Speaking the Album


Langford, Martha. ‘Speaking the Album: An Application of the Oral-Photographic Framework’ Locating Memory: Photographic Acts ed. by Annette Kuhn and Kirsten Emiko McAllister (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2006) 223-246


[…] attention to the photographic album since the mid-1960s can be said to constitute in itself a model ‘thought community’, an idea of album sustained by interdisciplinarity.

In this marriage of sociology and social history, the typicality of the album is often stressed as a function of its collective authorship – compilation by agreement, rather than individual authorship.

Historiographers and photographic theorists follow suit, speaking of the family album, rather than the mother’s or the aunt’s memoir of family life.

When it comes to the autobiographical album, many sociologists and psychologists take the position that albums encode memories, or camouflage them behind social rituals or psychological screens.

Indeed, some photographic theorists have argued that the construction of alternative realities is the personal album’s main function.


Sociologists acknowledge the mysteries of all personal documents, advising that albums are virtually useless unless examined in the company of their compilers, or at least with members of their circle, who can interpret the social arrangements and signs.


On the basis of these encounters, they report that photographic albums preserve a wealth of stories – photographic memories that are revived in the telling and can be preserved on tape. But anthropologists, folklorists and cultural theorists add a certain complication, stating that no recounting of an album, however close to the source, should be considered as fixed because individual and collective life-stories evolve over time, depending on the storyteller and the listener.

Suspended Conversations argues that the photographic album can nevertheless be understood by recognising its original function as a mnemonic device for storytelling and situating it in the realm of orality.

The oral flows from anthropology, ethnography, psychology, folklore, linguistics and literature, and is condensed in an illuminating study by Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy.


There are striking similarities between what Ong calls the ‘psychodynamics of orality’ and photographic experience, beginning with the evanescence of sound and photographic instantaneity, and continuing in the album’s predictable patterns of content, structure and presentation.

In an oral culture, tellers and listeners need memorable and accessible recitations. Variations on narrative tropes, rather than novelties, work best – they are readily recalled by the teller; they stick in the listener’s mind. Such formulaic images should be simple, casting individuals and scenes in perfect clarity.

Translated to the contents of photographic albums, we observe patterns of social and physical types. This is the well known levelling effect of the carte-de-visite – kings, tradesmen and exotic human specimens photographed in the same style and placed in the same album.

This effect is perpetuated in the snapshot – there is significance beyond habit in its compositional clichés.

Repetition is another mnemonic fixative. Albums are full of repetitions: situations are revisited or recreated with slight variations; actual images are often repeated in different arrangements.

In oral compositions, patterns of organisation are driven by the need for repetition; formulas are not only typical, but are recycled within the same recitation.

For photography this means copious, comparative description: albums show us the same things from many angles; we also see the same angle on many things.

The syntax of an oral composition is additive. Likewise, a photographic album fits together like a kit of parts by systems of association that tellers and listeners know well and readily supply during the album’s presentation.

Oral recitation, or storytelling, follows the rules of performance. Empathy and participation are essential, the performer and audience surrendering to, absorbed in, the pooled experience of the community.


[In oral cultures] The past must be viable in the present, for the purpose of storytelling is to keep the community alive. What this means for the album is a shift from the absolute solidity of material culture to a state of in-between, fully realisable only in performance.

The album is a meeting place, not an encyclopedia. When we sit and look at an album together, we do not necessarily look at every image. As we converse – as we tell the album’s story to each other – we glide over certain images, and linger on others.

[Langford discusses three stages of a process of interpreting a family album]


Stage three then explored the compiler’s expression of autobiographical and collective memory through image selection, annotation, organisation and presentation. Respecting the compiler’s choices and trying to understand them, then working imaginatively to narrate their presentation, brought out the performative aspects of the album, thus restoring its original function of keeping memory alive in the present.


In broader terms,  the study proved that images selected and organised in anticipation of storytelling preserved visual memory in a framework of oral consciousness.

