Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 18, 2010
Martha Langford Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008. 241 pp.; 80 b/w ills. Paper $39.95 (9780773533929)

Martha Langford’s Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums analyzes forty-one photographic albums compiled between 1860 and 1960, now in the McCord Museum of Canadian History. They are ordinary albums, a mixture of commercial and amateur photographs of places and people, none especially famous, preserved because of their relevance to Canadian social history. Some are “accompanied by lists, genealogies, clippings, and personal letters that place the albums in a familial context” (6), while others have only a few names inscribed on the pages. All of them, however, seem soaked in intimacy and affection, even if the scarcity of captions and their organizational “randomness” make them “resistant to reading” (11). As Langford points out, “photo albums are not designed to inform strangers but to act as mnemonic clues for the people involved at different stages—from taking the photographs to posing for them, from compiling albums to showing them to visitors. Donating an album to a museum preserves it, yet “suspends its sustaining conversation, stripping the album of its social function and meaning,” leaving us only “the urge . . . to touch the album or to turn the page” (5). What can we say about albums that are detached from the contexts that gave them emotional and social significance? If the conversations are suspended, how can we start them again? Langford’s achievement is to look for the material evidence of the conversations that the albums would have engendered. She finds them embedded in the pages, in the way photographs are trimmed and glued, sequenced and captioned, re-reading the albums “symptomatically as much as for what is not said as for what is” (20, citing Griselda Pollock’s Differencing the Canon: Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art’s Histories, New York: Routledge, 1999).

Albums are a common feature of photographic cultures, yet they are seldom written about with Langford’s incisiveness and care. They seem at once too commonplace, yet also endlessly heterogeneous and difficult to classify. Historians of photography tend to reduce them to evidence of the consumption of cartes de visite or snapshots, while social historians and collectors are interested mainly in their subject matter: shops, clothes, modes of transport, human types. Albums are seldom valued as objects in their own right; dealers split them to sell individual photographs, and little priority has been given to exhibiting and researching those that have survived intact in museums and archives.

Langford pays attention to how albums create meaning as objects endowed with a degree of agency. Other careful approaches to the album have focused on their similarity to diaries (Anne Higonnet, “Secluded Vision,” Radical History Review 38 (1987): 16–36), their tactility (Geoffrey Batchen, Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance, Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004), their gendered nature (Patrizia Di Bello, Women’s Albums and Photography in Victorian England, Burlington: Ashgate, 2007), or their visual and semantic playfulness (Elizabeth Siegel, Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Collage, Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2009). Suspended Conversations focuses on the oral tradition that accompanies albums as they are shared with intimate friends and family, displayed to acquaintances, or used to enmesh new friends and relations. These conversations fail to create stable narratives, as the present affects the way remembrance of the past is performed, and as the album is passed to new generations or forgotten.

As explained in the introduction, the “afterlife” of the book’s subtitle comes from Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” (1923; in Illuminations, Hannah Arendt, ed., New York: Schocken Books, 1978), which allows Langford to call attention to the kind of access to the past albums imply—not a “pure past . . . irrecoverable even in the imagination,” but a series of acts of translation, from “visible world to photograph; photograph to album; private album to public realm; public realm to individual reception” (19). Langford argues that what Benjamin wrote of texts, “that they ‘contain their potential translation between the lines,’ applies equally to the photographic albums found in a public museum” (19). The rest of her book, then, is a demonstration of this potential.

The first chapter sketches a social history of photograph albums which is also a survey of how they have been treated by writers and artists as an abstract idea—“a paradigm, a metaphor, and a ritual—an object of thought, not a tangible object at all” (20). Unlike them, Langford manages to hold on to actual albums, as a sounding board to delineate the absence left by the conversations that would have happened while the albums were in private possession, and those that can now take place if they are experienced with the same mix of intensity and casualness.

Rich and informative, theoretically fluent and emotional involving, Langford’s writing can disconcert as it switches from history to theory—from Robert Taft’s anecdotes about the place of photo-albums in the cabins of American pioneers (24–25) to Susan Stewart’s semiological analysis of them as “closed texts” articulating individual cases according to pre-defined sets of generic conventions (25–26). This is compounded by the way in which people are introduced, sometimes formally—“photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank” (31), “sociologist Celia Lury” (35)—others in passing, e.g., “the offhand manner of ‘secondary orality,’ a distinction proposed by Walter Ong” (32; he is introduced properly on page 124). Reading on, however, it becomes apparent that this is an entirely appropriate strategy.

