Framing The World Through My Photographs
Jessica Oakes- Definitive Blog post
It’s a few days after the symposium was held at the Herbert; I am so pleased at how the event went. I didn’t think that it would come together so well. I presented on the second day, in which on the first day I utilised the Collective Vision twitter account as we had gained a good following, therefore I could gain interest, and evolve people in conversation through the day. The week leading up to the event I was extremely nervous, however, I went home on the Tuesday feeling confident about presenting the next day, due to how smoothly it ran. On the day I was due to present, I was still surprisingly confident in the morning. As soon as lunchtime came I got extremely nervous, as I was first to speak after lunch. I remembered a tip my mums’ friend gave me which was to shake my arms vigorously to get rid of the nervous energy. Sadly this only worked for a few minutes. Whilst I was presenting I remembered my feedback from the previous week, which as to engage the audience and look at them. I wrote myself notes on my script to look up when I changed my slide. I choose two people that were in my eye line to look at when I looked up. When I get nervous I have the tendency to speak really fast, I recognised when I had started to do this and slowed myself down, taking paused to let what I had said sink in. Although I felt I had got my nerves together, but my hand were shaking so much that I could feel the lectern start so shake. Once I had finished my presentation I was asked questions from two of my peers. Becky asked, how has the digital age affected family photography? And Charli asked what were my views on Sally Manns work as I had briefly mentioned her within my presentation. On refelection I think I was most nervous about the questions as I am never the person to think on the spot to answer a question, I felt that I had answered them well. Once I set back down I received a few tweets asking questions.
At the beginning of this module the thought of giving a ten minute presentation of my own research absolutely terrified me, as the module consisted of everything that scares me the most in terms of academic. Reading, writing and public speaking. I have never considered myself a very academic person. I had started thinking about what I might like to research over the summer, my first thought was along the lines of retouching, but I found this topic to be slightly generic. It wasn’t until I found Graham Kings book Say Cheese in a little book shop in a small town in Ireland. I have always been fascinated in looking though my family photos and discussing with my parents where they were taken.
I have found this module to be very challenging, and have been the cause of many a break down in not thinking that I am good enough to be able to give an interesting presentation on my chosen topic. Looking back to the first term I was should have started writing a lot quicker than I did, as I feel that I held myself back in getting going and putting my research and my own thoughts together.
At the beginning of the module I had decided to take on too much by covering the photo album and the changes in family photography due to the digital age, as there was a lot to cover, I decided to just focus on the representation of the family in photo albums and including two case studies by looking at Richard Billingham and Ellinor Carucci. Once I decided to separate the digital aspect of family photography I felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders as I had plenty of research for the representation on family photography as I found my self most interested in this.
Although if you were to ask my what I thought of this module, it may not be the most positive of responses, due to it being so far out of my comfort zone. However, I feel that being out of my comfort zone has pushed myself in how I think and respond to tasks that I don’t find easy. Putting them off is not the best thing to do as it only digs you into a deeper hole. The module has allowed me to expand on my academic methods, which I can transfer into my degree show module. I have really pushed myself within this module, allowing me to learn a vast amount about my chosen topic, but expand my range of vocabulary.
If I were to go back in ten years or so to look at how the family is represented in photography I suspect my presentation would see a dramatic shift, as new technology and platforms for sharing are invented.
Looking back at the recording of the presentation I gave at The Herbert, I have gain a massive sense of pride. I felt I came across confident to the view, and engage the audience, changing my tone of voice and looking up. Looking back to last term I wouldn’t not have thought I would feel this amount of pride in myself. I need to stop worrying about my weaknesses instead jumping over them to better myself.
Below you can find a copy of my script, PowerPoint and references.
Photography and the representation Family’s
The documentation of family life is a centuries old pastime, from the paintings by Thomas Gainsborough in the 1700s (slide) through to the digital photography we see today. Professional photographers that have photographed the family have pushed the boundaries of the viewer’s expectations in terms of family photography.
