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Reviewed by:
  • Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory
  • Timothy Dow Adams
Marianne Hirsch. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997. xiv + 304 pp.

Marianne Hirsch’s title refers both to the way we frame family photographs and how they frame us. She’s interested in the way we bracket photographic images and how the constant contest between the familial look and the culturally constructed familial gaze influences our way of looking at pictures. Because of its indexical nature, a photograph initially seems to be a fairly direct representation. As Rosalind Krauss notes, using a familial metaphor herself, “On the family tree of images it is closer to palm prints, death masks, the Shroud of Turin, or the tracks of gulls on beaches [. . .] .” Because the taking, displaying, and viewing of family photographs might seem at first to be relatively [End Page 1054] unmediated by ideological considerations, Hirsch’s first task is to demonstrate the ways that a family’s actual life collides with the need to project a mythical ideal image of itself, as illustrated in the many ways that a family’s visual dynamics both reveal and conceal the “unconscious optics” of individuals and the family group.

Her subtitle suggests the wide range of texts she uses to discuss images of the family. By “photography” she means not only actual photographs, including her own family’s as well as family pictures seen in newspapers, but also photos in museum exhibitions such as Steichen’s The Family of Man and from professional photographers such as Sally Mann’s Immediate Family. She’s equally intrigued by family photographs in Jewish memorial books, photographs, and film, and photographs in autobiographies. By “narrative” Hirsch means to signal that she’s also concerned with ekphrasis, descriptions of photographs in novels such as Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy and Annie John and Sue Miller’s Family Pictures, plus such ideas as photographs not taken, essays about photographs not shown, and the interrelations between actual photographs and cartoon renderings of photographs in Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The “postmemory” of her subtitle refers specifically to children of Holocaust survivors, and in general to the memories of “those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth.” Photographs are especially important in terms of postmemory because of their sometimes simultaneous ability to support and to distort other forms of remembrance.

The strength of Family Frames lies in the way Hirsch has organized all of the elements implied by her title/subtitle, her having assembled what she suggests is itself a sort of family album. The range and originality of her examples and the way she has managed to move logically and smoothly from mourning and postmemory through such individual topics as masking the subject, maternal exposures, resisting images, and past lives are especially appealing. These subjects are all held together, both by the common thread of family images and by her decision to write in three distinct, though interwoven, registers: theoretical, critical, and autobiographical.

The theoretical portions of the book are especially effective—clear, convincing, and original, supported by the soundest of scholarship—though I wish that she had been able to balance her well chosen references to literary and cultural writers with more representatives [End Page 1055] from photography’s emerging body of theorists. When she turns to the critical parts of her book, close readings of individual photographs and texts, Hirsch is again especially strong, providing valuable readings of many of the 68 images with which Family Frames is illustrated. On a few occasions, however, she seems to misread the actual image, as when she refers to Spiegelman’s representing gypsies as “ladybugs” rather than gypsy moths, or when in describing a newspaper photo of the boxer Riddick Bowe as a child, visiting a Fresh Air Fund host family, she claims that we can see in the image a garden hose “between the two arms with which Riddick hugs his own waist,” a suggestion “that the guest has no claim on this household object.” Actually the young Bowe appears to be holding the hose in both of his hands.

Readers will respond to the third level of discourse, the autobiographical, according to their own...

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