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Family Frames by Marianne Hirsch

This post contains my reflection on Family Frames, photography narrative and postmemory by Marianne Hirsch (1949-).

The book investigates the meanings of family photographs from different perspectives in each of its eight chapters. The narrative and focus of the writing is heavily influenced by the author’s life as a displaced Jewish, World War 2 child and her feminist perspective in a 1960s world. She cites Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes (see separate post) as an influence and reference for her own work. The insights Hirsch provides are fascinating and after reading the work, I will be unable to look at family photographs in the cursory way I have often done so in the past. While I found the writing style a little frustrating at times, wishing it was a little more direct, the investment in reading time was worthwhile.

Here are my reflections on the book:

  • The invented term postmemory refers not to something after-memory but a memory relived through attachment to an object, for example, a photograph. Hirsch explains how such objects can reshape or change a memory held in the mind, taking over the original memory itself. This is a powerful idea, especially when photographs do not always reflect the truth of events.
  • In the chapter reframing the family romance, Hirsch explores “the conventions of family photography, with its mutuality of confirming looks that construct a set of familial roles and hierarchies, reinforce the power of the notation of family” (p47). These conventions affect how the family is framed both by the photographer and by the family members within the frame. The photograph may not reflect the true state of relations, but the convention and, therefore, can appear superficial and uninteresting. Examples abound on Facebook. However, when the convention is broken there is a story to be found. Hirsch examines this through photographs of an adopted child within an established family group (p46). This thinking may well equally apply to other social groups, for example school friends or work colleagues, at a time when photographs are far more pervasive than at the time Hirsch’s work was first published.
  • The chapter masking the subject discusses at length the mask that people adopt when faced with a camera. “As we pose, we assume particular masks;as we read photographs, we project particular mask, particular ideological frames, onto the images.” (p86). How we all feel the need to act or pose in front of the camera opens up a psychological dimension to photography of family members – how do we capture a sense of who they are; candid photographs or by helping them forget they are being photographed?
  • Unconscious optics discusses how since family frames follow conventions they “say more about family romances than about actual details of familial life …. they say more through their absence than through their present content ..” (p119). Therefore, unconscious optics. Hirsch cites the work of Jo Spence in this context, who worked closely with Rosy Martin (see separate post), as breaking open the structures of silence and repression that tend to govern the family album.
  • Maternal exposures explores the relationships between mothers and children. I found Hirsch’s discussion of Sally Mann’s work (which is based around her own family, including as young children) thought-provoking; the ethical questions about the way Mann photographed and shared the lives of her own children, the potential impact on the children of living a life viewed through a lens and whether professional photographers are in a different relationship to their children than snap-shot mothers. Throughout the book, Hirsch talks about ‘gaze’ between family members as describing the relationships. In Mann’s work, she notes the way the children look perhaps ‘defiant’ in some images (p160), in control over how they are portrayed.

Overall, Hirsch’s work has encouraged me to think about family frames on a much deeper level – what is not being said, what is the context of the photograph, what is the relationship with the photographer, what are the gazes within the frame saying. Also, to think about how I should capture my own family frames, in the hope that some at least will have the depth of the real personalities in the family.

Reference list

Marianne Hirsch (1967) Family frames, photography narrative and postmemory Harvard University Press, reissued by the author 2012.

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