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Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Family Photograph

We retain memories of our past  lives in fragments, through our photographs. In the Victorian times the photograph would have depicted a very stern group of people in stiff, upright, controlled positions. This was partly to do with the fact that long exposure times required the subjects to remain completely still during the duration of the exposure, but also because there was a certain gravity about having your image recorded.

The stereotypical family portrait often follows the same rules of grouping as we see in this Gainsborough painting, painted in 1784. Family images are often taken to show unity, maybe a record of happy times, an important event. This particular portrait portrays harmony, difference, the social standing of the family. The new baby is the centre of the painting been shown off proudly. The father is leaning against the chair, slightly detached from the group.
Snapshot photography allows for a more relaxed depiction of family life. There can now be more spontaneity and therefore the images produced appear more relaxed, however there may be a subconscious effort nowadays to create a favourable reflection of domestic life. Snapshots can mirror family life as we would wish it to be. We can edit our lives to be as we would wish to remember them.

Dorothea Lange   Ronald Barthes

Barthes notes that the fleeting nature of the moment captured on film combined with informed ways of thinking and looking at things,  plus the limited knowledge of the specific content content and reason for taking the photograph all combine to make us very unreliable witnesses.
To make sense of other peoples photographs we have to read the photographic and cultural codes.
Family pictures may appear as just  a social document but on closer examination it may be possible to see many different layers of scandal or trauma underneath.
In Liz Wells book; Photography: A Critical Introduction, there is a wonderful montage of photographs called
Eve, Karen and Nick. It looks at first light like your  average family set up with mother, father and baby enjoying normal family day to day existence. The mother,Father and child are in fact all disabled and the parents are no longer together as a family but are still active parents to the child.It would have been virtually impossible to surmise this fact from the photograph itself with out additional knowledge.

Migrant mother - Dorothea Lange
The family has also always been the perfect channel for the expression of social angst. Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother,was taken during the Depression in 1936. It was taken when she was working on a project for the Farm Security Association(FSA).  This was a most iconic photograph of a mother and child and was a reworking in a way of Madonna and Child. This particular photograph has been contextualised and used in many different ways since. The close cropping of the image creates an even greater feeling of unity, protection and feminine nurturing. It became a contentious image due to the fact that it was a documentary photograph that had been retouched. In the original photograph the mothers thumb was evident in the right hand corner of the photograph and the image has also been cropped from the this way the photograph is no longer a true representation of reality.The image has been tampered with.

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