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.
Goa Familia on the origins of their project and future ambitions
Among the growing number of archival projects centred on vernacular family photography, Goa Familia has always caught our eye. Launched in 2019, it was borne out of the multi-disciplinary Serendipity Arts Festival, which is anchored in the South Asian region and active in initiating various programmes.
Curator Lina Vincent and creative collaborator Akshay Mahajan were sought out to develop the project as a means of exploring family histories and community narratives across the state of Goa. Through a series of open calls for people to share their family photographs and albums, as well as oral histories and other forms of ancestral memorabilia, Lina and Akshay have uncovered many illuminating stories and anecdotes about the lives of generations of Goans, and are building their work around these. We were delighted to talk to them both – London to the Goan capital, Panaji – about their findings and the journey they have been on so far with the project.
TFM: Hello Lina and Akshay. It’s a pleasure to be in touch. Could you tell us how Goa Familia began.
LV: The project was conceived jointly by Rahaab Allana, of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, and Serendipity Arts Foundation, headed by Smriti Rajgarhia, who has been deeply involved with archival documentation. Early in 2019, Rahaab and Smriti were looking for contacts in Goa with an interest in community engagement and archival research. Owing to our respective backgrounds in photography and art history, they reached out to Akshay and I, and we became Team Goa Familia. We had complete freedom to plan the framework, set the context and develop a methodology that suited us to execute the project. We began by simply pooling our local knowledge, contacts and resources to locate and connect with those in the community who may want to contribute.
As a curator, and someone working with physical objects and largely published histories, to engage with oral histories and the amorphous quality of human memory was an exciting prospect. It has also been a learning experience to engage more deeply with the history of photography in India and the diverse socio-cultural dimensions it has and generates.
AM: What attracted me to the project was the act of putting together such an archive and the possibilities that give birth to many readings of it. Unlike in the West, where larger visual public archives exist, in Goa, and by extension India, these photographs are held in non-traditional archives – in family homes and photo albums. The idea of looking into these archives was interesting, to say the least, especially to view Goa’s historicity.
Our first milestone for Goa Familia was to launch a “work-in-progress exhibition” at the Serendipity Arts Festival 2019, to showcase the project.
TFM: You describe Goa Familia as an “evolving archive”. Have the connections you’ve made with locals and the stories you have uncovered met your expectations about the family photography that exists in Goa, and what it means to your contributors?
LV: We began with an open slate and two main objectives – to interview families and access albums from as diverse a population of Goans as possible; and, in a connected vein, to break the composite stereotypes that have been built around the representation of Goa and Goans in popular media. While a prominent part of the region’s population is Catholic, there is also a sizeable demographic of Hindus and, to a lesser extent, Muslims. We uncovered the names of a number of photography studios across Goa, founded by Catholics and Hindus, which were popular with local communities.
It was the upper class who could afford to use these studios as well as buy personal cameras for their own use. We traced a distinct pattern among families, of recording celebrations like weddings, festival gatherings and even funerals. We have also been able to view some albums belonging to the Goan diaspora and have unearthed some incredible stories that cross continents.
It was a slow process in the beginning. It helped a lot to have personal introductions to families who then opened their doors and their archives to us, and later facilitated a greater outreach for Goa Familia among their networks. The material and stories we have gathered, and our experiences with each family, have gone beyond our expectations. However, we have also come across several disappointing instances of albums being misplaced, lost, burnt or washed away in accidents, or eaten by insects.
AM: One of the ideas behind Goa Familia was to foster a community approach to the archive. We hoped to bring the many protagonists required in building such an archive into one room – mainly the photographer and the photographed, the camera and the spectator – and to witness the resulting encounter. The 2019 exhibition in Panaji was a place where, for a brief moment, the oral histories traversed into the realm of art just by putting them side by side with the physical photographs. We saw how these old photos coupled with the oral histories about them dredged up family memories for some visitors. Others uncovered serendipitous connections to the sometimes long-dead subjects of the photographs. Each of these encounters was a big learning curve for us, as they showed that images are not static when you gather all the protagonists in a room and thereby build an archive.
Since Goans are spread all over the world, we wanted to see if we could find stories from the large Goan diaspora. As an example, I was able to connect with Joyce D’Silva, who is now living in Liss, Hampshire. Joyce is the widow of Amancio D’Silva – a pioneering Goan jazz musician and genuine expressive genius who spent most of his musical career in London’s open-eared jazz scene in the 1960s and 70s. Among other things, Amancio was one of the early evangelists of fusion music.
My favourite moment was talking to Joyce when she was recalling the first time she met her future husband. A young, Irish teacher, she had barely been in India two weeks when she walked into Davico’s Restaurant in Shimla, in the summer of 1964. “We walked into the restaurant and there was a quartet playing with this handsome guitarist in the front,” she said. “I took one look at him and I thought to myself, ‘That’s the one!’” Even though Amancio never achieved the kind of recognition that he deserved in his own lifetime (and most Goans still don’t know that the likes of Amancio D’Silva fearlessly broke down barriers and traditions with his searing brilliance), more importantly he found success in every other way – as a husband, a father and a human being.
TFM: Have there been any surprises that stand out for you? In one of your Instagram posts, you talked about a “strange interconnectivity to archival photographs”. Could you elaborate on this thought.
