Photographer Sally Mann, using images of her naked children.
Richard Billingham and the photographs of his family.
Consider the notion of constructing an identity through domestic photography.
The family album as narrative, consider what we exclude – death, despair etc.
Perhaps the family album is a kind of back-up memory for the brain? In the same way we would make a back up disk on our computer. It is widely known that sufferers of amnesia besides suffering from memory loss also suffer from a lack of the ability to make future plans, so it seems that with no past there is no future. Like the computer back up disk it would follow that the family album is an important family item. Also like the computer back up disk that only includes the data from the hard drive and not the running system etc; the average family album usually only includes the good times and will exclude bad times. It serves then as a document on the good times only. It documents pre-language babies in prams, pushchairs, or our-selves at the seaside, and at fairs or weddings. Why do we document only the good times and leave bad times to them-selves?
We see countless photographic images in the public realm. Slick photo-shop enhanced advertisements are everywhere in glossy magazines, newspapers and TV. In contrast our own family photography fulfils a need within us as diverse as the people who take the photographs.
Richard Billingham and Sally Man are photographers who have used domestic style photographs to tell another story. Billingham documents a hard life with an alcoholic father in the depressed industrial midlands. The gaudy imperfect prints mirror an imperfect childhood, but capture key moments of tenderness that must have shaped his identity mainly from his mother.
The work of Sally Mann and Richard Billingham is viewed from the perspective of an outsider. The work triggers notions of empathy to do with context and style, but can it ever trigger the same emotions as our own family photographs. “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak.
But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing that establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain the world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled,” John Berger- Ways of Seeing.
Our own family photo albums often trigger feelings of an intangible nature so abstract that they somehow seem beyond words and language. The fact that I can use words and language to describe and express the emotional nature of the work by Mann and Billingham as an outsider, but am unable to adequately tell you of the love I have for my own family, points to the abstract nature of love, art, and the inadequacies of language.
Sally Mann uses domestic photography to lament the death of innocence and childhood. Billingham uses out of date colour film and mass produced processing to provide an intentionally cheap look with which while we may not aspire to this look we are familiar with In contrast to this Mann uses stylised imperfections with lenses and the black and white process in order to create a nostalgic feeling for times past.
I set out to ask why these two artists using separate and widely varied approaches have both been successful in triggering strong notions of identity and nostalgia?
Ray’s a Laugh, was published in 1996. Ray (an alcoholic) and Richard’s father needs every ones attention and is usually Richard’s the main photographic subject. Even when the camera is not pointed at him his presence is still felt like a grey dull pain, in the way only an alcoholic can infect and affect all those around them. By contrast, the mother figure Liz adds warmth and tenderness to the pictures and this unexpected presence completes a state of post-modern flux. The reason for this is that working class images by art photographers have always been documentations of dirt, filth, and poverty. The conflicting narrative Liz imposes leaves the viewer to decipher these images using their own experiences of family and identity.
In contrast to these gaudy colour images by Richard Billingham the soft tonal photography of Sally Man also carries a powerful narrative. Man has captured the spirit of Pictorialsim, a style that dominated photography from the 1890’s to the end of the 1930’s. Pictorialsim imitated painting, including that of Tonalists such as James McNeil Whistler. This work is known for its dramatic effects achieved through the use of special lenses and bold manipulation in the darkroom. This style of photography is dominated by a fuzzy, dark, moody and atmospheric quality. These strong images are rooted in nostalgic charm but also tell of loss. The loss of childhood and the way we all were yesterday. Despite the nostalgic look of the images there is a modern element to them that reminds us of the here and now. Commercial photography invites us to escape, while Sally Mann brings us back to question our own loss of innocence and to ask questions of our own emerging identities.
