Found Families in Photography Found
by Paul Tebbs
Issue 25 Winter 2000
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For the surrealist André Breton, the involuntary perception that is occasioned by an encounter with a found object 'bears in itself the solution, symbolic or other, of a problem... The finding of an object serves here exactly the same purpose as the dream, in the sense that it frees the individual from paralysing affective scruples, comforts him and makes him understand that the obstacle he might have thought insurmountable is cleared.'
ln Mad Love, Breton gives two examples of the trouvaille: a metal half mask ('a highly evolved descendant of the helmet') and a large wooden spoon whose handle is supported at the end by a little carved boot. His analysis suggests that the unbidden experience of an object can release the experiencing subject from problems that may (or may not) have previously been recognised. For Breton, the encounter with a found object functions like a dream, bringing that which is ordinarily repressed and excluded into conscious life. In the terminology of psychoanalysis, the unconscious comes through into the conscious, breaching its inherent capacity to repress. The found object functions not only to deliver the problem but provides its solution, 'symbolic or other'.
ln recent times, the phenomena of 'found photography' has attracted a number of hunter gatherers (this writer included) - dedicated collectors of private imagery which has become separated from its originator and has entered a variety of spaces in semi-public domains. And perhaps, as with Breton's found object, the found photograph is an object possessing solutions to problems, solutions to obstacles, recognised or otherwise.
I want to suggest that found photography provides an important provocation which goes beyond the individual experiencing subject of Breton's analysis and extends to the way we conceive of and assign value to photography itself. Still further, the found photograph is a provocation to our conceptions of the famiry. The majority of found imagery originates from the agency of and spaces inhabited by the family.
The street provides a ready source of discarded imagery. Pitted, torn, scratched, smudged and faded the image of the abandoned loved one can be frequenily encountered on the pavement. Whole albums of family portraits can be 'found' and purchased in the sub-economy of the flea market or junk shop. And there is an irrepressible mountain of unclaimed imagery in the world's commercial processing labs. Not truly lost and not yet un-owned, these images are a burdensome slag for the commercial photo-industry.
Although the art of finding may originate from a genuinely accidental encounter with a drscarded image, the pursuit of such imagery is often planned and methodical. The location for finding anticipates a particular object and helps characterise a possible provenance. The street photograph, for example, is typically the fragmented image of a lover; lovers escaping the confines of the home to love and feud in the privacy of the pubric park. The discarded lover's image often laces the entrance to a park or its pathways. Such a street photograph is tantalisingly close to the decision (or non_decision)that is the moment of discarding. ln contrast, the lab print provides only the most neutral of intimacies with the firm's now absent originator. The junk shop photo album is just one item among many to be acquired through house-clearing. The family of the deceased, to whom the album properly belongs is untraceable or simply uninterested.
These three contexts of discovery spawn very different photographs. The family album has the integrity of remaining true to the family's selection of images and method of display. By contrast, the uncollected set of prints from the lab is prior to familial selection. lt is the uncensored, feed of possibilities into the official history of the album full of visual half-utterances, misfires and embarrassments. The single image (from the street) has no pictorial accompaniment, like the album or the set of lab prints. But, crucially, it is privileged. lt is potentially the solitary photograph that travels with a person in a wallet or purse. lts presence on the pavement is a function of its vulnerability to the sudden and passionate rescindment of its status.
Photography became an ever more ubiquitous and instinctual activity for the family as the cost of camera ownership and photograph production decreased. The two classic modes of familial photographic self-display are the framed mantelpiece portrait and the family photo album. Pierre Bourdieu has described such photographs as 'solemnizing and immortalizing the high points of family life'. The family, in this analysis, takes such photographs in order to perpetuate a history of its ideal version. The ritual of 'high points' triggers a collective posture of unity and happiness. Arguably, it is the very objective of these'high points' to generate the photo-opportunity.
The standard family photo album betrays a number of common characteristics. There is, for example, a rigid insistence on chronology, a repetition of dignifying poses and an emphasis upon familial similarity. Julia Hirsch for example has remarked, 'profiles... are seldom used in family photographs because entire faces show family resemblances more fully'. These techniques construct a narraltve in which the family's past is seen to be transparent and explainable and its future inevitable, happy and fulfilled.
The photographs collected by Patrick McCoy are the standard pictures of the loved one - the baby, the daughter, the son, the newly wed wife. Their subject or subjects look wide-faced towards the camera. Such photographs stage an indubitable sense of familial interconnectedness and recognition.
