Blogs > Cliopatria > The Way the Camera Made Us

Jul 14, 2004 4:35 pm

The Way the Camera Made Us

I spent a decent proportion of my vacation scanning old family photographs at my mother’s house, and I was struck anew at how powerful a historical tool such photographs can be.

In very old photographs I found from the early 20th Century, there were reminders of how much has changed about both family life and material culture. The entire staging of photographs, the relation between those pictured and the camera, is different, but so too is everything about their material possessions, their bearing, their envisioned relations to each other within family and society.

In more recent photographs of my own childhood in the 1960s, or even the childhood of my parents in the 1940s, there were reminders of how little has changed in the last half-century in either material terms or in the way families represented themselves to the camera’s eye. My toys, at the very beginning of my father’s professional career, when we were in the middle of the middle-class, are in basic outline not that different from my own daughter’s toys.

She has more microchips and interactivity in hers, and she has more of them (though I’m probably in relative terms no wealthier than my father was when I was three years old), but the basic outlines are not that different. My understanding of family, and the way I tend to photographically represent it with my camera, is not that radically different from the way my father tended to envision it when he was behind the shutter.

I’ve always been suspicious of the repeated trope that life is changing faster and faster all the time. This neither seems true for technology or material culture as a whole—for every example of rapid, extraordinary transformation since 1950 in American life, there are plenty of examples of things which have changed very little. But spread out the range from 1900 to 2004, and the claim starts to make more sense, but only as a very generationally specific one. My grandfather has some right to say that in his life, almost everything has changed multiple times with great rapidity, from social norms to cultural practices to material life. That’s not as true for my mother, and I think it’s especially not true for me. There are islands of great and dizzying transformation, most notably anything connected to computers and microchips, but they haven’t reached into the guts of my life the way that change ceaselessly affected those born between 1890 and 1930.

It’s true also, as we are constantly reminded of by scholars of photography, that photographs in general and family photographs in specific are a very selective kind of representation, and should never be treated naively as a mimetic reflection of social reality. In 600 megabytes of so of data, about 750 photographs (with another two thousand or so that I didn’t have time to scan, including landscape and landmark photographs), there were obvious patterns. Families after 1950 photograph each other on vacations, at family gatherings, on Christmas or Easter, and only very occasionally in more spontaneous but somehow photogenic ways (say, for example, when my 3-year old brother fell asleep on his tricycle and toppled over quietly onto the rug, or when my 3-year old sister fell into the Truckee River but somehow kept her pacifier firmly in her mouth.) Families don’t often photograph more banal but materially critical situations, like everyday dinnertimes, television watching, or morning ablutions. They don’t photograph marital fights or an ordinary day for kids in school.

With that firmly in mind, though, I kept thinking as I was scanning of how relatively easy it would be now to accomplish something that was previously unimaginable; a comprehensive national archive of digitally-scanned family photography, available online, possibly through distributed presence on hundreds or thousands of local servers. Right now, historians find family photographs in particular archives, largely deposited by accident, frequently because the family in question is considered historically significant in some way. But at a different scale of massification, we might be able to say other things with confidence. What I’ve said above, for example, about how families do and do not represent each other in photographs is a guess. It might be that my family is aberrant in ways that would surprise me enormously (particularly in light of what I’ve read by historians of photography).

That’s what a truly massive, somewhat indiscriminate archive of family photography might help with. It would take a lot of work to hammer out the technical protocols, but what fascinates me is that such a thing is now imaginable, when even a decade ago, it was a purely science-fictional conceit.

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Timothy James Burke - 7/16/2004

I wonder, though, how long it might be before it really wasn't that expensive to do this.

But you're right that the real question is, "What would we know that we don't know now?" The possibility exists, as you say, that we'd know something unanticipated. A few years back, several historian friends of mine found a bunch of old photographs in an abandoned mine compound in South Africa--a purely serendipitious thing. But they told us some interesting things--that there were miners who were moonlighting as photographers, that the pool of "aspirants" or "strivers" who wanted to have their photographs taken in particular mannered poses was significant, and so on. Some of these things were already "known" a bit, but not to the extent to which we know them better now.

I think more for me the notion of a massive archive of family photographs could speak to the key weakness of most cultural history, including histories of photography, namely that claims about the "representativeness" of a given aspect of cultural representation, about the commonality of a particular trope, are often made on extraordinarily slim bases, sometimes from culture which one suspects is anything but representative. At a massive scale, I wonder if we wouldn't have to rewrite the history of photography *and* the history of families in some respects.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/16/2004

Yes, the technology exists.

In order to create a truly effective archive would require the resources of something like the Library of Congress plus the Eastman-Kodak Foundation, and a truly massive and sustained education and accumulation and cataloging campaign.

It would help if the questions which were being asked seemed, well, more important. I know there will be questions in fifty, even twenty, years that we haven't thought of yet. But I've never read anything on photography and visual culture that wasn't over-selective, over-theorized, extremely subjective and generally mind-numbing. Perhaps a truly large and properly indexed archive of photographs would provide the kind of critical mass to begin developing an historical method for visual images that is remotely akin (at least in its persuasive power) to the methods we use for documentary and social analysis.

I've often thought that a national archive of diaries and journals would be a fabulous resource as well. Another unique and personal look at life, with details which will be important in the future, but for reasons we can't begin to imagine now.