LV: Yes, the underlying connections have been intriguing and exciting. For instance, we interviewed the children and other relatives of a well-known musician, Pandit Prabhakar Chary. We gathered images of Pandit teaching a number of students the tabla. Later, on interviewing the Bharne family, owners of a prominent business establishment in Panjim town, we found among their photographs images of the young sons of the house posing with Pandit Chary, who had been their guru. It turned out that some of the photographs of the Bharne family were taken at the legendary Lisbon Studio, the current proprietor of which we had interviewed. We also found links between families through memories they narrated of having been neighbours in far-off Kenya, or having been introduced by the same village matchmaker!
AM: During our various interviews, we have found this “strange interconnectivity to archival photographs” exists in relation to photo studios especially, whose relevance is now diminished. At first we chalked up these connections to coincidence, and to the nature of family bonds in Goa, in relation to people’s use of the studio. Until relatively recently, most Goans did not own their own camera and photography was strictly a studio affair. There was a time when families would throng to them. They would travel to studios in the cities and nearby market towns, dressed in all their finery to strike quiet poses to mark weddings, christenings and occasions big and small. Like in many places in the post-colonial world, these studios became centres of photographic culture in a way. It was therefore only natural to see old studio stamps repeated in many a family album.
TFM: Based on your experience of the project, how would you describe the relationship people of different generations have with analogue photographs and albums in Goa, or India at large? Here in the UK and in the US, we’re aware of the increasing number of family albums and photographs that now end up on the open market, where they are snapped up by collectors and artists. Major museums are also paying more attention to vernacular photography. Are these trends in India too?
LV: In India as well there has been a surge of interest in archival photography, as well as art projects that revolve around it as a form of history-making, documentation and expression. This can be seen in tandem with a general investigation of identity and ancestry, connected at a mundane level with the potentialities of digital scanning (through phones and other accessible technologies), which allow people to ‘share’ and ‘post’ on social media.
The experience of fragmentation has become an inescapable part of the contemporary world we live in: migration, dislocation and loss of roots have divided entire communities, and are changing the way living generations perceive their pasts and look toward the future. Many have come to realise the preciousness of retaining memories, and of conserving the notion of belonging, in whatever form that may be. Reviving visual histories also has a complex relationship with responses to political agendas and government policies that question nationality, religion and patriotism.
AM: Family albums tend to show constructed, idealised families, marking mostly happy occasions such as births, weddings and holidays. It was interesting to record the oral re-telling of the albums that we came across – the reading of photographs both individually and together when they are placed in an album. We received responses that touched on personal memories, but also on larger stories of Goan history, of the Goan experience, of migration.
We found that there was usually a ‘memory keeper’, who kept all the photographs and memorabilia in a family. This memory keeper was almost always a woman. It was important to record these interviews to see how the meanings of the photographs change in their telling; for example, touching the physical photograph and, in the act of remembering, a daughter saying, “My father was a gentle man”. We also met people who didn’t like looking at old photographs and preferred to live in the moment – the pictures were too hard to look at.
There is definitely a trend of collectors and museums acquiring larger archives, especially of 19th century photography, in India. Although, with the exception of hand-coloured photographs, I haven’t seen much movement around this with 20th century photography here. There haven’t been any large-scale artist projects using found photography, such as the Beijing Silvermine project in China, for example. However, there are several artists in India interpreting their own family archives, like Sukanya Ghosh, who reworks her family pictures to make collages, sometimes sculptural ones. It’s only a matter of time before people start collecting more vernacular photography here.
TFM: What are your future plans for communicating the stories you’ve come across, and for involving local communities in the project? We saw that in November 2020 you featured some of the oral histories you have gathered so far @serendipityartsfestival
LV: We have worked on a dedicated website for Goa Familia, which will keep expanding as we upload the archives that are digitised. The digitised versions are shared back with the families for their records. We are offering advice and basic dos and don’t’s for families who want help conserving their archives. We mean to make our Instagram and Facebook pages as interactive as possible by inviting shares, posts and tags, even from those who may not want to contribute to the Goa Familia digital repository in a formal way.
The project is also about generating awareness and interest in photographic histories and making sure that these aspects of our past are carried forward for posterity. All being well, this year  we hope to have another physical exhibition with objects and memorabilia loaned from contributors and to create public interactions for sharing personal and collective stories.
I think both Akshay and I (and our young research associates) would like Goa Familia to be a long-term project with different trajectories, which finds form in diverse media such as books, public art projects, exhibitions and other programmes. The project has certainly changed the way I perceive Goa and her people.
AM: We have had to adapt our methods since our initial approach was oriented to field research. Firstly, since we had a lot of leftover material from 2019, we wanted to expand on some of the stories and share the full archive of digitised photographs on our website. Nishant Saldanha and Manashri Pai Dukle, two of our associates, are working with their own family archives. We thought it would be a perfect opportunity for them to conduct an in-depth telling of their own family histories in their own voice. The resulting archives are deeply personal. Nishant’s piece is a moving tribute to his grandmother, Ada, and her idyllic childhood growing up in Dharwar, a township in Goa’s neighbouring state of Karnataka. It was here that her father, the famous poet and writer Armando Menezes, was principal of Karnataka College, while living exile from his native land.
Our hope for the future is to grow the archive, keeping community engagement at the heart of it. We are also hoping to put together some resources in Goa for archival restoration and preservation.
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.