Yet the condition of these prints belies their once-privileged status. The image of the newly wed wife has lateral lacerations through her body. In two of the images of babies, part of their faces are damaged. In one, the marks are part of a complete pock-marking of the image. The left eye is lost and there is a gash across the face as far as the nose. In the other image, the deterioration of the print is less uniform. The defilement occurs across the toddler's face. Both eyes and part of the nose are lost. In one family portrait, a massive haemorrhaging occurs in the centre of the image, leaving bodies and faces only partially visible. These images are reminiscent of the history of vandalism against art - art that has resided in semi-public domains such as the church or the temple and has been damaged for religious or ideological reasons. In contrast, McCoy's photographs have come from private domains and, for the most part, have accrued their defilement contingently. The pattern of marks that violate these images has occurred without an intentional purpose or design.
Yet the distinction between the act that is the photograph's abandonment and the occurrence of its defilement is confused. The lacerations across the image of the newly wed have a readable sense of intentionality. In another image the predominant location of damage to the print is to the face of a hospitalised person. It can be read as an overt attempt to make another unrecognisable, literally to de-face.
There is a question in ethics as to whether a person who has died is in any sense morally harmed by a lie told against them after their death. The very existence of this question points to the importance that human beings place on the correct upholding of another's memory. The ease by which the act of losing an image is conflatable with the contingency of its defilement registers the sense of harm that the lost image brings with it The act of discarding is tantamount to the photograph's intentional corruption. This is because there is a perceived transgression of the sanctity of memory. To discard another's image is to become culpable for its defilement through neglect. Against this it might be argued that the discarding of a photograph is a legitimate correction of the photograph's previous meaning, a meaning that is rewritten through its discardment.
Removed from the shelter of the gallery or the book, the lost photograph unprotectedly coexists in the worrd of other oblects. It accrues marks that interfere with the orthodoxy which limits the photograph's significant ontology to the two dimensions of the print's surface. lt is allowed a new kind of accident (other than those linked to the transference of light) to determine its pictorial world. These marks do not sit conveniently outside the world which is represented. They become part of it, either as marks which are constitutive of the world represented or as marks which register an attitude towards that world; an attitude which logically implicates the photograph's actual referent. For example, the damage to the toddler's face reads as a hideous wasting disease internal to the world the image represents. ln the photograph of the bride the scratches across the image stay outside its world but register an attitude towards that world.
McCoy presents his found images in an album. Despite the disparate origins of the images, the album simulates the chronological, continuous nature of a family narrative. The people in this album have no resemblance to each other, they never grow older, to re-occur at another 'high point' of family life. lt is no accident that the album starts with two images that are not defiled; two black and white photographs taken at the seaside of a boy and a girl (perhaps they are two girls?) aged between five and seven. Each looks away from the camera; one is smiling, the other is eating a lolly. These images are the most joyful in the collection. They gently insist on a correct way of preserving memory. The pages that follow ungently reveal the ways of forgetting and neglect.
McCoy's album retreats from too cosy a reconstruction. The condition of the images does not allow it. They are mounted in a harsh ring-binder. Some of the images are too big for the protocols of dignified mounting and are unceremoniously perforated by the book's binding. The contradictions of this album are not elided. lt is a book that proffers continuity and chronology where there is only the disparate and discontinuous: a book of throwaways assembled into a family; an archaeological document hi-jacked by sentiment.
The images collected by David O'Mara are very different from those collected by Patrick McCoy. They are typical of photographs that the family edit rejects: accidental shots, portraits with people's heads missing, shots that are out of focus, taken at odd angles, over and under-exposed. ln comparison to the 'fixing' of the family identity that is the function of official family photography, these found photographs serve to unfix the stasis of its assumed ideality. These technical 'imperfections' actively serve to dematerialise the family's ideal and actual existence. The question becomes less, what is the family? and more, where is the family? one of O'Mara's images shows the eye of a cat staring towards us with a stitched gash in the side of its body. The image exudes a sense of domestic menace and violence. ln another, we see only the back of a middle-aged man's head, his suit collar lightly dusted with dandruff.
The attraction of these images is the assumption that they provide an unmediated connection with the lives of the people they depict: a visual vernacular, unencumbered by the constraints of style and self- conscious artistry; an authentic document of how people live that be read at face value; a visual history that tells the truth. This is motivated by the belief that the found or unedited selection of family photographs somehow catches the family unaware of itself. An unguarded visual truth is allowed to slip.
Found family images present a number of ethical and epistemological questions. What are the ethics of publicly reading images that generate their primary meanings within a private domain? And what meanings (if any) are possible for a public situated outside that private domain? These questions are addressed in the work of the artist Rachel Lowe.
