This article attempts to look into the concept of the family and what constitutes the family photograph. Is it just putting a photograph into a family album that makes the photograph a family photograph, or are there certain attributes characteristic to the genre called the family photograph? Does not the different natures of different families (such as a family engaging in a family business of steel products or heavy machinery from a working-class family) determine the different concepts of family photography to different families? Then the article addresses certain issues raised by Nishtha Jain’s Family Album (2011). The question “Is the family constituted by family photographs?” is also addressed at the end of this article.
1. Family photography and family album: Some fundamental questions
Family photographs fill the blank space of the family album (Latin, meaning blank tablet), thereby constituting what a family album is. If the family photo album is defined by family photographs and if certain photographs would not go into the family album, it is important to ask what the defining characteristics of family photographs are. The more fundamental question pertinent to the current moment is—what is a family or what constitutes a family? Does any specific aesthetic style play a significant (if not determining) role in family photography?
In a traditional patriarchal setting, a family is a set of relationships genealogically organized around the husband and includes a wife, and it may extend in the husband’s blood line up beyond his parents (on the elder generations side) and down beyond the husband and the wife to include their blood children and their children’s biological offspring. By contrast, in a traditional matriarchal setting, a family is a set of relationships genealogically organized around the wife and includes a husband, and it may extend in the wife’s blood line up beyond her parents (on the elder generations side) and down beyond the wife and the husband to include their blood children and their children’s biological offspring. In either case, the members of a family typically, but not necessarily, live in the same house.
Beyond these two major paradigms are families built on lesbian and gay relationships, adoptions, and live-in relationships (with or without children) which the partners define as a family. The younger concept of family born of these relatively younger forms of relationships is built on how the people in the relationship see and feel about each other and identify themselves as rather than on the formality on which the two major forms of the institution of the family stand and on how society see and identify them.
A family photograph conceptualized around the idea of the family album necessarily has the images of some or all of the people constituting a family. A family photograph often has the image of only one person and in such a case the belongingness of the photographed individual to the family to is derived from the photograph’s membership to the family album along with other group or individual photographs. Family Album (Jain 2011) has several instances of this. That said, as it is often the case, a family photograph importantly can have only things (such as empty chairs, empty rooms, beds not slept in any more, abandoned toys, old houses, etc.) without any member of the family. Such photographs often show the absence of certain individuals (removed from the space by death or migration or other ways of movement), and the things which have been associated with the individuals so long when left alone accentuates the feeling of absence.
Is it strictly the contents alone that constitute family photographs? Or should there necessarily be a conscious intention on the part of the photographer and/or the family before and while taking the photograph for it to serve certain purposes such as memorialization? And, as asked earlier, does aesthetics play a role in making family photographs what they are typologically? The type of content, while it a determining factor, does not alone constitute family photography. The second question has more to do with curating and consumption and there may not necessarily be a conscious intention when taking the photographs of serving the stated purposes or the purposes they may serve in future depending on the intentions of their keepers, curators or consumers irrespective of the original intention. It is the inherent nature of all photographs (not just family photographs) that enables them to serve the purposes they are put to serve. Family photography is not necessarily associated with families “undergoing radical transformation” (Bouquet 8) of any sort and does not necessarily serve “to restate symbolically, the fragile continuity and depleted extension of family life” (ibid), because not all families undergo radical transformations and they can still have family albums and because all relations in the human realm have a fragile continuity and they never remain in the same state across time. A family can take photographs to just celebrate the moment without any other intentions while another family may take family photographs by being conscious of “the disruptive forces from outside into the space of the […] family” (ibid 9).
Families are built around common spaces which they share together more than any other people who do not belong to that group. This space often becomes critical in family photography because different families have different spaces and their spaces are filled by different things, by what they can afford. Items of steel products and heavy machinery would definitely form a good part of the family photo album of an industrialist family of this kind. The space and the things occupying it captured in the family photographs of a village farmer’s family or a working-class family in a city would be different from each other’s and from that of the industrialist’s. This suggests that there are no universal idea as to what can and what cannot be contained in the family photograph, and it all depends on how different people feel about their spaces and their relations.
Family photography has certain aesthetic values that make them what they are typologically. While Figures 1 and 2 would sort at the very first glance with those in the family photograph genre, Figures 3 and 4, despite the fact that either of them has members of a family, raise some serious doubts as to whether they can belong to this genre or street photography. Irrespective of the location, the first two photographs, because of the relatively tighter framing and how the subjects occupy their respective positions in relation to each other in the physical space of the setting and within the photographic frame, have the relaxed, secure, homely feeling about them. More than being aware and conscious of the camera, the subjects are posing to get themselves photographed. In Figures 3 and 4, the subjects, though they constitute their respective families, are more defined by their engulfing non-home surroundings the loose framing has allowed in, which dilutes much of the family feeling evident in Figures 1 and 2. The subjects in Figures 3 and 4 are unaware of their being photographed, but candidness is not necessarily what typologically distinguishes the former set of photographs from the latter set of photographs, because, though untypical, family photography can be made candidly and street photographs can be taken with the subjects fully conscious of their being photographed.
2. Family Album, the film
Family Album (Jain 2011) leaves aside these fundamental questions and is built on certain traditionally assumed concepts of the family and family photography. The long genealogies of the families whose photo albums the film picks up to study are invariably traditional and patrilineal. As Subhamita Chaudhuri, one of Chobi Ghosh’s daughters, says, the genealogies do not list the names of female individuals.
