Photographic Memory: The Album In The Age Of Photography by Verna Posever Curtis

For my research surrounding the photographic album I was directed to the book “Photographic Memory: The Album In The Age Of Photography“; an aperture publication written by Verna Posever Curtis. The book is described as tracing “the rise of the album from the turn of the century today, showcasing important examples in the history of the medium, as collected by the Library Of Congress.”

Page By Page: The Album As Object

This section of the book, which is essentially the introduction and one of the most important sections for me and my concept, opens up with quite a romantic view of what the photographic album represents and the time that it was most popular in a sense that it was when it became a popular form of represenation and record. It talks of an album from within the Library which portrays the life of John Burroughs, an American naturalist and nature essayist from the late 1800s, by describing the “simple joys of rural life a century ago”. It talks of “cooking for friends…sitting on the stoop, and teaching grandchildren” and the fact that this comes “alive through the brittle pages of a rare album at the Library Of Congress.” This very romanticised scene allows us to think of times long gone and this sets us up for thinking in this way; a way that is almost nostalgic in the sense that because the photographic album has been used for over a century it is seen as quite dated, and not something that is seen in its original and traditional form very much in modern times unless they are from our parents or grandparents and even when we see these they are still a dated version of the form of recording history. This is exactly what the photographic album is: a record. It is an amalgamation of images and sometimes objects, curated by the creator to tell a story of times passed. When speaking of Burrough’s album we read that “you need not know anything about the people in the pictures to sense their common bond with the natural world…you see it in the composition, the lighting, and the immediacy of the original prints”. This tells us that there is a way to make the album, which shows us personal photographic narratives, universal instead of local in the sense that the creator of the album used images that could be related to so it was not necessarily anything to do with the people in the images but instead the content and context of images that allows the viewer to relate to the piece of history.

The fact that the albums featured in this book are all from before the digital age helps to add to this idea of the album being an older tradition that is something that has been passed down through generations instead of being something that has been invented since the creation of computers and digital devices that we would use to make modern versions of the photographic album. However, I feel like it would be interesting to read up on how the photographic album has now changed in the digital era in which we use digital devices to make our lives easier and more efficient at every opportunity that we get. 

From this section I took away that the album is something that is unique, intimate and has longevity in the sense that it is created with the intention of being kept for a long time to show the future generations the narrative within the pages. Although the album is a very intimate and personal form of narrative, usually due to the nature and theme of the images included being that way inclined, they are meant to invoke imagination and prompt personal memories when we look through the pages by seeing images that we can relate to. This is yet another way of thinking about the album as something that is not local but is instead universal. This also shows how memory is recalled and formed through hearing about the stories the photographs in a family album hold; this is what I want to look at in my project. 

The fact that the traditional album is a physical artefact, we are told, “satisfies a shared human urge to touch and come in close contact with the representation of human experiences.” The use of photographs within the album is discussed; “while they have an authority in their representation of the real world, they are also subjective and open to interpretation, embodying thoughts in pictures.” This idea of the photograph being an authority is something that is incredibly important to me within this project because the album is essentially a record, it allows us to see the world as it was when the images were created, whether that was 100 or 10 years ago. This means that we can look back, see what has changed and be nostalgic which seems to be an inherent need for humans, especially in an age when we can find anything easily at the click of a button. However, the album allows us to take time and sit back while looking through images from the past and think about not only the images but also to relfect these onto and compare these with our own lives. The fact that the photograph is subective is something that I think the album relies on; to make albums more universally appreciated, viewer needs to be able to relate to the images and therefore understand the narrative a lot more than if they could not see themselves or something about their lives within the pages. 

The use of albums began in the mid-nineteenth century and has developed with the progression of photography within the twentieth century. “They commemorate events and activies, recognize accomplishments, aid memory, contribute to family lore, and test pictorial ideas.” The thing that I find most interesting about the album is the fact that it aids memory. It allows the viewer to place themselves within the images by seeing the events that took place and we can go back and talk about the images to let younger generations discover the history of their families. I find this idea incredibly intriguing because as one of the youngest in my very big family, I do not necessarily remember everybody from within my family either because they passed away when I was very young or even before I was born and through photographic albums I have been able to get to know these people, and the past of my mother and close family members, through sitting down with mytf mother and hearing stories and pieces of my family’s history. This is something that I would like to tackle and represent within my project; I want to try to look at the idea of images triggering memories and allowing us as a race to fulfil our need to look back at the past.

Due to time constrictions, and my slow reading skills, I did not get to read the whole book but I think that this section has helped me immensely in thinking of how I would like to look that the family album but also with the history of them and reasoning behind why we make them.


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