The cover of this issue features two family photos, one taken in Hong Kong, one in mainland China. There is a striking formality in these images, even by the standards of family portraiture. Of course, in days when film was expensive, the moments recorded by such photographs were expected to be taken seriously, especially since they often represented the definitive image of the family, a cherished memory to be carefully saved or prominently displayed. And for families without a written history or genealogy, such images may have also taken on the added importance of being the only real record of their lives and past.
And yet like all portraits, this image is in many ways not a record of a real moment, but a construction: the studio background, the austere poses, the father’s place at the centre of the picture. If these photos serve as a family record, they are an idealised and polished one—a marketable image the family can show itself, its descendents, its outsiders. Nor is this type of idealisation limited to formal portraiture. There is artifice and convention throughout the family photo album. Flipping through family pictures reveals that from household to household which photos get taken, or at least which get shown, is remarkably consistent. Images of domestic harmony and happiness are in, those of pain and internal strife are out. Thus, weddings and holiday celebrations (redacted of the antics of embarrassing relatives) make the family album, but funerals and divorce proceedings do not. (When was the last time you saw Facebook albums with names such as: Uncle Jim’s funeral 2007, Custody Hearings Aug. 2006?) A wide variety of childhood events are worthy of film, but there are also a number of situations too gruesome, depressing or distasteful for Father to shoot.
Likewise our photographs reveal that only a limited number of expressions and poses are acceptable for our family memories. Anguished faces are subjects for photojournalism, not domestic photography in which smiling visages dominate. And although the width of the frame is certainly partly responsible for dictating how we gather in group photos, it seems equally certain that these formations are also designed to stress unity and togetherness.
There is an irony that is difficult to ignore in the fact that all our family photographs are so much alike. If such images are intended to record the memories of individual families, why do they look exactly like those of all their neighbours? The conclusion that some theorists and critics have drawn from all this sameness is that our photographs demonstrate our conformity to generic conventions, as well as revealing the dominant social, familial and gender roles of our particular place and time. This is undoubtedly true. But for all its truth, there is something in this cold analysis which, apart from being slightly condescending, sits uneasily with our more romantic impulses. I suspect that it is because even if our family photos are generic constructs, they are constructs with real emotional weight. We may frame our memories in response to the dominant social structure, but when all is said and done they are still our memories.
A photograph, no matter how formal, evokes memory in a way no other art form does. A picture appears to be reality, unmediated. History sliced paper thin. There may have been framing and cropping, and a choice of which stock to print on, but who doubts, as we view photographs, that we see a representation closer to reality than most other media. When we look at an old picture, we can be at least fairly confident that at the moment, someone looked that way, wore that hat, stood that tall. Of course, in terms of recording the past, video is probably the superior medium. Yet the evocative stillness of photographs often reveals truths that the jittery flow of film cannot. Their suspended events invite mediation. Linger a moment on a family portrait and it will betray its family secrets. Why was he chosen to sit on his father’s lap? What about her dirty socks and ill-fitting shoes?
While gazing on a photograph depicting a fondly remembered past event, we often experience a powerful emotional reaction. There is of course a reason that everybody takes pictures of holidays, birthdays and vacations, besides blind adherence to social norms: they are the good times we want to remember. The similarity of our photo albums surely says as much about the universality of human experience as it does about photographic conventions. But family photographs have a power beyond reminding us of our dearest recollections. They capture a past which occurred before our birth or that we cannot remember. And in this, they contain an especially potent emotional force. To see yourself when you were young, to see your grandmother when she was still beautiful, to see an ancestor on whose life your very existence depended, is an experience that is full of pathos and wonder. For me, there is no picture which encapsulates this feeling more forcefully than one of my father and I sitting in the forest, taken when I was a baby. Of the day, I have absolutely no memory; my only memory is the image itself. And yet the picture has become an emotionally charged part of my life. That I was once so small and wearing that jacket remains to this day a slightly surreal experience. But it is my father’s appearance that represents the real source of the picture’s power. There is something about him which is both familiar and strangely alien—an ambiguity which is simultaneously unsettling and deeply comforting.
I suspect it was just this ambiguity that Roland Barthes had in mind when he wrote “There is a kind of stupefaction in seeing a familiar being dressed differently.” And I suspect that despite their formality and conventional framing, it is something like stupefaction that my co-editor feels when she looks at the pictures in the masthead. Was her mother ever so young? Was her father ever so small?
Jeff Zroback / Co-editor
6 August 2008