Most early photo albums were created by wealthy Victorian women who added them to their list of ladylike pursuits. But creating such albums was more than just a way of passing the time. By selecting, rejecting, ordering and embellishing family photographs, these 19th-century women became keepers of family history. They also became visual storytellers, creating versions of the family that would be passed down to future generations.
Understand the importance of oral histories
If your family already has an album, talk to its custodian and get the names (and relationship details) of each individual featured. Ask them for the stories surrounding the pictures and really listen to what they tell you. Oral histories are a great way of passing on knowledge, memories and experiences. Record the conversation (many phones have this facility), transcribe it and keep a copy of it with the photo album. Different family members may have different accounts of events, so conduct multiple interviews where possible. When the custodian of the album passes away, they will take the stories with them, so don’t allow your images to become orphans.
Create your own family album
Don’t leave your digital files sitting on your camera, computer or phone – get them printed. Online photo services are now so cheap that a single print costs just a few cents – and the more you order, the cheaper they get. When your prints arrive spend time selecting your favourites and ask yourself why some move you more than others. With your shortlist decided, order the pictures – most albums are chronological, but that doesn’t mean yours has to be. Feeling inspired? Consider decorating or embellishing your album. You might have a shop-bought version, or you may have found an antique album with beautifully bevelled apertures. Either way use decoration and embellishments to express yourself and tell your own unique story.
Think about what to include and exclude
Generally speaking, family albums are reassuring – the pictures they contain promote continuity, stability and unity, and that’s why they all look so similar. If you want to try something different consider including pictures of less joyful events: a child crying, a funeral (providing the other attendees agree), work or illness. It takes bravery to defy convention, but this is your story, your family and your interpretation of events. If you choose to exclude certain pictures, ask yourself why. Are you afraid of being judged? Does the image trigger painful memories? Have you found yourself including too many images of the same subject? If so, what does this tell you?
Experiment with photo therapy
Choose a selection of pictures of yourself from the family album (either the one you have created or one curated by a family member). Write down everything you can remember about when the picture was made. Can you recall what happened immediately before and/or after the shutter was fired? What was happening in your life the day/month/year the picture was taken? Who took the picture? What is your relationship to them? Has your relationship to this image changed over time? Write down all that you can remember, without censoring yourself.
Family photo albums are fascinating social documents that reveal as much about the time they were made as the people they contain, but they are also personal. Compiling an album comes with responsibility – the version you create may be passed down the generations, so make it honest and make it your own.
Words: Tracy Calder
This article was originally published under the title In the picture in Issue 15 – A new direction