“Sally Mann is an artist deeply in love with the South. Turning to images of trees, fields, and local ruins after many years of making her own children and family the subject of her work, Mann has brought into focus the landscape that formed the backdrop for the “Immediate Family” series. Steeped in nostalgia, the “Mother Land” photographs of Georgia and the artist’s native Virginia seem to emerge out of a different time. are over a century old and evoke places in the present, Mann’s “Mother Land” images, taken in 1996, seem to recall places from a forgotten past. Reminiscent of images taken in the 19th century, the style of Mann’s recent work has been influenced by a cache of 10,000 glass negatives that she found in the attic of the University of Lexington in 1972. Taken by a returning Civil War veteran, Mann discovered that many of the images were familiar views of the rivers and cliffs that surround her home. Whereas the post-Civil War images seem to recall times from a forgotten past” Website- http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/mann/card2.html
Identity And The Family Album
The mind tricks us into thinking it is all-powerful. The recognition was in an instant. A person I did not know very well at all. I had not seen him over seven years. I was in a town I had no connections with and was visiting for the first time. I was four hundred miles away from the town I had always associated this person with. Yet the recognition was instant. The power of the brain to distinguish faces must be enormous however a recent article in the Sunday Times Magazine tells of how you need to be aware of the brains capacity to fool you.
The article is concerned with a person who has had a brain operation to reduce epilepsy in 1953 at an establishment in Connecticut USA. The hippocampus was destroyed. This is a small area of the temple lobe and also destroyed was the person’s ability to make new memories. After the operation the person would regard them-self as forever young and not recognise their image in a mirror. Each meeting was as if with a complete stranger. Memory loss made ordinary life impossible and sadly friendships were never made again. This unfortunate incident and the research that grew from it taught us the importance of the hippocampus in the formation of memory. Further research has shown that there are three types of memory, immediate, short term, and long term.
“Immediate memory captures a piece of information, just as an image is caught on a piece of film, short-term memory develops it, just as an image is developed with chemicals; and long term memory fixes the information, just as an image is eventually fixed during film processing.” The Sunday Times Magazine- January 21st 2007.
The photographers Sally Mann and Richard Billingham allow processing imperfections to inform and/or permeate their finished work. It seems that the photographic process itself has more in common with the way the mind works than we may have at first imagined.
“Long term memory has huge storage capacity that is spread throughout the entire cerebral cortex. Information is transferred there from the hippocampus as part of the memory-consolidation process.
Karl Pribram, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, argues that when information is transferred to long-term memory, it hooks into existing, related, memory networks. For example, redheads are all loosely tied together in long term memory storage, allowing us to reel of a long list of redheads-from Neil Kinnock to Basil Brush – on request. While the brains capacity is huge, however, the accuracy of our recall is no longer taken for granted. The psychology professor Elizabeth Loftus and author Katherine Ketcham have led the way in showing us just how unreliable and malleable memory can be. Their work shows that remembering is not the straightforward, uncontaminated recall of a stored experience. In fact, remembering is now more commonly regarded as an act of construction in which inaccuracies and fabrications often creep in.” The Sunday Times Magazine- January 21st 2007.
We are aware that memory is part of us and helps form our identity. We like to think we are in command of our memories, but like our photo albums it is incomplete and often offers a fallible notion of identity. As we mature our notions of identity change. Do our albums help with these stages of change?
“In a devastating critique of so-called “recovered memories”, Loftus – also renowned for showing the unreliability of witness evidence – and Ketcham argue that the traumatic memories patients claim to have recovered can be fabrications planted by therapists and accepted as authentic by suggestible clients. Without safeguards, lawyers can lead suggestible witnesses to create false memories in the same way.
So our memory capacity is huge and involves specific sites such as the hippocampus as well as networks that spread across the cortex. Memory is vital to our learning and our sense of self but it isn’t always reliable. In fact, memory can be a very slippery customer indeed.” -The Sunday Times Magazine- January 21st. 2007.
We find it easier to use language both of the visual and the literal type to describe good times, but when we see an image of a napalmed scalded little girl running away from a burning forest the horror is unspeakable. This iconic image did more than words to put an end to the Vietnam War. If we look at the family album and photography in a theoretical way, I find the following structuralists’ point of view both interesting and relevant,
- “Reality is composed not of things but of Relationships.
- Every “object” has a presence and an absence.
- The total system is present in each of its parts.
- The parts are more real than the whole.” – Donald D Palmer.
In many ways the family album is ‘of the domestic’, ‘of the personal’, ‘of the inadequate’, and ‘of the incomplete.’ We know our family album by what is in it. But we also know it in another way. What or who is not included. We recognise ourselves not only for who we are but also by who we are not. By absence it documents our losses. Our albums serve to fix our identities and reflect the human condition.
When the hippocampus in the brain is destroyed and memories are irretrievable it is like photographs without an album floating in the wind. Identities are lost.