During this presentation I will be looking into vernacular photo albums, which is a collection of images made by the amateur photographer. Moving onto formal posed images that have been created since the 1840s to today’s idyllic representation of family life. This will be compared to professional photographers bodies of work. By looking at Richard Billingham’s Ray’s A Laugh and Ellinor Carucci’s, Mother, who have used photographs of their own families in their published work.
BREATH…. LOOK UP
The vernacular photo album is ever evolving. Julia Hirsch in Family photographs: Content, meaning and effect, recognised the development and change in family portraiture. Hirsch examines how the technology used in commercial studios in the 1840s, produced stiff expressionless images due to the long exposure times. This led to the 19th century custom of having post mortem photographs taken of a deceased loved one. Due to the expense, photography was not accessible to the masses, and possession of a photograph was an act of not only immortalising a loved one but a display of their wealth.
BREATH… LOOK UP
The introduction of the Brownie Box camera by Kodak in the early 1900s saw photography become more accessible to the amateur photographer. The taking of snapshots became common across western culture which encapsulated Kodak’s slogan “ you press the button, we do the rest.” (Bull 2010: 83) This saw photography become a “widespread activity” (bull 2010: 83), due to the advances in technology and cost. This lead to the informal images of the family that we see today.
Each family album is unique to the individual, in terms of the memories they possess. However, viewers of family photo albums expect to see certain types of photographs. Richard Chalfen
in Snapshots versions of life (1987) says , photo albums are very much a reoccurring cycle of family events, that moves through the generations.
(SLIDE) The producers of family albums start with beginnings, which is agreed by the mothers in Gillian Roses book Doing Family Photography, as they discuss how baby photographs hold what they described as a series of firsts, as they record the most significant moments of a child’s life: The first smile, the first steps, the first birthday through to the first day at school. (Rose 2010: 27) The cycle moves through to early adulthood to marriage, where the cycle will reoccur as the newly weds become first time parents, thus recreating their new series of firsts.
Although it seems the focus in family photography today is the children, this was not always the case as Pierre Bourdieu states in Photography: A middle brow art. Before the 1940s, “photographs were taken predominately of adults, secondarily of family groups bringing together parents and children, and only exceptionally of children on their own. Today the hierarchy is reversed. With society placing more importance on the children of the family.” (Bourdieu 1990: 22)
Amateurs will undertake a series of steps to create family photographs, unaware that it is a form of codification. Val Williams in Who’s Looking At The Family, says, “ snapshot photography [is] seemingly so open so casual, [it] operates by its own clearly delineated rules”. (Williams 1994:13) . Mark Romanek, says in one hour photo (Romnaek 2002), family photos depict smiling faces, births, wedding, holidays and children’s birthday parties, as people are taking pictures of the happy moments in their lives. A participant from Gillian Roses, Doing Family Photography, said that “photo albums don’t show the bad things,”(Rose 2010: 27) Rina, an interviewee in Roses’s book explains that when she was ill no one would photograph her at her worst, as the picture of illness doesn’t represent the happy memories that the family album sets out to show. The curator of the family album presents the family in the most idyllic way, unaware that it conforms to these unwritten rules.
In contrast English photographer and artist Richard Billingham,(SLIDE) published his body of work Ray’s A Laugh, which focused on his own family, in particular his mother Big Liz and his father Raymond. His photographs were far from what the usual family image would portray. Billingham grew up within a working class family where his father was an abusive alcoholic. (SLIDE)
This work was not intended to be published; instead the photographs were taken as a reference for his paintings. In an interview with Gordon MacDonald in 2007, Billingham said that his father would not sit still for long enough to be painted so he “got hold of a camera”(Macdonald: 2007)which he would use the images to paint from. In the early images in Ray’s A Laugh, Billingham got his compositional ideas from contemporary paintings; however, the later photographs were inspired by the work of Larry Clark. In particular Clarks body of work Tulsa, LOOK UP(SLIDE) which depicted the lives of young people in his hometown in Oklahoma. Like Billingham, Clarks work is far from the usual type of image expected to be seen, depicting young adult using drugs.
