The Family Museum has the ambition to become an international archive (A), research (R) project and collaborative (C) hub (ARC) for those active and interested in the field of vernacular family photography.
In 2019, we held our launch exhibition, Auto-Memento, and published the first issue of our found photography zine, Famzine, which features contributions by artists and historians active in this area of visual culture. Below, as part of our ARC initiative, we feature book reviews and interviews with inspiring collectors, curators and artists working in the world of vernacular imagery.
We are currently looking at ways to digitise our collection, which comprises thousands of film photographs and negatives, photo albums, vintage cameras and photographic materials and objects. As we progress, images and albums will be viewable on our Archive and Blog pages.
Hackney Archives on their RA Gibson Collection
In The Family Museum archive we have a small white wedding album, with the embossed title ‘Gloria & Eddie, 12th June, 1960’. We came across it recently in a Brick Lane flea market in East London. What drew us to the album were the radiant images inside showing a Jewish couple and their families celebrating a marriage at Shacklewell Lane synagogue.
Beautifully composed, the photographs were taken by studio photographer Ronald Gibson, whose ‘RA Gibson’ business card is tucked inside the back of the album. We soon discovered that Gibson had played an important role in documenting the people of Hackney over four decades. A chance meeting at another London flea market led us to Hackney Archives, who coincidently have an ongoing project focused on a large number of Gibson’s images and the community he photographed dedicatedly for more than 30 years.
We asked Hackney Archives to tell us more about their acquisition of Gibson’s photographs and the work they’ve been doing around the collection. A selection of the images they’ve digitised to date is currently viewable on Flickr.
TFM: Hello Hackney Archives. We were intrigued by our found wedding album as it was such a joyful local East London story documented by a photographer with a real talent for capturing his subjects. The images all have an extremely warm-hearted quality. How did you first come across the work of Ronald Gibson?
HA: We acquired a large number of Gibson’s studio portraits and event images from photography enthusiast Kevin Danks, who donated 144,000 negative captures – in 40,000 strips, totalling six miles of film – to us in 2014. Kevin had bought the negatives on Ebay. After studying them, he felt the photographs represented such an important slice of social history within Hackney that they needed to be held in a public archive and seen by as wide an audience as possible. Thanks to a grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund we’ve been able to archive and digitise the photographs.
TFM: The collection you now have includes wonderful studio portraits and family event photographs taken from around 1952 to 1978. They give a vivid visual account of the lives of local people who wanted to mark their educational achievements and professions, their families and personal style. How have you approached communicating the collection to Hackney residents today, some of whom may be connected to the subjects shown in the images?
HA: Between 2014 and 2020, Hackney Museum has put on three exhibitions featuring Gibson’s images. The themes for our shows have ranged from African and Caribbean fashion to the life stories of the subjects, who reflect East London’s growing migrant communities from the mid-20th century onwards. The social and historical aspect of these photographs is what struck Kevin Danks deeply. When we put on our first ‘RA Gibson’ show, Strike A Pose: Portraits from a Hackney Photo Studio, in 2014, Kevin commented: “The collection illustrates social change in Hackney after the Second World War. In the 1950s almost every shot features white, working class people and by the early 1970s this changes and the diversity we see today is evident.”
In 2018, as part of the Museum’s show Changing Faces, Hidden Stories, we held community sessions to try to identify some of the subjects in the thousands of images we have, and to discover what RA Gibson portraits local people may still have in their possession. We organised ‘Reminiscence’ sessions with local church groups and lunch clubs, and publicised the collection on social media. Any comments people made about the photographs will be added to the catalogue entries for the respective photos.
The digitisation of the images and our engagement with the local community about the photos are ongoing projects for us. We’re keen to keep interacting with the public as much as possible and to gather more information about the people who were photographed.
TFM: RA Gibson was clearly a very popular photographer among the Hackney community. How much do you know about him?
HA: Gibson was self-taught and first opened a studio in Mare Street, Hackney. Around 1952, he relocated to Lower Clapton Road, where he remained in business until 1989, when he sold the studio to new owners. For the growing African, Caribbean and Asian communities in the borough, Gibson’s was the go-to studio for portraits which people could send home to their families, showing their lives and progress in the UK. In the 1960s and 1970s, these photographs reveal local people taking great pride in their new families and accomplishments here in the UK, and their individual identities, expressed through their fashion, for example. By first-hand accounts, Ronald was very well liked by the people who came to his studio and he built genuine and long-lasting relationships with his customers.
