Amazon Kindle Store

Monday, 25 March 2013

Whatever happened to photo albums?

We never really had photograph albums in our family home as myself and my siblings grew up. Instead there would be a myriad of loose glossy and matte photographs of all shapes and sizes and conditions kept in a box brownie cardboard box in the cupboard alongside the Singer sewing machine and Val Doonigan, and my Dad's brass band records.

It wasn't that we didn't document the family and its new additions like the arrival of my younger brother and Mick the puppy dog being cute on the lawn, it's just that the documentation was of a more shifting, malleable nature than plastered down in an album, unable to breathe. The joy of looking through the family's history through photos was more a voyage of accidental discovery than turning the pages of time encapsulated in sheen of tracing paper or worse, the bubbled up, sticky down plastic sheets covering each page. I never did like those.

As a child I was given a box brownie by a reluctant cousin but don't recall using it to any degree. I just liked the shape and feel and the little round window to look through. Then I had a 110 format camera with square disposable flash cubes followed by a neck breaking, stupendously heavy Russian made Zenith.

For a while in the 1970s I got excited by a compact Super 8 camera I had purchased and made some fun short and silent films on my holidays abroad. I showed the resulting edited films to my family on a screen in the front room and narrated them as I went along. “Here's me at the Acropolis in Athens – with my worry beads and pistachio nuts.” Another way of sharing imagery I guess. I used to enjoy the editing process and recall a snipping device, a little editing screen and the smell of film glue. Plus the return of my cine films from Kodak in bright yellow packages. The excitement of creating my own moving images.

From here I went mad for still photography shooting all around me with a Canon film camera. Much lighter than the shoulder crippling Zenith. I was never overly interested in the technical side of things but learnt enough through books to be able to take my images out of the mundane into something attractive, creative and interesting. In all my time as an amateur photographer I never once chopped anyone's head off! Feet maybe, but never the head.
                                                        A photo of my father as a child

So where did I put these personal memories on film? Not in a shoe box or old camera box, but in actual traditional albums. German made albums that were, in fact, cheaper than British made ones and much better quality and purchased from Jessops. Each stiff white paper page was separated by a sheet of tracing paper and the images were originally stuck in with photo corners but eventually got replaced by sticky corners on the underside of the photo. This meant that the photo didn't fall out of the album as time and constant wear and tear loosened the grip of the corners and the precious memories didn't go astray or get damaged. I remember taking one or two of the albums into the butchers' shop where I worked to show my co-workers and always got very agitated if they didn't handle them with the care I bestowed upon them.

In my passion for photography I built up many an album over the years, all documenting my growing up, family events, holidays abroad, new experiences and my new hobby of being involved in the world of amateur theatre. Also, over time and through leaving home and subsequent house moves the albums started to require too much shelf space and some got dwindled down into smaller affairs and even thrown away. Ah hindsight. If only I'd known how precious some of those pictures might be today. I don't mean money precious but memory precious and probably very useful in providing visual clues and nostalgic inspiration for my writing these days. I can almost see some of the images I took in my head today, almost. I'd also started to take photos for other people like the local amateur light opera group and sold them some copies.
My sisters playing Monopoly has to be one of my favourite photos because of the expressions on each face.

Interestingly, on my original travels in Germany in the 1980s I learnt that the German language says that they 'make' a photograph not 'take' as we say. I can understand how 'make' (machen) makes sense but to 'take' doesn't really make literal sense. In 'take' you imagine something being removed, not created.

So, you may be wondering, where did all this come from? It came from going, accidentally, to an exhibition at The Quad in Derby a few weeks ago as part of Format 13 – a celebration of photography and photographic collections. I really liked the albums part of the exhibition and was inspired to take some photos myself of the exhibits and installation. Check out their website and be inspired yourself: and if you fancy finding out more about the Eric Kessel's Album Beauty exposition click here


Images above are from the Eric Kessel Album Beauty exhibition at The Quad, Derby.
The most familiar documentation tool to most folk would have been the family album, now mostly displaced by online methods of sharing such as the photo sharing site, I have met some good friends through sharing online photography and have been able to be inspired through complete strangers worldwide and their take on capturing a still image. Similarly I think there is something to be said about the archiving and sharing of a paper version of photographs.

I still have photographs on photographic paper and have created specific albums to house them in large format (A3) art books. I use these because I like the strength of them and the ability to put quite a few photos over two spread pages. Because I love my trips to France so much I created three albums to house all these precious memories and browsing through these almost makes me feel like I am on holiday.
The image above of an enlarged picture of a French lady's album intrigued me because of the poodle and the accompanying writing expressing her love for the dog.
I liked this image because, although very damaged the damage itself has dramatic feeling to it and made me wonder what had happened to the young bride and her history.

Also, one can be inspired by found photographic objects such as a strangers photo album discovered in a car boot sale or charity shop. Generations of unknown people with unknown lives staring back from the pages with sepia stares and smiles. A chance to imagine lives unknown or unconnected – or are they?


Jean said...

A lovely post, Phil.
I love old photos, especially the ones of family from when I was a little nipper in the 1950's. My parents always kept them in a coronation biscuit tin, because they were so precious they only trusted the Queen to look after them!

I love the pictures of the poodle and was trying to work out if it was a standard like Lulu. Standards "Caniches royales"
Are quite unusual in France so it was more likely a large miniature poodle.

Joy said...

I love photographs and albums. I'm not a huge fan of the digital albums on Picasa or even storing pictures on my laptop. But constant shifting has made it necessary. I cherish old photos.

And this made it so painful for me to leave behind so many albums and old photographs when I left India.