In a fortunate example of serendipity, I have been digitalising all my family’s photo albums over the last couple of years, which is a wonderful resource for this exercise. We are asked to select four or five portraits from the archive which have never been seen together before, and justify the selection.
I enjoyed the selection process for this, but it certainly wasn’t easy. I knew I wanted to look at the matriarchal line in my family as the women were/are the lynchpins of the family and made a much greater impression upon me than the men, who were usually at work or away. I began by looking for images of weddings from previous generations. However, they all looked very formal, and I did not have access to images from my great grandmother’s wedding, although I am sure they exist somewhere. Also, being formal portraits, they don’t really show very much of the characters of the people involved. I therefore moved on to the idea of mothers and babies, but surprisingly could not find any of my grandmother with my mother. Her pregnancy and involvement in my mother’s early months seems to have been tastefully ignored in the photo albums.
Finally, I found the set I wanted, which is of grandmothers holding their new grand-daughters. I like this idea because there is an interlocking chain of family history within the series – each person appears as both a baby and a grandmother. They are also informal snaps, taken by other members of the family, and therefore show much more of the personalities of the different grandmothers. I obviously never met Clara Cellier or Lily Parham, but it is easy to see that Lily was much more comfortable in her role as grandparent than Clara. In fact, I have cropped the 1907 image – there was a nurse on the left actually holding the baby, and Clara is merely pulling back the blanket to show the child and not touching her at all. Later images of her with her grandchildren though show a warmer, more affectionate person.
My own grandmother looks thoroughly uncomfortable holding me. She was a kind woman, but not particularly good with children, whereas my own mother looks totally at ease with my son upon her lap. One aspect of this series I find slightly sad is that there will not be another image to continue the set. My own children are all boys, and so this matriarchal line has disappeared, at least for me. Two of my sisters have girls though, so it will continue through them.
The next thought that came to me was the family resemblance in the first three images, but my own mother looks very different. I recall as a child thinking she didn’t look anything like Granny, and favoured her father more in looks. This has been passed to me, but one of my sisters and my eldest son all resemble my grandmother’s line in looks.
Finally, there is also the momento mori element of the series (remember, we all have to die). Only two of the people shown here are still alive; my son and I. Everyone else has gone, with any details about their lives gradually becoming lost or irrelevant. One of my other interests alongside photography is family history and it is both interesting and also salutary to think that for most people the only reminder that they existed is the fact that they produced children. All the triumphs and disasters of their lives are forgotten, particularly for the women, as most historical documentation focuses on the work achievements of men.
I look at this series, and the thoughts that come to my mind are:
- a strong sense of continuity, in both the physical and the memorial sense. These images were kept by the women concerned as reminders of events in their past. We are lucky that the advent of photography has meant that we can now see the people from our family past as they were in their prime. For most previous generations, only the very rich could afford the luxury of a painted portrait to ensure that subsequent generations knew what they looked like. If I was going to sew over the series, I would chain stitch them together to form a single, vertical work to represent this continuity.
- the inconsequence of life. We are here on this Earth for only a little while and then we are gone. Only the lucky few are remembered in future history. For the rest of us, our lives are an insignificant drama which is only of interest to ourselves and our own family. This is both depressing, and inspiring. Depressing because we don’t want to think about the fact that we are effectively nothing but tiny ants when looked at from the global scale, and have about as much influence on the world. Inspiring, because it means we can do whatever we want, and only a very few people will be interested enough to interfere.