Home > HIST 5702X > Some thoughts on family photo albums

Some thoughts on family photo albums

Have you ever looked at your family photo album and wondered what someone else would make of it, what stories they might invent based on the images, what meanings they might take from the photographs, if they were to examine it decades from now without the benefit of knowing the family or its history? I ask because sometimes we assume a picture is worth a thousand words, but in the case of our own visual stories, they are inextricably linked to our oral history. What story does your photo album tell if there’s no one there to offer a narrative? I’m sure the story is very different than what we see in our own visual histories.

Henry Sayre says slide shows and the family album are “the mnemonic devices of a new oral history.” Martha Langford suggests the album functions as a pictorial aide-mémoire to recitation. In essence, family photos are like visual cues that remind us of people, places, events, experiences or even emotions.

The narrative that accompanies many of the photos is as important – arguably more so – than the photos alone. It is possible to tell a story with just photos (although cutlines are often used to ensure a more accurate reading), but that’s not generally the intent of family albums. They’re meant to capture fragmented moments that weave a story when supported by oral history. In fact, albums can be an unsorted and messy collection of photographs because at one time they were probably a sort of living document of family history where images were added, removed, borrowed and maybe even lost, stuffed into an open slot, randomly placed in a book for safekeeping and later forgotten, and so much more. Of course, not all are so chaotic. There are those who create albums with an intent to document. But not all albums are so well organized.

For a workshop I had my parents dig out an old album for me to borrow. The one I borrowed starts logically, with photos of me at 14 months old followed chronologically by those of me just over two years old. But that’s where the organization stops. My two-year-old self is followed by a page with a single black-and-white negative of a woman holding a baby in what appears to be a backyard. “Who’s that?” I ask. My mother thinks it’s my aunt with one of her children, but she needs it printed to know for sure. She tucked the negative there long ago for safekeeping, apparently never getting around to getting it printed. If it is my aunt, she is holding my older cousin and this photo was taken well before I was born, and thus well before the previous portraits were shot, effectively breaking the chronology. The photos that follow the negative are also haphazard, jumping back and forth through the years, with various family members and extended relations. What started as a chronological collection of professional portraiture morphs into ad hoc family snapshots.

The importance of the narrative is not lost in this borrowed example. Someone might assume that the five portraits of me sitting with my aunt – hugging her, her gazing at me or both of us gazing at the camera – are photos of a mother with her child. But my mother explains that, being two-years-old, I started to get fussy during the sitting. She doesn’t like getting her picture taken so my aunt offered to sit in for a few photos to get me back into the rhythm and, presumably, smiling for the camera. Apparently it worked. And on closer inspection, indeed, I do look a bit sullen in one or two of the photos with my aunt. Interestingly, our full names are recorded on the back of the images, along with our ages, the date, where the photos were taken and the name of the studio. Our last names don’t match, but what an outside observer would read into that is anyone’s guess. There is a photo of me from around the same time period with my mother and brother later in the book, but the only information on the back of that is the film speed and the fact that a flash was used (which would mean the photo was likely taken by my uncle, who practised amateur photography for some years).

Family photos, being of a personal nature, are imbued with meanings relevant only to an inner circle, generally the family. The album might be a curiosity for the uninvited observer, but it is incomplete. “Voices must be heard for memories to be preserved, for the album to fulfill its function,” Langford writes. It is through both the photos and narrative that family history is both understood and preserved.

And why do we preserve our history through photography? Aside from creating a visual cue for memory, these photos can take on a reverent quality and create and reinforce familial bonds. Just as the photos of my great grandparents have outlived them, so too will these photos outlive me (presumably). And searching these images, I can see something of them in me. How often have we heard, “Oh, you look just like (insert name of relative here) in this photo.”? We find a sense of belonging and kinship. There is, perhaps, even a sense of immortality.

Just for fun: No post about family albums is complete without a link to Awkward Family Photos.


Scrapbooking is still popular, as evidenced by the rows of supplies at craft and general department stores.

Scrapbooking is still popular, as evidenced by the rows of supplies at craft and general department stores.

I’m diverging a bit here, but that’s because as I was talking about family albums someone suggested to me that the photo album is dying. When I look around my home, I might be inclined to agree. The only real photo album around is a digitally-produced scrapbook through Disney’s Photopass system. While I have a little box of loose photos and about half a dozen old photo lab envelopes filled with pictures that have never been properly archived in a book, ultimately our TV has become our photo album thanks to the conversion to digital cameras.

But our home is not the litmus test for society. And I’d argue the traditional photo album is still alive and well. One need only look at the scrapbooking industry to see how the album is faring. According to the Craft & Hobbies Association, U.S. households doled out about $4 billion on scrapbook, “Memory Craft” and other paper crafting products. How much went to scrapbooking specifically is unclear, but a visit to any craft or general department store will demonstrate that traditional scrapbooking is still going strong. Row upon row of scrapbooking supplies wouldn’t be available if they weren’t selling. Meanwhile a quick Google search demonstrates there are businesses in Ottawa dedicated to scrapbooking. Indeed, preserving family memories is big business.

Since I have an inherent interest in technology, I want to touch on that as it relates to the photo album. Too often I deal with rupture talk and technological determinism (usually with respect to the death of print media).  It’s no surprise that a suggestion that the so-called digital age is going to lead to the death of the photo album got my attention. The fact that scrapbooking is alive and well notwithstanding, I see some other problems with this line of thinking. The display of digital photographs on the TV is, at a basic level, not much different than the home slideshow of family photos, which existed in tandem with book albums. Sure the technology has changed, and video has been added to the mix (at least for us), but the act of going through the photos remains the same. Instead of a projector, we gather around the TV and go through the vacation photos, weaving a narrative as the show progresses. The meanings and sentiment still exist, just in a different format.

There is also the option of creating and printing digital scrapbooks. We opted for a professional service, but the proliferation of higher-quality, inexpensive home printers means anyone can easily create such a photo album, or just print off a few photos. And there is a reason why Facebook calls its photo folders “albums.”

The medium might change over time, but the core meaning, intent and use remains the same. Whether it is individual printed photos stuck behind plastic sleeves in a book, or millions of pixels flashing by on a screen, the ‘album’ will continue to be an important element in reinforcing and constructing the family narrative.

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