To mark the ending of the Photo Album of Ireland exhibition in the Gallery of Photography, Dublin (Gallery of Photography, 2014) there was a lunch-time curator’s talk at the gallery today which I attended. The Photo Album of Ireland Touring Project is one that:
has invited people to digitally share their cherished family photographs. We are building a democratic archive that looks at the social history of Ireland from the perspective of family, private or unseen photographic collections. The project is using high digital production techniques to record, preserve and share this valuable social history and build a new visual resource (The Photo Album of Ireland, 2014).
Today the Project Director/Curator Trish Lambe toured a group around the gallery speaking about the photographs. We began with a collection of nineteenth century Daguerreotypes and it was remarked that one of the most asked questions of those working on the project is whether there are any photographs of the Irish Famine (1845 – 1849). The answer is that none exist because at the time such subjects were not considered suitable for photography. However, on displayed was a small Daguerreotype portrait of a famine survivor who had sent it home to Ireland from the United States.
As we viewed images from contemporary albums Trish Lambe related how care had to be taken when preparing the exhibition and archive in that all family members related to any family albums that were being used had to be consulted. This was to ensure that no photograph was displayed that anyone objected to, for example, a photograph that showed a historical aspect of a family that some wanted to forget or that was still disputed, or that showed someone recently deceased. One of the methods used in achieving this due care was to scan photographs and return the high resolution images to the family for their discussion. It was remarked that with today’s social media and online photo albums such care would no longer be required, the nature of the family album has changed so radically.
Some of the photographs found in albums were small contact prints and when scanned and enlarged often gave family members their first real look at the faces of the people in the photographs. Many albums had photographs that had been sent home by family members who had immigrated to the United States; comparing these pictures to contemporary images taken in Ireland it was remarked that the people and groups abroad appeared to be having the ‘better time’ of it.
A number of photographic landmarks were noted as we walked through the exhibition: first the Daguerreotypes, then the conventional negative process, the democratisation of photography with the coming of the box Brownie which lead to an explosion of vernacular photography because it removed the financial imbalance of who could take photographs, then the introduction of colour photography. The archive will stop at the onset of digital photography.
The exhibition featured only a small selection of photographs from the online archive of over 3,000 images (The Photo Album of Ireland, 2014). The talk this afternoon gave some interesting insights to this rich visual material. For example after my visit I now appreciate that what I had considered to be the ‘simple’ family album of photographs has layers of complexity. Although composed of ‘snapshots’ such collections form ‘constructed narratives’ defined by what is includes and by what is omitted. As expressed in the Project’s web site (The Photo Album of Ireland, 2014):
While appearing to be an informal collection of pictures gathered over time, the album is, nonetheless, an attempt to fix a definitive version of recorded events according to certain presumptions of how they should be seen. In that sense, these conventions are an expression of the time and place in which the pictures are made, so that the album as a whole necessarily reflects its social context, not just in the limited sense of describing particular events, but also in terms of how these events are being shown (and understood) (Campion, 2014).
At the end of the tour the curator showed the online project web site which greatly expanded what could be seen and appreciated of the collection/archive. For example the poignancy of these family collections is captured in the turning of the pages of one such album (Family Album: The Gilroys, County Sligo, 2014).
Campion, D (2014) Picturing Ourselves [Online] The Photo Album of Ireland website. Available from: http://photoalbumofireland.tumblr.com/post/93332231976/picturing-ourselves (Accessed on: 30.08.14)
Family Album: The Gilroys, County Sligo [user-generated content, online] Creat. Photo Album of Ireland project. 2014. 3 mins https://vimeo.com/89629578 (Accessed on: 30.08.14)
Gallery of Photography (2014) At: http://www.galleryofphotography.ie/ (Accessed on 29.08.14)
The Photo Album of Ireland (2014) At: http://www.photoalbumofireland.com/ (Accessed on 29.08.14)