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  • Re-Citing, Re-Siting, and Re-Sighting Likeness: Reading the Family Archive in Drucilla Modjeska’s Poppy, Donna Williams’ Nobody Nowhere, and Sally Morgan’s My Place

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.

—Walter Benjamin, No. VI of the “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations

Because the family photograph is a ritual of the domestic cult in which the family is both subject and object, because it expresses the celebratory sense which the family group gives to itself, and which it reinforces by giving it expression, the need for photographs and the need to take photographs (the internalization of the social function of this practice) are felt all the more intensely the more integrated the group and the more the group is captured at a moment of its highest integration.

—Pierre Bourdieu, Photography

[End Page 509]

Those “happy,” “serious,” “loving,” “miserable,” but always passive visual moments which do exist, those moments which only show surface information about me, give no indication at all of the wider social, economic and political histories of our disgusting class-divided society. They are rendered invisible within my ‘family album’.

—Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture

In the early decades of the twentieth century the increasingly widespread availability of inexpensive and compact cameras enabled everyday families to record celebrations, rites of passage, familiar places, friends, and leisure activities. Such memorializing was, as Susan Sontag reminds us, “the earliest popular use of photography” (8). Within the fluid exigencies of everyday life, the click of cameras caught celluloid moments that registered familial identities, relationships, rituals, achievements, possessions, and social status for years and family members to come. Since then photographs have come to constitute one of the most important and portable components of a family’s archive, offering up in discontinuous and sometimes powerfully haunting images traces of a family’s experiential history. 1 For individual families, and for the larger culture, whose investment in ideologies of familiality is secured through the reproduction of individual family units, photography, as Pierre Bourdieu elaborates, “affirms the continuity and integration of the domestic group, and reaffirms it by giving it expression” (29).

Family photos are often thrown helter-skelter into shoe boxes or dresser drawers, a cluttered jumble of memorial moments out of place and out of chronology. Sometimes they are lovingly sorted out and catalogued, then gathered into fastidiously organized and documented family albums designed to leave to posterity an orchestrated family chronicle (Motz 63; Stokes 203). Most often perhaps they are stashed in drawers or boxes after being labelled with brief notes dating the photo, identifying place, naming people, in handwriting that may or may not be recognizable or legible. In the hands of strangers, such collections become documentary evidence accumulated in historical archives and museums, there to be taken up by social and art historians or ethnologists. But in the hands of family members, photographs serve a variety of more personal functions. Called upon to confirm the family’s “present unity [End Page 510] from its past” (Bourdieu 31), they bind families together across generations, across geography, across differences in destinies, by providing records, however fragmented, of a mutual past for those who come in the future and occasions for the communal sharing of different but overlapping family narratives. In the process individual memory becomes social memory as private memories find narrative affiliation with the social memory accumulated in the family album (whether organized or disorganized).

But just how do perusals of photographs work to join people and their pasts? The figures in family photos may be easily identified. That, we say, is my grandmother. And that is my father. And that is me when I was five. They provide us with deceptively familiar visual likenesses, likenesses that reinforce for photographers and their subjects the “realism” of photographs. But, as Bourdieu notes, the capacity to see the family photograph “as the precise and objective reproduction of reality” derives from the social use of photography, a social use that “makes a selection, from the field...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 509-542
Launched on MUSE
1994-09-01
Open Access
No
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