As the chapters progress, each analyzing a group of albums, the discussion moves back and forth between new and already mentioned theorists, circling the albums themselves via a close reading of individual pages to recover the echo—the afterlife—of their oral dimension. Readers gradually become aware that the book itself is structured like a conversation, loosely following album pages, skipping and lingering, pausing at touching juxtapositions or after especially exciting sequences. The discussion is bound to digress to other people, other friends, other supporting or illuminating theories, and to go back to those already mentioned, already remembered. The conversation is resumed but materialized as “voices” in a book, demonstrating the capacity of these albums to generate a flow of words, translating into text even the album pages Langford illustrates, and using theory as the developing agent to make latent speech visible as printed page.

Chapter 2 explores the influence on photograph albums of spatial models of the collection derived from art and science: sketchbooks, sculpture courts, cabinets of curiosities, jars of specimen, even the memorial monuments in cemeteries, of which photographs are a portable version. Readers will already feel the tension between the attempt to rationalize and categorize albums according to types, and how once attention begins to be paid to individual albums, page by page, detail by detail, these categories break down as they are personalized or ignored by the compilers.

“Memoirs and Travelogues” is used in chapter 3 to categorize albums that focus on eventful or adventurous stages in a person’s life, such as the journey from adolescence into adulthood. Family holidays, Canadian “Grand Tours,” evangelical or commercial and colonial travels can mean very different things and thus produce very different albums, from those where the travelers are transformed “into historical personages playing on an imperial stage” to those that become the set where tourists can perform “staged authenticity” (87). War albums, “poured in arrested anticipation of life in and after the war” (70), blur the boundaries between adventure and tragedy, the personal and the collective, offering a poignant view of the experiences, beyond traveling, of soldiers and nurses in the First World War. These differences require the chapter to fragment into short sections, threatening the coherence of the category in the first place.

“The Idea of Family” as useful to understand albums comes under stress in chapter 4 when “intimate circles” threaten its stability. The compilation of photographs designated by museums as “family albums” (91) are rarely organized with the genealogical precision of the family Bible that is supposed to be their antecedent, and often include friends and acquaintances. As Langford highlights, families and intimate circles come in all shapes and sizes, as do their albums, and so it is important to question who is presenting this group of people as a family. The chapter demonstrates how difficult it is to draw firm distinctions between family albums and personal memoirs or even travelogues, as many photographs are taken on holiday trips by photographers for whom “family life may offer a compelling subject, a smokescreen for self-projection, a pretext for a hobby, or all three at once” (95). Real or aspirational, the coziness of family life assumed by the notion of a “family album” is more radically disrupted by the examples Langford discusses as “mirroring otherhood.” In one, the narrative of “me and my children” is found not in a maternal album but in one compiled by a servant employed to look after children. In the other, an otherwise idyllic vision of family life is ruptured by a series of images of destitute, literally starving families, photographed during a charity mission. The album then carries on as if this unusual inclusion of “documentary” rather than “family” photographs had never happened. Yet the afterimages of people who look “related” because of their emaciated bodies, as well as the notion of nurturing children as a job rather than a maternal instinct, seem to fundamentally question the idea of family constructed in all of the albums.

“Orality” in chapter 5 breaks away from these taxonomic methods and provides a productive key to read both albums and Suspended Conversations. Rather than concentrating on literary, artistic, or sociological models, Langford focuses on how orality has left its traces, stylistically and structurally, on the albums themselves. Suspended Conversations thus echoes the orality of home, the meandering, spiraling rhythms of informal chats, intimate confessions, polite conversations, and verbal games. This is most beautifully demonstrated in the last chapter, where the significance of orality is performed through a close analysis of an album of “‘Photographs‘ 1916–1945” relating to the lives of two sisters. Ong’s ideas are deployed here to argue that photography “invaded the structure of literacy” and made albums “systematically based on oral formula” (125), not as antagonists but extending and stimulating each other. Langford works through “what might be called a recitation of the album” which allows her to adopt the first person: “When we sit together in my home and look at my pictures I do not tell you that I am a spinster who lives with her sister. . . . These things are obvious, just as the photographs are visible. Instead, I tell you how I feel about these things by sharing what I recall, or choose to recall” (159). Recitation allows readers to perceive the patterns of inclusion, organization, and presentation that make sense of the album.

Performance and memory are fundamental to oral traditions, yet Langford is careful to show how memories are not embedded or represented in photographs. Many other writers, of course, have argued the same. Langford’s original achievement in Suspended Conversations is to show how even photographs whose stories have been almost forgotten can act as prompts or notations for a performance that needs to be enacted to be kept alive, not in an original state that never existed, but in a constant process of translation, according to clues found not between the lines of texts but between the photographs on the pages of albums.

Patrizia Di Bello
Lecturer in History and Theory of Photography, Department of History of Art and Screen Media, Birkbeck, University of London