BREATH.. LOOK UP
A.D Coleman refers to the snapshot as a form of vernacular photography. However, the use of the snapshot aesthetic by photographers emerged out of the 1980s with photographers such as Martin Parr capturing everyday life. Stephen bull and Graham king in their books Photography & Say cheese, discuss the characteristics of the snapshot,
(SLIDE) some of which include blurring of the subject and unconventional framing. Similarities in aesthetic can be seen in how Billingham captures particular decisive moments of his family life. The images in this series are a “ photographic vision of… poverty, pain [and] tragedy” (Rickard: 2010)
(SLIDE) Doug Rickard in his article for American Suburb X said there is “brilliance in [the] ugliness. Rickard goes onto say that Billingham has achieved an impressive piece of voyeuristic work, which displays a sense of realism, a sense of everyday life.
LOOK UP .. BREATH
(SLIDE)This particular photo in Billingham’s book, has captured Ray with another bloodied nose, either from a fight with Big Liz or another collision with a piece of furniture, both of which are documented throughout the body of work.
The photo awkwardly cropped, looks into the toilet where Ray is present, surrounded by the overpowering red and yellow patterned wallpaper in stark contrast to the brilliant white wall that frames Ray. These are signature characteristics that run through the series of images depicted in rays a laugh.
LOOK UP .. BREATH
Rays a laugh, explores the relationship between members of Billinghams own family, depicting “painful, often humorous…[and] sometimes violent moments (Stonard 2000), providing the viewer with an introspective view into Billingham’s family, that usually only close family members are privy to. The use of the snapshot aesthetic, allows the viewer to engage with his images, as they resemble that of the amateur family photograph.
An alternative view is that of Ellinor Carucci, an Israeli photographer who lives and works in the USA has photographed her family, although her work is not in keeping with the aesthetics of the snapshot like Billingham or the photographs taken by the amateur. Her practice closely studies the relationship between her and her family.
(SLIDE) Her images challenge what is accepted by society in family photography, but in contrast does present certain aspects of family life.
Her most recent body of work ‘mother’, which began in 2004, follows her journey into family life, which she published in 2013. In the introduction to her photo-book Mother, Carucci expresses that as a new mother she “felt and saw so much in the first few months”, witnessing the highs and lows of being a new mother, stating that “ I tried to deal with this through my camera, hoping to portray the complexity of motherhood as honestly as I could”. (Carucci 2013:8).
Caruccis work displays the truth of family life as a mother. It displays times of struggle in motherhood when her children misbehave,
(SLIDE) but also shows the peaceful moments, Carucci says that, “it was intense, too rich to only express the “Madonna and child images…There was to much more to tell (Carucci 2013:8) Carucci, like the participants in Roses book doing family photography, felt the need to document her children’s life whilst they were young, as “the stages they go through fly by.”( Carucci 2013: 8). Documenting particular moments such as her son eating for the first time. As a mother she felt “compelled to preserve these moments” (Carucci 2013:8), stating “it’s a need every parents shares, professional or not. (Carucci 2013:8). LOOK UP
Some of her work displays what is expected to be seen within a family album however, her publication also display images that are far from what expected to seen within the family album.
(SLIDE) In her publication, is a double page spread that contrasts, what is expected to be seen in photographs of the family. The right image depicts the “Madonna and child” image, a mother embracing her child, the viewer expects to see these types of images, however, the photo on the left depicts Carucci and her child both nude. Although it is not unusual to see a child depicted nude within family albums, it is not common to see the parents fully undressed.
In an interview with Jonathan Worth, Carucci was mindful as to when to edit out the nudity of her children. However, when Sally Mann published her work in 1993, she came under criticism for displaying nude images of her children to the public. However, Carucci said in the interview, that she felt it was easier when she published her work, expressing that “the content is slightly more seen than when Mann published her work.”
Family documentation has played an important role within the family, especially in terms of the representation of past generations.
