Christina Maxwell Photo Essay: Vintage Family Photograph 4 May 2014
The Image of a Child “Strictly speaking, it is doubtful that a photograph can help us to understand anything. The simple fact of “rendering” a reality doesn’t tell us much about that reality. […] The “reality” of the world is not in its images, but in its functions. Functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand.” – Susan Sontag, “Photography” (p. 13)
Childhood memories are oftentimes embedded in our minds and the stories told by others, but they are played out and recalled through the context surrounding photographs. While I am as guilty as the average person, snapping endless photos from my iPhone for my own personal interest, those photos don’t hold the same significance that a photograph printed on Kodak or Fuji paper does. Possessing a printed photo, one that wasn’t printed from my own home printer via a digital camera, but one that was taken from my mother’s Rangefinder, one that I anticipated to see and that meant waiting anxiously at the film processing clinic located inside the local K-Mart after school until the prints were finished and the cashier rang us up represented a time when memories were all that I had and oftentimes, all that I looked forward to. Now that I am a little bit older and a bit wiser as I hold onto those undeveloped 35mm film rolls that I found in a green storage tote on the left side of my closet that carry those evidence makers of my trip to Florida, I can only wonder if I will recall the truth in those photographs, or will I, as Victor Burgin suspects many of us do, focus less on the critical aspects
of the photos, and only concern myself with the fact that photographs are “provided free of charge […] offer[ing] themselves gratuitously” (Burgin 130), meaning possessing photos of particular events or moments in our lives are to be expected, almost required in our lives. Just having control of the photos means more than what the photos actually depict. As we look at the trajectory of photography, stakeholders in the late 1800’s such as Dominique Francois Arago believed photos represented the truth as “faithful pictorial records” (Trachtenberg 17) and Edgar Allen Poe believed photography was more truthful than language. Moving into the late 1900s, photography theorists began to question the authenticity of photographs and viewing photographs as not necessarily the truth. Annette Kuhn in “Remembrance: The Child I Never Was” believes photographs tell us more about today, than yesterday. If that is the case, that images create these unfocused, perhaps untruthful conflicting memories then perhaps we should look back at childhood or family photographs and focus more on the past and present surroundings of said photographs. I’d like to tell you a story about a photograph of a young girl, three and half years old: hair and makeup fully set, dressed to the little girl nines. Her lightly curled hair is placed in a ponytail atop her head, tighten by a red and white hair clips which perfectly matches with her red and white valor dress. She sits in front of a faux Christmas tree, her hands placed in her lap as an almost act of politeness. I would like to tell you the young girl in the photo is me, and it in fact is me, but I almost have a difficult time believing it is me. At such a young age, I have no distinct memories of the location of where this portrait was taken, although I can deduct by the placement (and by the fact that I’ve never lived in a house with a fireplace) that I am in a portrait studio, a fanciful, imaginative setting where parents go to have grade-A photos of their children
that they eventually place throughout the hallways in their homes, display on their office desks and keep tucked away in their wallets when asked if they have any photos of their children.
There are not that many differences to this photo then the one Annette Kuhn reveals in “Remembrance.” Embedded in her discussion of misplaced memories, we see a photograph of a well-dressed six-year old girl sitting on a chair focusing all of her attention on a small parakeet perched inside the palm of her hand. Kuhn is able to give this photograph some much needed context, as she details what we cannot see: the young girl’s undergarments, the confusion of the exact location of the photo. But does a viewer need to know bits of that perhaps pertinent information? What Kuhn is simply doing is constructing meaning around the time frame from
when this photograph was taken. I could tell you I still own the dress in this photo, although lost in an attic full of other forgotten childhood things. Is it true or not true? Perhaps I’ve confused that dress with another red dress I wore when I was eight-years old to my cousin’s birthday party, photos found in the same baby book. These memories are a piece of the puzzle, the way to make complete meaning of the photograph. But who is that information for, for the individual or for the surrounding society? Perhaps these estimations are placed within the family—my family. The confusion continues. The date on the back of this 2x3 print reads “December 12, 1992.” The print my father has reads “December 6, 1992.” Same picture, different date. Kuhn struggled with the same recollection, as her mother placed her own memories in the photo, replacing one location for another, as “this little dispute between a mother and daughter points not only to contingency of memories not attached to, but questioned by an image, but also to a scenario of power relations within the family” (397). Her family issues were embroiled deep in this photograph. As Kuhn writes, photographs are evidence (“material [up] for interpretation – evidence, in that sense: to be solved, like a riddle […] like clues left behind at the scene of a crime”) but at the same time, the photographs do not mirror real life (Kuhn 395). Like Errol Morris, I must wonder why images and reality find themselves so far apart when we, the subjects of these photographs, spend a considerable amount of time away from said photographs, which I will discuss in depth later. The question I must pose is do, or should photos construct our reality. Realist theorists, as Martin Lister discusses believes images (photographs) “short-circuits” the intentionally and meaning the photographer was ultimately going for (Lister 219). This in many ways, is a staged photograph—not as staged as the photo fakery Morris discusses with the North Dakota cows at Capitol, but none the less the emphasis is more on this search of idealism. The average day as my
