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A View From The Window: Photography, Recording Family Memories

Debra Livingston and Pam Dyer article provides a brief history of photography in everyday experience and the place of the family album in social and cultural histories. It is a short, 8 page piece and includes some photos to illustrate the points made in the text.

In this post, I focus on aspects of the article of particular interest to me and my current practice:

  • It is discussed how the ‘point and shoot’ camera enabled families to build collections of photographs ‘ … based on memories that describe a window into not only family life, but also insights into their culture, including changes over time’. In a snapshot shown, a glamorous passer-by walks into the frame providing a cultural/class contrast as unexpected narrative. It is also noted how ‘photographs preserve everyday objects, such as the clothes worn, and objects such as vases, chairs, carpets, and wallpaper …’  There is a risk that people cut out this context within the frame in search of carefully designed portraits (in studios, or portable studios), wiping away some of the narrative from images of their histories, diminishing the interest of the images when viewed in the future. It is worth remembering the value of the banal when framing a shot.
  • There is mention that the information photos provide  about the past lacks that of the original senses, but ‘photographs have transcended these inadequacies by stimulating memory and via the support of the written texts.’ The photograph stimulates memory, but is not memory; memories are unique to each of us and our individual perspectives and characters.
  • There is confusion between the photograph and reality – ‘events of the past often seen in family snapshots are reimagined and believed to be real by future viewers’. This relates to the apparent indexicality of photos – it is somehow not always easy to remember that they are not reality, they are easily confused with reality, our brains recognise the similar patterns as reality perhaps. We are tricked while watching 3D films, we are fooled by rollercoaster rides that take place within a room. Perhaps it is only our logic that can protect us from mistaken reality.
  • The article closes by considering the impact of digital, ‘people’s personal and collective memories are now reallocated in the virtual landscapes … what does remain, however, is the desire for the emotive and tactile experience of family memory evoked by treasured photographs’. The photobook, reproduced from the digital images, is identified as the replacement for the family.

It is too easy in the digital age to not get beyond putting photos on to a hard-drive, sharing them to social media, or a digital picture frame, or just printing the occasional image. Pre-digital, images had to be printed in some form to be viewed at all – it was a necessary part of the process. I am not in the habit of printing enough work – it is almost an afterthought, rather than a part of the process. The article is right – there is nothing like the ‘tactile’ experience of a printed photo and this is clearly evident in the pleasure people show when receiving printed work.

Moreover, I should take more care when composing photos to at least sometimes include the banal details that could later trigger precious memories.


Livingston, D. & Dyer, P. (2010). A View From The Window: Photography, Recording Family Memories. In Social Alternatives. Vol 29, No.3, 2010, p20-28. Queensland. University of Queensland Press

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