[Langford’s] challenge was to commit more fully to ‘the psychodynamics of orality’: by shifting the focus of inquiry from identification (the detective-work of naming and listing) to process (looking and talking); by really changing one’s habits of attention to make orality and photography – the oral-photographic condition – the nucleus around which other states of awareness and epistemological projects would be grouped.

Photographic theorists do not live in an oral society, nor is the photographic album a pure product.

The photographic album is a syncretic object, its narratives of life-stories, both transitory and inscriptive. Removal from the private sphere to a public collection tips the balance towards inscription by cutting the performative cord. Most attempts to read this alienated object, and here I mean literacy in the broadest sense, have led us to consider the album as a closed text.

[Langford will discuss an anonymous album from the McCord Museum]


Our methods of classification, the habits  of literacy which bias interpretation, lead us to make lists. In oral societies, as Ong stresses, there is no such thing as a list, and when we look at an album we can see why.

What the list [captioning compiled by acquiring institution] preserves with authority is the justification for the acquisition, which is the anticipated use of the album.

This album, as described, fits within the collective memories of the communities for whom the McCord Museum has traditionally mattered and functioned as a meeting point.


[Langford describes her process of interviewing five women about the album]


[…] all five of the respondents  had memories ‘in common’ with the compiler: their empathy emerged in digressions, in question directed at me.


Conducting these interviews, the most curious thing to me was a pattern of what one might call ‘a will to separation’. In constructing a family for the child, all family arrangements were entertained save the one closest to the respondent’s own.

As the youngest in a family of four, separated by a gap of six to ten years from the siblings I adored, I felt that the compiler’s situation was different from mine; I had my own explanation for the older girl posing with Dad: she was certainly not his daughter.


In short, our responses were guardedly empathetic: faced with this hypertrophic ego, none of us was prepared to surrender our own inner child, or the uniqueness of our adolescent experiences. Neither was our compiler: the album was in fact the inner child’s preserve.

My meetings with women over the album, their efforts to extract the compiler’s identity, and the nuances that they brought to their performances  of the album when asked to tell it as a life story, forced me to consider my own visual habits and blind spots.

[Langford discusses threes images from the album in depth]


Just as the girls were once photographed by elders, the teenagers photograph one another, often holding cameras. Photography is the coin of the affective realm: photographs are comparable in this respect to valentines or autographs.

How does an awareness of the compiler’s process shape our understanding of this album? By attending to the disparate sources of the photographs, we become conscious of the compiler as a highly specialised curator of photographs and photographic experiences – we look at a composite version of her life that she has arranged to create certain effects and contain certain messages.

In terms of photography and photographic experience, the breakdown of the album into the various streams of production, and the recognition that clusters of photogenic events and places – holidays, camp, graduation – have been successfully combined into a first person narrative of fourteen years, exemplify the workings of memory, and our ability to rehearse its processes through collective photographic reception.


Conversations about the album flow naturally from the means of its creation which are themselves a composite view from distinct social and psychological perspectives.

[Discussion of adolescence]


Repetition is a very strong factor here. The ending rehearses the poses and motifs of the beginning, and yet there is a sense of incompleteness, a curtain pulled down over the uncertain future.

[Langford goes on to relate information about the life of Margery Paterson, the album’s compiler, who developed tuberculosis after high school]


Margery Paterson’s album teaches us a simple lesson, one that is hard for institutions to absorb. There is no such thing as a family album, but only personal albums concerned with, or situated within, a particular configuration of family and community.

In this case, we have an album formed in parallel with or quite possibly influenced by, early twentieth century theories of female adolescence – its socialisation and its control. But this is only the first level of instruction.


For Margery Paterson’s album also insists that, if our interest in collective memory is genuine, we are going to have to attend to Maurice Halbwachs’s essential definition: ‘While the collective memory endures and draws strength from its base in a coherent body of people, it is individuals as group members who remember’.

Suddenly, we have an album that spotlights the conditions of girlhood and adolescence from the perspective of a young woman exiled by her illness, and photographically reliving the freedom and promise of her younger years. An application of the oral-photographic framework restores Margery Paterson’s agency, gives her back her voice.


No Responses Yet to “Speaking the Album”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s