The family album in particular expresses social memory, which is a blend between public and personal memorisation. The display of a family album shows the integration between different family members. However, writers such as Val Williams, discuss how the curators of the family album present their families in the most idyllic way, by depicting them at their happiest, usually partaking in family events. Family photographs, particularly the group photographs formalise the climatic moments of social lives, reaffirming the family’s unity. LOOK UP
The amateur sets out to present their family in the best possible way. However, both photographers I have examined have pushed the viewers expectations of what family photography should be, or show. Both Billingham and Carucci have provided the viewer with an introspective view into their own family lives, showing everyday struggle. Therefore presenting the viewer with what could be said as a more truthful representation into family life.
It is not to say that what the amateur presents in their family albums is a false representation of family life, rather, it can be considered as the documentation of the ideal family image.
Script reference list
Billingham B (2000) Richard Billingham: Ray’s a Laugh.
Bourdieu, P. (1989) Photography: A Middle-brow Art.
United Kingdom: Cambridge : Polity, 1990.
Bull, S. (2009) Photography.
United Kingdom: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
Elinor Carucci ; foreword by Francine Prose. (2013) Mother.
Germany: Prestel Verlag.
Chalfen R. (1987) Snapshots versions of life.
Green state university popular press.
King, G. (1986) Say ‘cheese’!: the snapshot as art and social history. United Kingdom: HarperCollins Distribution Services.
MacDonald, G. (2007a) ‘Richard Billingham interviewed by Gordon MacDonald in 2007’, Ideas and Ideals in Visual Culture, 4 May. Available at: https://gordonmacdonalddotorg.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/richard-billingham-interviewed-by-gordon-macdonald-in-2007/ (Accessed: 19 January 2015).
Hirsch j. (1981) Family photographs: Content, meaning and effect.
New York and Oxford: Oxford University press
Rickard D. (2010) Richard Billingham: “Ray’s A Laugh” (2000) [online] available from < http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/07/richard-billingham-rays-laugh.html> [9 January 2015]
Rose G. (2010) Doing Family Photography [Coventry University e-brary]
Ashgate. ‘Available from’ < http://site.ebrary.com/lib/coventry/detail.action?docID=10376624> [ 20 December 2014]
Rosler, M. (2004) Decoys and disruptions: selected writings, 1975-2001.
New York: MIT PRESS
Williams, V., Carol Brown and Brigitte Lardinois (1994) Who’s looking at the family?. United Kingdom: London : Barbican Art Gallery, 1994.
Worth J (2012) Ellinor Carucci, in conversation for Picbod. [online] Available from. < https://vimeo.com/35568544> [ 15 January 2105]
Figure one – Gainsborough T (1750) Robert Andrews and his Wife, Frances [online] avalible from. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/thomas-gainsborough-mr-and-mrs-andrews [1 February 2015]
Figure two – Oakes B (1997) First day at school [Oakes family album]
Figure three – Billingham R ( 2000) Untitled, 1994.
Figure 4 – Clark L ( 1971) Untitled. [online] Available from. < http://www.americansuburbx.com/series-2/l/larry-clark-tulsa-1971#gallery/57877085a48dcf3d7d2fcb7d34aadd59/6642> [1 February 2015]
Figure 5 – Billingham R ( 2000) Untitled, 1990-96.
Figure 6 – Billingham R ( 2000) Untitled, 1994.
Figure 7 – Billingham R ( 2000) Untitled, 1990-96.
Figure 8 – Billingham R ( 2000) Untitled, 1990-96.
Figure 9 – Elinor Carucci (2012) Mother. [online] Avalible from. < http://www.elinorcarucci.com/mother.php#8. [ 2 February 2015]
Elinor Carucci (2012)Emmanulle and Me. [online] Avalible from. < http://www.elinorcarucci.com/mother.php#8> [ 2 February 2015]
Figure 10 – Elinor Carucci ; foreword by Francine Prose. (2013) Mother.
Germany: Prestel Verlag.