three-year old self did not consist of me waking up early, getting my hair curled, having my mother place a coat of light mascara on my eyes. Instead, I wore t-shirts of my favorite cartoon characters, pulled the bangs away from my face, and looked more like a rug rat than a lite pageant princess. My childhood wasn’t any Greek tragedy, in fact, just the opposite. I had a normal childhood surrounded by love from my mother, father and other members of the family who would spend a significant amount of time around me growing up (grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins). I smiled, I laughed, and yes, at times I shouted and cried. As a child, I did alright. Photographs as Morris mentions, project out only what we want others to know, all the while concealing the “hidden truths” we don’t want others to know. (Morris 164). Perhaps my mother was searching for idealism when she made this appointment at the Sears portrait studio. To hide the truth that a daughter that looks so perfect would ever scream, yell or take a tantrum. But is our idealism that farfetched from reality? As Henry Peach Robinsson muses, a picture cannot be considered art without a hint of “what is real and true” (Trachtenberg 93) --comparing art and photography is a slippery slope, but what I am referring to is no matter how staged a photo may be, we must give credence to authenticity found in a child’s eyes, one we can idealistically tap into with the constructing knowledge of our surrounding society. This photo for me became synonymous with my childhood. I was almost haunted by this photograph because everywhere I went: to my grandmother’s, my grandfather’s house he shared with his third wife, when I’d open up my father’s wallet to steal one of his two-dollar bills that I always believed were fake, I’d see this image. During my elementary school years, my fifth grade teacher assigned our class to bring in childhood photographs. When I displayed this
particular photo of me, students remarked that I looked like JonBenét Ramsey, the six-year old beauty queen pageant that was murdered in her Colorado home. I was almost embarrassed by that remark, then I began to see myself in her stills that I’d see on the nightly news. I was, without realizing, making connections to all of the other images outside of my life that came before me or have no connect with: thinking of past (“nostalgic”), present (“boring”) and future (“simply fightening”) (Hall 105). Kuhn says photographs are “prompt[s]” or a “pre-text” for recollection: In terms of semiotics, a 22-year old photograph is a paratext, a piece of evidence of my childhood that stands from the outside and “comments on […] or alters the meaning” (Hall 128). I believe looking back at a photograph of myself with my natural bright blonde hair, knowing that just in a few short years my hair would turn darker creates not only a structure for my childhood but provides steps leading to and from my past. By making these associations and knowing these small details I believe changes the meaning of this photograph. Perhaps, not for others, of course. I think all vintage photographs: of myself, of Kuhn, is an instance of paratext into our future. It is the intextuality that Lister speaks of that allows us to learn to understand a photo’s context. As he writes, an image “is not freestanding and autonomous” even when separated from others, the meaning becomes clear when cross referenced between other images, strengthening my belief that photographs are never isolated, even the one of myself: I think of the text on the back of the print, the duplicates, the surrounding photos, the significance of the baby photo books and the surrounding borders and how they all play a role (222). A still photograph is a “privileged moment,” a piece of material we (viewer of the image, subject of the image) can refer back to over and over again. To piggyback off of the paratext, oftentimes it is better to not look at photographs for a long amount of time to create that outside’s
perspective, one that will again, alter the meaning. The further one is away from a photograph, the more we can embrace Kuhn’s belief that a photograph “point[ing] you away from itself” and focuses more on the past, present and future contexts of the image. The time spent away from the photograph, the differences in the settings we see photos changes the way we interpret what we see, as Hall describes in the viewer/image semiotic theory. The meaning made as I see myself here and the way Kuhn sees the photograph of herself or the way her mother views the visual is left up to the viewer, as they make the meaning based on their past interpretations, or “constant negotiations [that] shift between viewer and image.” (92). I can’t tell you much about the camera this photograph was taken on. What I have in my possession, like others, is a print. This image is made on AGFA paper, a Belgian company that no longer manufactures older paper. When I place the paper-thin material in my hands, I somehow feel the heaviness and the weight this image carries around, unlike those digital pictures I continuously snap on my iPhone, which now I can take in Burst Mode and never miss a minute of my subject in motion. The photographic medium tends to pit photographs and digital images against each other, and in discussing the materiality of this studio print, it brings me back to the debate Roland Barthes poses between the mechanical truth and aforementioned production of an image to the “constructed” characteristics, codes and context that play a role in how an image is viewed. I believe that plays a role in how I view this image—within the frames of knowing who is in the image and through the discovery of finding why I was staged in such a way as a child. Ultimately, I connect this piece with cultural theory and the defining approach that there is nothing “personal or private about either family photographs or the memories they evoke”
(Kuhn 397). The memories of where I’ve seen that red dress before, the comparisons to Ramsey, the locations I’ve seen this picture in time and time again cannot be found in the image itself, but instead that image works as a piece of the puzzle, one that transcends the social context of making meaning and memory. No matter how hard we try, photographs introduce and sustain a conflict of nature, “a site of conflicting memories” (397) that maintain our grasp and connects the insistences of family memories and photography.
Works Cited Burgin, Victor. “Looking at Photographs.” Screen Education 24. (1977): 17-24. Print. Hall, Sean. This Means This This Means That. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2012. Print. Lister, Martin, ed. The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. London: Routledge, 1995. Print. Kuhn, Annette. “Remembrance The Child I Never Was.” The Photographer Reader (1991, 2003): 395-401. Print. Morris, Errol. Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography). New York: The Penguin Press, 2011. Print. Sontag, Susan. “Photography.” The New York Review of Books. Web. 18. Oct 1973. Trachtenberg, Alan, ed. Classic Essays on Photography. Sedgwick: Leete’s Island Books, 1980. Print.