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Biography 26.1 (2003) 143-147

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Martha Langford. Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2001. 251 pp. ISBN 0-7735-2174-7, $39.95.

There is a spurious sense of the "real" attached to the everyday photographic print, with its mimetic representation of things familiar. And ironically so, since popular snapshot photography—or "Kodak culture," as Richard Chalfen has termed it (2)—emerged in chronological tandem with the Modernist movement in the traditional arts. At the same time, it might be speculated that although to the present day photography continues to exercise an overwhelming popularity, changes in the technology of photography and the resultant increase in the total number of images processed, combined with our immersion in postmodernity, must surely lead to changes in our expectations of the formal composition of the photographic image. The growth in popularity of photography, after all, appears to increase exponentially. [End Page 143] Where two decades ago estimates of the annual production of paper prints were in excess of ten billion snapshots, present-day world figures suggest that by now photographic film exposures have climbed to 89 billion, and digital exposures have soared to the even more astonishing total of 33.5 billion. 1 It is probably safe to suppose, however, that a major proportion of those exposures will have adhered as closely as ever to the informal mimetic tradition of photography. In its raw, un-deconstructed state, the photographic image can be assumed to remain both powerfully suggestive and powerfully "real."

As Martha Langford points out in Suspended Conversations, under the duress of impending disaster, individuals will frequently strive above all else to salvage their family album, because tied into the photographic image, and even more so into purposefully accumulated collections of such images, there seems to exist a complex range of values and meanings, many of which may not be immediately accessible to an album's own compiler nor, more pertinently, to the objective scholarly investigator. As other commentators have also observed, the loss of family photographs may occasion emotions similar to a sense of bereavement. Photographs, and collections of them in particular, appear to represent a (re-)constructed world through which favored moments can be recalled and idealized; the loss of such an ideal, externalized, yet personal record can be grievous.

There exists further ambivalence in this, as Langford records when she dwells at some length on the idea of the production, preservation, and reviewing of photographs in terms of a "faithfully revisited gravestone," and she cites several commentators on photography who have observed that "to be photographed is somewhat akin to dying; to photograph is an act of soft murder; to be photographed is an act of self-perpetuation" (27). Again, where numerous commentators agree is with the view of the photograph and the photographic album as a means not only for showing but for telling about past instants, and much of Langford's subsequent study is devoted to revealing the essential orality of the album. At the same time, as she emphasizes early in her study, she is conscious of both the intimacy and the difference of the links between the (perhaps long dead) compiler of an album and its scholarly investigator: "The removal of an album from a private situation to the public sphere does not deprive it of a context, but substitutes one set of viewing conditions for another. An institutional setting, however impersonal, is never neutral" (18).

Suspended Conversations is, then, a book with a potentially intriguing thesis, where Langford's quest for a poetics of the informal, amateur family photograph album finds its primary focus in the notion that the photograph album, once it had developed its own identity as a medium for personal and [End Page 144] familial memories, became a form that was inevitably linked with the notion of the oral narrative. At the same time, as she is at pains to caution from the start, "however bookish its appearance, the photographic album needs to be distinguished from analogous forms, both visual and textual, and analyzed...