TFM: Warmth and trust are evident in these portraits and clearly kept locals coming back to create what were prized possessions for many. We’re thrilled we came across Gloria and Eddie’s album and it led us to you and this brilliant collection. Thanks for chatting with us. If anyone reading this has a connection to any of the images, or has RA Gibson photographs they would like to share, how should they contact you?
HA: We would love to hear from them. Please email us at Archives@hackney.gov.uk or call + 44 (0)20 8356 8925.
Artist and curator Barbara Levine on the major acquisition of her photography collection
In June, we learned the exciting news that the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) has acquired the Barbara Levine and Paige Ramey Collection, an extensive archive of vernacular photographs and photographic objects built and curated by Barbara and Paige over the past 30 years. The images are focused around distinct themes, including African-American studio portraits, LGBTQ life, Mexico and the border, gun culture, sideshow stars and superheroes, “women only”, and altered and manipulated photos, Among the many unique photographic objects in the collection are examples of ‘Fotoescultura’ (photo-sculpture), ID badges, photo puzzles, hand-beaded portraits of bullfighters and funeral announcements adorned with tintypes.
Barbara and Paige are based in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and Houston, Texas. Barbara was bitten by the collecting bug as a child and has been dedicated to preserving and sharing vernacular photographs ever since. She was a contributor to the launch edition of our Famzine, and since meeting (albeit virtually), we’ve been hugely inspired by Barbara’s dedication to curating found images and the way in which she gives this photography new life in her practice.
In her own words, Barbara is an “artist who collects vintage photographs”, using the images she finds as a jumping off point for both artistic and curatorial projects. Her photo collages have been exhibited and published widely and were acknowledged with a LensCulture Artists Award in 2017. Barbara is also the author of several highly recommended books on vernacular photography, including Snapshot Chronicles: Inventing the American Photo Album (2006), Around The World: The Grand Tour in Photo Albums (2007) and People Kissing: A Century of Photographs (2019), all published by Princeton Architectural Press.
Paige has extensive experience running arts organisations and in the preservation of pre-digital and time-based media. Her early career was in dance and video art in New York City, where she worked as a performer and videographer with seminal artists such as Elizabeth Streb and Yvonne Rainer. Since 2014, Paige has been consulting and co-curating for Cherryhurst House, a visiting artist and exhibition space in Houston.
We caught up with Barbara over the wire, London to San Miguel de Allende, to talk about the MFAH acquisition and the photographs and objects she and Paige have lovingly curated over three decades.
TFM: Hi Barbara. Huge congratulations to you and Paige on this news. What does this acquisition mean to you both as long-term collectors of vernacular photography?
BL: Thank you! For us, it is the next step in the life of the collection, revealing more of the stories and ideas embedded within the pictures and how they fit within the larger history of photography. With the MFAH curators, we are involved in a wonderful dialogue about integrating the collection into the museum’s photography and overall collection, and how best we can encourage the study of the material. For example, a museum fellowship will be offered, inviting collaborative applications from an artist (not limited to photographers) and a scholar (historian, art historian, writer, etc).
Overall, these efforts and shared sensibilities enhance our relationship with the photographs and photographic objects, and inspire us to want to do more. For me, the collection has always been intertwined with making art and a spark for curatorial ideas. Paige and I will continue to have access to the photographs and will work on future projects such as books, exhibitions and collaborative artworks.
TFM: Arguably, ‘vernacular photography’ is an increasingly wide term to describe the niches of amateur and found photography. You and Paige prefer to call your collection ‘PhotoMania’. Could you explain why?
BL: Vernacular is an off-putting and confusing term for many people and typically requires explanation – a contrast to the material itself, which is easy to relate to and often humble in origin. We started calling the collection ‘PhotoMania’ to convey the joy viewers find in the material and the passion and fascination with which we have built the collection. This archive celebrates our collective enthusiasm for a medium that is part of nearly everyone’s life and experience.
