The Big Day

This set of photographs depicts the wedding day of a young couple from Aldridge in the West Midlands. The chemist E.V Davies, at 47 Birchills Street, Walsall, processed the photos in the mid-1960s. The official wedding photographer has not taken these images; in fact he appears in one of the shots. They have been taken by a friend of the couple, possibly the best man’s groomsman, who has left a far more intimate and detailed account of the day. The whole event has been captured, from the arrival of the best man at the home of the groom early in the morning to the reception in the late afternoon.

The best man and groom pose at the garden gate with the poise of men who wear suits only occasionally — the groom looks like he’s concealing playing cards up his sleeve, and the best man seems to have chosen this moment to nervously scratch his behind. When the family leave the house for the church, Auntie instinctively crooks her left knee slightly for the camera, in a 1940s glamour pose. As the guests arrive at the church, a male member of the congregation, with a mischievous smile on his face, rubs his hands together, possibly to ward off the morning chill or perhaps in anticipation of the wedding feast. Someone has certainly just cracked a joke. Four women outside the church, with the regimented workers’ houses in the background, look like characters in a Ken Loach film waiting out a scene.

A proud dad is shown with his daughter, arms linked for the bride-to-be’s final journey down the aisle. In the shot of the newlyweds, the photographer’s blurred-out finger passing accidently across the lens has dissolved into a shaft of light that could be radiating from the stained-glass windows. As the day closes at the reception, the groom looks like the cat who got the cream, while his young wife, as she has done throughout the day, looks somewhat coyer.

Thanks for the invitation…

Nigel Martin Shephard

Make Time for…Tobler Chokolado

I recently received an album and it wasn’t what I was expecting. I had seen some pictures of its contents and assumed it was simply an unusual, promotional, branded photo album. I took it out of the envelope. It was a genuine antique — the cover was coloured deep sepia with age, dog-eared, cracked and fragile at the edges.

I opened the first page. The album’s original purpose was to feature themed decorative stamps published by the Swiss chocolate company Tobler, the confectioner famous for producing the Toblerone bar, in 1914. On this occasion, the album had also been used to show 270 photographs ranging in date from 1914 to 1928. It is the largest single volume collection of images in our archive.

There were six photos on the first page, all group shots. Five included the same young woman. I was drawn to her immediately. She had poise in front of the camera, and a confident gaze.

She appeared again and again, page after page. On the fourth page, her portrait sat next to a cabinet card photo of another young woman, who had written across her photo, ‘Love to Gladys from Pattie’. Gladys had curated the album. Its makeshift and creative nature, its often profligate, higgledy-piggledy arrangement and the relaxed poses of the young people in the photos, all attest to its creator’s youthfulness.

I believe that Gladys may have been from Hebden Bridge or perhaps Blackpool. There are photographs in the album of Hardcastle Crags in Hebden Bridge, and Blackpool Tower features in a few. There are half-a-dozen photos taken outside a house called Caldene, which has a plaque on the wall reading:

‘R Sutcliffe
Teacher of Music
Violin’

There are another couple of unfinished pages of decorative stamps, then some empty pages. At the back are several news clippings. One features a Blackpool United Temperance Council garden party and another a women’s Blackpool Total Abstinence Union trip to Buxton.

Nigel Martin Shephard

Our Next Show: Whitsun Tides – A British Bond with the Sea

During lockdown we’ve been digging deep into our archive to plan our next show — a mini-exhibition featuring a common but little-studied family ritual. We hope you like this preview of some of the images we’ll be featuring.

Among the many scenes that appear repeatedly in family albums are fully clothed people standing where the sea meets the shore: men with their trousers rolled up to the knee, women with their skirts hitched up, and children squinting, with or without their sunhats on. The waves rarely break much further up than their ankles, and the subjects, from toddler to dowager, are invariably looking directly into the camera lens.