But the albums represent both males and females equally. However, every single photograph in which both males and females are represented “can provide multilayered insights into […] the ethos of an age” (Bouquet 8) which has not changed much till this day in terms of gender relations and roles. Child marriage, which was pretty common even among metropolitan cities of India as late as the end of the 1940s, is ubiquious in almost all the family albums.
Figure 3: A Big Family (Photograph: Thoithoi O’Cottage, 3 January 2016)
2.2. Clientele and photographic agency
All of the families selected being among the most advantaged upper-class families in Kolkata who could afford and had the skills to operate the best cameras available at that time in India, they, in most cases, took their own family photographs. Family photography until the democratization of photography propelled by the digital technology, was a luxurious family pastime of the affluent Indians. For example, Chobi Ghosh (1917–2008) (a good photographer according to Subhamita Chaudhuri) took most of her family’s photographs except hers, and Sibaji Bandyopadhyay’s father, more of an innovative type, took most of their family’s photographs, respectively during their lifetimes. There are still many photographs whose photographic agencies cannot be determined, especially for the early ones taken during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. It is also intriguing to think about the possible agency of the photograph of Srish Chandra Mukherjee with his lifeless wife (name forgotten) in the burnt hut.
2.3. Relevance of oral narratives
Photography is only a still (=silent and motionless) visual medium. Each photograph is “life halted at a set moment in [its] duration, freed from their destiny” (Bazin 242), and thus no two different and non-repetitive photographs form a seamless continuity. The continuity photographs form too drastic jump cuts often spanning a huge gape of time to constitute a narrative the way the audio-visual form of the cinema does. When photographs move from their medium to the cinematic medium (the inherent property of which is motion and speech), there naturally arises an oddity born of the inappropriate meeting of form and medium—photography and the cinema. The cinema, which has acquired the photographs, loses its motion and its speech. The loss of motion can somehow be partially compensated for by the camera moving across the inherently photographs ranged across a space and incorporating other motions, such as those of the commentators. Introduction of cinematic movement does not destroy the stillness, and thus photographs can retain their photographic nature in the cinematic form. However, without speech introduced, the cinema cannot retain one of the properties essential and inherent to the cinematic medium. Thus, introducing oral narratives is essential to a body of photographic work presented in the cinematic medium to make up for the missing links of continuity and to retain the cinematic medium of the cinematic form.
Photographs often say not much specifically beyond what their visual information spread flatly across the space within the frame at best vaguely convey in realistic terms. This is much more the case when the viewer does not know anything about the events shown by the photographic images. Oral narratives are to be necessarily introduced into the cinematic presentation for two basic reasons: (i) to build a narrative across the individual photographs which do not relate to each other to build a narrative if they are left alone, and (ii) to retain the formal values of the cinematic form/medium. Oral narratives are best provided by people who are well aware of the actual narratives underlying the individual photographs ranged across the span of time. Family Album has one of the subjects of the family photographs or the children of those deceased people in the family photograph albums to give oral narratives of the cinematically presented photographs.
3. Studio and the family photograph
If studio photography is a genre, this nomenclature draws more on the location of taking the photographs than on anything else. Any photograph shot in a studio, using studio equipment and set designed to look a real life scene is a studio photograph. Family photography on the other hand is a nomenclature deriving from the subject matter. Thus, there is not mutually exclusive relationship between studio photography and family photography. For example, a family photograph can be taken at a studio. Thus, such a photograph is simultaneously a studio photograph (based on the location) and family photograph (based on the content). Large studios can have much more homely sets than an actual home, and if family photographs can be taken at any place (such as parks, shops, cars, etc.) not owned by the photographing family, then a studio can be such a place.
4. Families constituted by photographs?
The basic idea of a family is its members living together under the same roof. However, not all families live in the ideal condition of living together. It is very rare (if not impossible) for the people of three generations to live in the same house in the United States and England now. Even the people of two generations do not usually live together longer than twenty years at the maximum. Even though these people (of the three generations) do not live together, they consider themselves together constituting a family. For such families, physical togetherness is almost nor completely nonexistent, and it is only family photographs taken during rare family reunions that they attain the semblance of a big family or an imagined family living together. For them, families are constituted by photographs. It is here that it become necessary to
look at a number of photographic and other portraits, and discuss some of their social uses, in order to consider how far family and kinship are actually constituted by and through photography. This is quite different from seeing family photography as recording relationships that are genealogically given. Susan Sontag […] imagined families as making portrait chronicles of themselves. These she saw as portable kits of images bearing witness to their connectedness. Sincee they were already connected, the content of these images was more or less immagerial, as long as photographs were taken and cherished. Sontag argued that photography became a family ritual at the very moment that the family was undergoing radical transformation in the industrializing communities of Europe and America. She saw the nuclear family as being carved out of much larger family aggregates, and understood photography as serving to memorialize, to restate symbolically, the fragile continuity and depleted extension of family life (Bouquet 8).
However, this is not always the case with the rest of the world. In the rest of the world, most families live under the same roof but most of them do not take family photographs. In fact, the possibility of separation and the fear of separation compel families to take family photographs. Where the possibility separation and the associated fear is relatively far insignificant, families usually do not take or do take far fewer family photographs.
Bazin, Andre. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Classic Essays on Photography. Ed. Alan Trachtenber. New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980. 237-244.
Bouquet, Mary. “The Family Photographic Condition.” Visual Anthropology Review 16.1 (2000): 2-19.
Family Album. By Nishtha Jain and Smriti Nevatia. Dir. Nishtha Jain. Raintree Films. 2011.