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Family Frames by Marianne Hirsch

In the feedback I received on assignment 3 (see here), it was recommended that I read Marianne Hirsch’s Family Frames. Here I note thoughts on how the book should influence my current practice.

I first read this book during the EYV course and my review1 concluded, ‘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.’ My review then went on to discuss some of the concepts in the book that I found important: post-memory, the conventions of family photography, ‘masks’ adopted by subjects of photos, the unconscious aspects that can be read into photographs, and the relationships between mothers and children.

On re-reading the book, I unsurprisingly found the writing style even more frustrating as I relived the experience. If I were to comment on one specific aspect, it would be the author’s detailed descriptions of the narrative of the photos she discusses in the book – long on ‘studium’ and short on ‘punctum’; making it a hard read to get to the valuable information within the text.

I will not repeat the detail of my review on my first reading of the book, but highlight here different aspects that struck me as I read:

  1. Hirsch comments (p14), ‘We live in a culture increasingly shaped by photographic images … technologies develop more rapidly than our ability to theorize … how can we explore the moral dimensions of the instruments shaping our personal and cultural memory?’ This is a profound question and reminds me of the power of photography to manipulate memory (either intentionally or accidentally); photos are not reality but our minds can be easily tricked into thinking of them as reality because of their indexical nature.
  2. ‘All photographs are momento mori (Sontag)’ – or literally, ‘remember you must die’ ; reminders of mortality. This is a grim but unescapable fact – how many times when people comment on photos of family and friends do they say, ‘don’t they look young then!’.
  3. ‘The key to the Family of Man’s [Steichen E] appeal lies in the familial gaze it focuses on the global sphere with the aim of revealing points of intersection between familial relation, on the one hand, and cross-racial and cross-national interaction on the other’ (p50). We all share a concept of family (perhaps the traditional human animal breeding unit) and the way that we look at our family, or between our family members, or others look into our family provides a universal similarity. On the other hand, Hirsch goes onto discuss how all the photographs in Family of Man are attributed to European or white-American photographers, so the ‘looking’ is not from multi-cultural perspective. And with poorer subjects, there can be a transactional element of selling their own image as they would sell handicraft to tourists.
  4. ‘The pretence of the family-snapshot photography is maintained through the unvarying perspective and distance of the camera; the figures always face frontally, filling the frame. The poses are deliberate and naive, and the lighting appears natural …’ (p94). This is a comment Hirsch makes when discussing the Meatyard’s Family album of Lucybelle Crater (1974). A photographer staging a work to resemble a family album by using the narrative typically found in family albums. Perhaps a trick for our memory of ‘what was’ in reality. This reminded me of the work of Dita Pepe, and Trish Morrissey’s work, Front (discussed in separate blog post here).
  5. In the final chapter of the book, Past Lives, Hirsch discusses memories preserved in memorial photography books or even reconstructed by images of people and place destroyed through war and conflict. There seems to be a need for people to know where they are from, to know something of their own history, how they fit into the world. This kind of photography helps to fulfil that need, even allowing the creation of memories that were not based on first-hand experience.

So, some fresh or additional perspectives gained from my second reading, which demonstrates the value of this book, despite my frustrations about the writing style. I’ll revisit the ideas noted here in preparation for an upcoming shoot of family portraits of a friend that I am doing in exchange for the family also acting as models for my own work.


1 Fitzgibbon A (2015). Fitzgibbonphotography [blog]. Available from: http://context.fitzgibbonphotography.com/family-frames-by-marianne-hirsch/ [accessed 13.5.16]

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

Feature Shoot [website] (2014). Dita Pepe. Available from: http://www.featureshoot.com/2014/08/dita-pepe/ [accessed 13.5.16]

Trish Morrissey [website]. Front. Available from: http://www.trishmorrissey.com/works_pages/work-front/workpg-01.html [accessed 13.5.16]


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