The outlook is never picturesque, although it always includes the horizon. This photographic moment is not saved for sun-drenched days — the skies are often overcast; on many occasions, it is raining. Scenes like this appear so frequently, each differing so little from the next, that they take on the character of a ritual.

For many people, the phrase, ‘You’ve got to go in’, is an admonishment recalled easily from childhood holidays spent along the British coast. Why one had to ‘go in’ is an open question, but for the day to be complete you had to at least get your feet wet. Many of these photographs could easily have been taken in the baptismal season of Pentecost or Whitsun, an annual event marked since medieval times and now known as Spring Bank Holiday, or perhaps on one of the long weekends known to factory workers as ‘Saint Mondays’.

Festival times and seaside culture occupy a liminal space between respectability and transgression. This can be seen most clearly in many Victorian- and Edwardian-era photographs in The Family Museum collection. Despite the men being clad in three-piece suits, bleached-out Eton collars and ties, and the women in billows of fresh white cotton and elaborate ‘picture hats’, when naked from the knees down the façade of respectability dissolves. Taken in the 1920s, one image shows a woman trying to lift up her friend’s skirt, cajoling her to show a bit more leg. In another photograph from the 1960s, a young woman kicks up her leg while holding her sunglasses and shoes aloft with a theatrical joie de vivre; another woman stands in the sea with her shoes on.

Each of these photographs has a private history. If we could speak to the people in these pictures, no doubt each would, if they could, give a nuanced answer as to why the photo was taken. The aim of this exhibition is to highlight how a common experience like this, lovingly documented by myriad families, reveals our shared humanity.

Nigel Shephard and Rachael Moloney

Two Polaroids

When I was going through the loose photos in our archive recently, looking for stock for our new Ebay shop, I came across these two early Polaroids. They were taken with a Polaroid Land Camera 95, a series produced between 1948 and 1961. I pored over them, transfixed. When viewing any anonymous family photograph, I always feels privileged, and have the sensation that I am privy to an intimate moment I was never supposed to know. With instant photographs, this feeling is heightened. I was holding in my hand the very object handed round the table on that night, from one partygoer to the next. Then it was passed to me, the latecomer to the party.

Nigel Martin Shephard

Out Now: Our Found Photography Zine

At the end of 2019, to coincide with our launch exhibition Auto-Memento, we were excited to create and publish the first edition of Famzine, The Family Museum’s found photography zine. Issue 1 features contributions by American artist, writer and found photo collector Barbara Levine, British family historian Ben Haslam, Nigel and me.

Barbara Levine is the author of several books on photography, including People Kissing: A Century of Photographs (2018), Around The World: The Grand Tour in Photo Albums (2007), and Snapshot Chronicles: Inventing the American Photo Album (2006), all published by Princeton Architectural Press. Her extensive archive, projectb.com, is dedicated to sharing and preserving vintage vernacular photography, and her photo collages have been exhibited widely, winning a LensCulture Artists Award in 2017.

Ben Haslam 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

We’re busy working on Issue 2 of Famzine, which will be published later this year. If you’d like to order a hard copy of the first edition, drop us a line.

Nigel Martin Shephard and Rachael Moloney

Back in the Day – Dating Family Photos

When beginning to research family history, the most common place to start is family photographs. These may come in numbered volumes covering several generations and perhaps annotated, or maybe just a few loose negatives in a battered Lillywhites envelope. Dating old family photos is not always easy, even for those experienced in doing so; their clues are not always obvious.

The Family Museum archive comprises of a vast collection of amateur family photography, from its earliest days through to the digital age. In organising our archive, we have spent incalculable hours comparing and contrasting, and holding cryptic messages to the light. We’d love to share our knowledge with you about what we have learned to look for in an unknown and often mysterious image. If you’d like help dating your photos, get in touch at the address below, and if you agree we’ll happily blog about the experience.

Nigel Martin Shephard

Cherished Little Corners

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 artof 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