In a recent exhibition at The Camden Art Centre in London, Lowe showed a slide projection of a series of black and white found images, entitled Elizabeth. It consisted of a continuous projection of standard family portraits, in which the family had been removed. Lowe's method is to cut the image into three sections and remove the middle section containing the figures. The two remaining sections of the image are then stuck back together. This gives the photograph a single vertical seam through which the people photographed have disappeared. The re-assembled image is predominantly of the surrounding environment in which the figures had originally stood. Lowe is careful not to completely erase the presence of the figures. Slivers of arms, legs and feet remain from those standing to the extreme left and right of the group photographed. These fragments collect either side of the vertical seam.
Lowe's intervention is simple but brutal. The removal of the figures questions the motive and propriety of our interest in the private imagery of others and simultaneously serves as a destruction of that imagery's value as a document of family history. The work possesses both the moral neutrality of a question well posed and is in itself a mode of transgression.
The family's disappearance serves to emphasise the ineliminable distance such images have to us as spectators. It is a distance that is as much explanatory as it is a question of the photograph's register of a time irredeemably past. In this sense the seeming brutality of Lowe's intervention takes on a protective function. The family is removed from the gaze of the outsider. There is a manipulated retreat into privacy as an acknowledgement of the limits that such a public/private encounter possesses. Found family photography ultimately resists understanding because its configurations of looks and postures are hermetically closed to the outsider. They are fully interpretable only within the knowledge that the family possesses of itself. Like Barthes, who famously omits the winter-garden photograph of his mother from the book Camera Lucida, Lowe's work delineates the boundary between what can be understood from outside the family and what is known only from within the family. Lowe however (unlike Barthes) initiates this omission as an outsider herself.
And yet, the act of cutting can be interpreted through a quite different motivation. lt is hard to envisage one carrying out such an act on one's own family portraits. The permission to do so (as such) is granted by the lack of care which has led to these photographs being lost. Lowe's cut is in this sense not a protection, but a violation.
As spectators we are faced with a line marking a pictorial absence. And because of this absence, it may be argued, it is the viewer who is taken up as the subject of the pictures. Lowe's intervention is a silencing of the other in order to promote a space for the self. The absented family instigates the viewer's projection into the photograph's realm, causing the viewer's life and history to be questioned.
But such an analysis assumes that this absence is one which can or should be filled. The fragments of body that are caught in the line of the cut make any projection problematic. Lowe's cut, while absenting the original inhabitants, leaves enough to obstruct any projected ones. No one is allowed to fit rather than everyone.
Lowe's work can be read in a number of contradictory ways. lt is antagonistic to the easy inhabiting of another's familial gaze, a gaze to which the viewer does not belong and towards which he/she can have no responsibility. We are denied false identifications and easy abstractions into which we can become the principal objects of our own experience.
Compare this to the work of the Swedish artist Maria Miesenberger. ln a photographic series entifled Sverige/Sweden, Miesenberg uses images from her own childhood (taken by her father). Instead of the figures being removed they have been blacked out into silhouettes.
The figures become generarlised forms of, for example, mother with child or child playing with ball. Miesenberger has stated that she tries 'to make the private universal'. Her intervention invites the speaker's own projections. Her family becomes a template upon which the scope and limits of our own projections and identifications can be realised.
Found photography represents only a small fraction of the imagery produced by the family and the amateur. The German artist Joachim Schmid has suggested that this imagery proves 'that anyone can take a good photograph by accident' and that the 'respected histories of photography are quite questionable constructions'. If these images are as important visually as art and documentary photography then the role and status of artistic intentionality is brought into question (and with it the value we assign to art and documentary-based work). The histories of photography and their canonical assumptions become highly approximate affairs that are constructed with most of the evidence not having been seen. This distinguishes photography from most other art- forms. It is hard to believe that vast resources of significant music, literature or painting lie undiscovered. The American artist Jim Shaw recently displayed several hundred 'thrift store' paintings at the lnstitute of Contemporary Art in London. These paintings, by amateurs, were bought and displayed in art galleries by Shaw precisely because they were bad paintings. They served to re-iterate a distinction between good and bad painterly practice. By contrast, the next found photograph is potentially of equal (or greater) visual and historical value as those privileged realms of photographic production - art and documentary photography.
Other articles by Paul Tebbs:
Issue 27: Other Pictures by Thomas Walther - Floh by Tacita Dean [Book Review] ▸
Issue 27: Fotografien 1991-1995 by Laurenz Berges [Book Review] ▸
Issue 27: Towards A Philosophy Of Photography by Vilém Flusser [Book Review] ▸
Other articles mentioning Patrick McCoy:
Other articles mentioning David O'Mara: