During the TV coverage of the UK riots in 2011, I saw a woman being interviewed who had fled her home to escape being burned alive. She said:
“I just grabbed my photo album and ran for the door.”
For the past 30 years, I have been collecting family photographs and albums, which have grown into an archive of around 25,000 images and 400 albums. The vast cosmos of amateur photography is daunting, so I restricted my collection to the UK. The photos range from daguerreotypes to digital files of the 21st century. When I first started to collect, I had no notion of The Family Museum. I simply bought for the pleasure of owning something that was affordable, historic and unique. As I gained more knowledge of these photos and albums, it began to fascinate me that, in every case, the person who had created and compiled them had consciously constructed a narrative; had edited a storyboard of their life.
No one has ever bought a camera, put the first photograph they took with it as the first photograph in the album, then the second as the second, the third as the third, and so on. This never happens. People end up, in most cases, with a year’s worth of photos, possibly taken by different members of the family circle, from which they pick and order into groups and themed sequences. These could be annual holidays, a day trip, a family visit, a national social spectacle or a local event; their school days, perhaps a beloved child’s first few years, a tour of duty in the armed forces, or a rite of passage: ‘Johnnies first long ‘un’s’. The true meaning of these images is known only to the photographer: an ornate little doll in a woollen dress placed on a stool; photographs of two film stars taken from a book placed on a armchair; a soldier cross-legged on the sand, five skulls arrayed in front of him; a little girl in a gas mask playing with her doll. These are poignant stories that reveal themselves only slowly.
The first photographs collected in albums were ‘cartes de visite’. Patented in France in 1856, these professional studio portraits were mounted on stiff card, slightly bigger than a business card in size. By the 1860s, such was their popularity that the term carte-mania was coined. Billions of these little pictures were exchanged and collected in sturdy leather-bound albums open on display in numerous hallways and sitting rooms across the globe. Queen Victoria collected 100 volumes of them.
This method of collecting photos of one’s family, friends and associates persisted through to the 1880s and the release of the first Kodak camera in 1888. With the introduction of this camera, the Kodak company got rid of the headache, filth and stench associated with the early ‘black art‘ of photography, taking it out of the hands of the polymath and entrepreneur with the now legendary slogan, ‘You push the button and we’ll do the rest’. This could have been a fad, but the little snapshots people began to take were to become among the most treasured things in our lives — and here is where The Family Museum’s story begins…
Nigel Martin Shephard