

  3. 3 Rowan Lear

    Thank you, yes both good books. ‘Forget-me-knot’ is what I have come to expect from Batchen, but got a real surprise reading ‘Snapshot Versions of Life’. Good stuff :)

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