Zsófia Bán and Hedvig Turai, eds., “Exposed Memories: Family Pictures in Private and Collective Memory” (Book Review)


Roland Barthes’s first reflections in Camera Lucida are propelled by the pleasure of viewing the photographic image. At the end of his survey of a wide photographic landscape, Barthes comes to realize his failing as an “imperfect mediator” whose investigation of photography led only to a clearer understanding of his own desire, and not “the nature (the eidos) of Photography” (Barthes, 60).Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982). Perhaps paradoxically, Barthes’s turn to the “universal” in the latter half of Camera Lucida, to the ontology of the photograph, is founded on a more personal and intimate journey: the narrative exploration of the precious family photograph of his departed mother.

The collection of essays in Exposed Memories: Family Pictures in Private and Collective Memory is situated at just such a crossroads. In its probing of family pictures – from archives to family albums to modern art – the collection of essays creates an expansive notion of family in the context of private and collective memory, including homeland, loss, intimacy, memory, identity, belonging. And much like Barthes in his familial journey, the editors hope to approach a “more legitimate truth” in the face of traumatic cultural and political events: the Holocaust, the Stalinist terror, and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

The selections included in the volume were first given at a conference of the same name at the Goethe Institute in Budapest (November 2006). While divided into distinct thematic sections in order to highlight critical angles on various themes, the essays might as easily be exchanged one for another across various “panels.” Part I is devoted to the “Photo as Autobiography,” beginning with the article by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer, “Incongruous Images: Before, During, and After the Holocaust” – a personal narrative about family donations to the Holocaust Museum. The accompanying photographs of smiling Jewish men and women striding through Vienna are particularly striking as they illustrate not only the shifting notions of photography against a threatening historical backdrop, but also the disconnect between the desires of the archivist to capture public life and the impulse of donors to share the personal, captured and nourished in cherished photographs. Hirsch and Spitzer’s essay becomes the structural frame for the contributions “Beguiled by Loss: Third Generation Narrative” by Nancy K. Miller and “The Baghdadi Jew and his Chinese Mistress” by Jay Prosser. These more personal narratives explore photographs as family relics, which act as clues that might piece together identity in the act of genealogical storytelling.

If Part I is concerned primarily with the ways in which narrative creates meaning, then Part II, “Photo and Text,” explores the disconnect between image and text. Heinz Ickstadt shows the power of the photograph in breaking linguistic dominance in the literary sphere through his analysis of Richard Powers’ Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée. Such insights are shared by Zsófia Bán’s essay, “Memory and/or Construction: Family Picture in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.” As Bán notes that the inclusion of photographs in the fictional space “widens the gap” between document and fiction, this gap is also Sebald’s distinct contribution to an “alternative visuality,” capable of maintaining and creating cultural memory around the trauma of the Holocaust for new and distant readers.

Part III, “Private and Public Archives,” is loosely grouped around the larger themes of intimacy in imagined communities created around archives. Rob Kroes’s “Virtual Communities of Intimacy, Photography and Immigration” reinscribes American immigrant photographs in the space of the family unit. Here, photographs are instrumental to networks of exchange, as messages themselves that are imbued with meaning, but remain reliant on the narrative powers of identification and recognition. Similarly, Géza Boros emplots photographs of the departed within the matrix of community in “Buried Images: Photography in the Cult of Memory of the 1956 Revolution.” In his study of sepulchral monuments of the heroes and victims of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the use of photographic portraits in monuments to the dead comes full force, relating loss, mourning, and traumatic history by bringing the reader into the family of mourners. Making a more explicit call to the reader, András Bán’s “A Farewell to Private Photography” follows Boros’s contribution. Here Ban makes an imperative of the practice of “photo-museology” by advocating for a more expansive reading of private photographs, eschewing the limitations of case studies, in favor of more spontaneous and ever-broadening networks of meaning. While he is not specific as to what context or discipline this would be most relevant (seeming to favor, rather, all possible lines of inquiry), his outlook gives agency to images to form their own meaning. Suzana Milevska’s contribution, “EVENTfulness: Family Archives as Events/Folds/Veils,” can be read in light of Boros’s call in the analysis of female gendering in Balkan family photographs and its transformation in the work of contemporary artist Liljana Gjuzelova. www.gollgi.com – get best Car Sales By moving between the space of the archive and performative space of artistic installations, Milevska sees the artist’s creations as “becoming gender difference” – a difference enacted in response to the codification of the photographic archive. Such a reading assumes both the power of the image to ossify cultural norms, as well as its active role through performantive action to subvert and recreate.

Part IV, “Family Album,” and Part V, “Object/Photo/Reality,” focus on the artistic adaptation of private photographic practices in contemporary art. Logan Sisley in “Visualizing Male Homosexuality in the Family Album” and Ágnes Berecz in “Please Recycle! On Ágnes Eperjesi’s Family Album” analyze the form of the family album in autobiographical and falsely autobiographical spaces. Through his analysis of the works of Glenn Ligon, Christopher McFarlane, and Simon Watney, Sisley shows the ways in which male sexuality comes to be read in negotiation with both public and private self. Berecz’s study of Ágnes Eperjesi’s Family Album brings to the fore issues of tactility and material – an essential component of the intimate experience of the family album in the domestic setting. However, as is suggested, Esperjesi’s recycled packaging and pictograms subverts the album’s relationship to the photographic and to the “real.” Growing from the category of the “photographic,” Éva Forgács’s contribution “From Photo to Object” looks at the use of objects in Christian Boltanski and Ilya Kabakov’s catalogues of life. A closer encounter with photographic detritus is found in Hedvig Turai’s discussion of Katarina Šević and Gergely Lázló’s installation Home Museum. Turai focuses on the objects that create home, belonging, and, at the same time, signify loss in the aftermath of the Bosnian War. This turn leaves photography, as such, behind, supplanted by the objects that, although decontextualized (and, therefore, arguably photographic), are imbued with the potential to create new communities by both a museum space and within the trauma of loss.

While the title unifying this collection of essays hints at the threat of voyeurism in exposure, Exposed Memories as a whole speaks more centrally to the process of capturing a photographic image. Each voice in the collection begins with an echo of the question (paraphrased from W.J.T. Mitchell): “what do these photographs want?” Such a question attributes agency to the image, imbuing it with a life and desires, but also marks in it an absence, a lack (Mitchell, 10).W.J.T. Mitchell. What Do Pictures Want, The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). These essays each account for the power of images, while, tellingly, demonstrate the impotency of a photographic image without a narrative. And in this way, the images often tell more about what an author wants, than about what they actually show. Exposing memories is the process of forging a relationship with a photographed subject, the figurative exposure of a negative that occurs onlyin light of a textual narrative.

Taken as a whole, the collection creates the effect of an interdisciplinary and polyphonic dialogue, tackling central issues (photography, family, memory) from a variety of angles to bring to life a textual conference. Such a resistance to a more staid scholarly collection of essays is not to its detriment. The short and accessible essays of Exposed Memories read like acts of memory, performed by the representative family members an East and Central European cultural consciousness, continuing the life of photographic images beyond their frames.

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