TFM: Other major museums and galleries around the world have acquired relatively small amounts of amateur and vernacular photography to date, and certainly, as far as we are aware, nothing that compares to your collection. Do you think more will do so in future, given the growing number of found photography projects out there now, especially on platforms like Instagram?
BL: It’s true. I don’t know of any other major museum in the US that has acquired an entire vernacular photography collection curated around a limited number of interwoven themes. Many have acquired individual objects or photograph albums or been gifted batches of snapshots. This acquisition is especially notable because it is a collection made up of thousands of images and objects collected over 30 years by two women!
And, yes, absolutely, I think there will be more acquisitions in future, as vernacular photography is moving front and centre. More artists are using analogue processes and vintage photos in their work, and there is a noticeable increase in programmes and publications focused on vernacular photography in academic and arts organisations (including archive projects such as yours!). Major museums are beginning to collect more vernacular material, and during this unparalleled time of pandemic, people are spending more time online looking at other people’s pictures from the past.
All of this combined, and MFAH’s acquisition of our entire collection, bodes well for more museums and cultural organisations recognising the role vernacular photography plays as the record keeper of our personal and broader social histories.
TFM: Did it feel strange parting with such a long-standing collection? Are you still collecting!
BL: It has been a transition, but there is so much to look forward to ahead of us. And yes, I will always be a collector!
PS: Thank you for the great post about our PhotoMania Collection (Barbara Levine and Paige Ramey Collection) being acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston! We appreciate your interest! Barbara
Jewish Displaced Persons in Camp Bergen-Belsen 1945-1950: The Unique Photo Album of Zippy Orlin, edited by Erik Somers and René Kok (2004, University of Washington Press)
On 19 September, 1986, Chaim Orlin, aged 51, deposited a photograph album at the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation. He was exhausted. It weighed 33lbs and contained 1,117 photographs. He handed over the album and, with only a brief explanation, hurriedly left the building. Once the institute understood the historical importance of the photographs he had given them – it was the largest collection of images documenting the post-war history of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp – they contacted Chaim for more information, but he had died three days after depositing the album.
The album had belonged to his sister, Zippy. Cecelia ‘Zippy’ Orlin was a Lithuanian Jew, and a naturalised South African, who died in Israel, aged 58, on 1 September, 1980. In 1946, aged 24, she volunteered for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, known as the ‘Joint’ and established to help the thousands of displaced Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. She was chosen for her fluent Yiddish and worked in the Kindergarten.
Zippy compiled the photo album documenting her experience at Bergen-Belsen from her arrival at the camp in 1946 to her departure in 1948. She took some of the pictures herself but also collected and featured the photos of her friends and co-workers there. Her album is a marvellous piece of archiving. It begins as a threnody to the dead and evolves into a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit and the power of caring.
Soon after its liberation, Bergen-Belsen became a fully organised society preparing itself for aliyah and a school for the re-forging of souls. Historian Hagit Lavsky said of it: ”Life in the camp was a greenhouse for a new Jewish identity.”
Zippy’s inscriptions in the album recount the spirit of a people emerging from oppression:
‘They wanted to live, to provide, to be a child, to play, to keep the law and order, to feast, to celebrate and to care for the soul and body…sturdy little toddlers romped and played in the flower-covered fields and expressed the childish emotions so long suppressed…by love, tears make way for joy, crying makes way for singing, repression makes way for expression’
From the photographs and inscriptions, it is clear that Zippy understood her moment in history. She spent her last 20 years in Israel, where there would have been ample opportunity to donate such an important historical document to numerous archives, but she chose to keep the album her entire life for her own pleasure. Zippy never married; perhaps this was her family album.
In winter 2019, to coincide with our launch exhibition Auto-Memento, we were excited to create and publish the first edition of Famzine. Issue 1 features contributions by American artist, writer and vernacular photography collector Barbara Levine, British family historian Ben Haslam, Nigel and me.
Barbara has written numerous books about this niche of visual culture and her photo collages have been exhibited widely (see projectb.com).
Ben is from Norfolk and became a family historian when he inherited hundreds of photographs from his grandparents; particularly beguiling was the visual legacy of his Anglo-Russian relatives. Ben posts on Instagram @william_gerhadie_scrapbook
If you’d like to order a hard copy of the first edition of Famzine, drop us a line.