Paging Through My Photo Album Essay Topics

"When you hold a photo album, you sense that you are in possession of something unique, intimate, and meant to be saved for a long time," writes Verna Posever Curtis in the introductory essay to Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography. "As you turn the pages and look at the images, you imbibe the maker's experience, invoking your imagination and prompting personal memories."

I've been wondering about this reflection ever since I first read it a few weeks ago, mainly because this is not what the photographic album – save for my own or my family's altogether more haphazard collections of images – evokes in me. When I see a photographic album, the first thing I think of is order: a disciplined mind; a systematic approach; a rigour that is altogether not my own; that is, in fact, the opposite of my more scattergun approach to images and memories. Indeed, I often feel there is something lifeless about the carefully composed photographic album that may be to do with the editing process: the elimination of the random, the accidental, the blurred and the botched photograph.

If truth be told, my imagination and personal memories are more likely to be evoked if I trawl though an old box of anonymous family photographs, those piles of fading, crumpled, almost discarded things that end up in car boot sales and flea markets and remind us that most lives go unmarked and unremembered save for these unmoored images that have floated free for their context and thus are imbued with a quiet but resonant sense of mystery.

Then again, I am not a curator and Curtis is. She oversees the photography and print collection at the Library of Congress and has trawled the archives there for her book selection. As its title suggests, the albums on display in Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography are no ordinary volumes. They are, in fact, a kind of potted history of mainly American photography. The albums are arranged under loose headings: Souvenirs and Mementos; Presentations; Documents; Memoirs; and, perhaps most intriguingly, Creative Process. They range in style and subject matter from Edward H Harriman's documentation of a scientific study carried out in Alaska in 1899 at the height of the gold rush to an extensive family album complied by the photographer and film-maker Danny Lyon in 2008 and 2009.

In between, there are albums compiled by explorers, historians and anthropologists as well as celebrity photographer Phil Stearn, musicologist Alan Lomax, Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, and several other well-known image makers such as Walker Evans, W Eugene Smith and Jim Goldberg. The book shows how technology - and, in particular, the coming of the instamatic and the Polaroid - impinged on the style and the function of the photo album, often allowing photographers to use them as a kind of prototype for the more stylised photography book that would inevitably follow. It traces, too, how the photo album has moved from being a historical record, whether of an Alaskan exploration or a celebration of the Hitler Youth movement or even a party held for President Kennedy by Frank Sinatra, to a kind of artist's book through which, as is the case with Duane Michals or Goldberg, we are given access to a creative diary or a glimpse of the way an artist works.

Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography is also perhaps an elegy for the photo album. Many of the albums included here are testaments to the art and craft of personalised book-making, one-offs that seem almost anachronistic in the age of the download and the hard drive. If the photography book is currently thriving as a medium, the old-fashioned photo album does seem very much a thing of the past.

And yet for all that, as Curtis puts it, "many people desire a physical object that can be held, paged through again and again, and shown to others". For that very reason, the photo album has given way to the self-published photobook, an online publishing phenomenon that means you or I can create our own album using preordained templates and printed from digital files. (I have addressed the self-publishing phenomenon here.) The photobook, though, is not really the equivalent of the photo album: rather than a painstakingly compiled one-off, it can be reproduced to order and it is often wilfully non-crafted in the manner of a lo-fi musical recording.

"It is difficult," writes Curtis, "to predict whether people will be fully satisfied with the textural uniformity of these manufactured books comprised of digital images made on demand through a commercial service."

Using the artist/book maker Paolo Ventura as an example, Curtis is optimistic that the photo album will survive in some form or another. Ventura makes small-scale created tableaux using tiny models which he then photographs and incorporates into his large-scale art works. He records every stage of his very postmodern creative process in a series of old-fashioned, hand-crafted albums. "In the end," concludes Curtis, "an abiding desire to tell a story with photographs will keep some form of album-making alive." Despite my hopeless aversion to order, I hope she is right.

Now see this

Ben Roberts is the documentary photographer as flaneur. From 2007 to 2009, he wandered the urban fringes of Spain recording the evidence of the country's unsustainable building boom and its subsequent implosion. His highly formal landscapes of abandoned housing projects and empty suburban hinterlands possess a suitably unreal undertow. His exhibition, the Gathering Clouds is at the Third Floor Gallery, Cardiff from 18 June to 24 July.

My Photo Album

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My Photo Album


Overheard at University College London:

"Because when you write this way- with this pomp and circumstance covering for any substantive thought- you aren't fooling me"...... CRASH. "OUCH! Old son- you seem to have just thrown me out a window!"

If I had been given this little lecture by Mr. Pomp and Circumstance, the previous scene is what would have been witnessed. I would have thrown him out a window for two reasons. First and foremost, he sounds like an obnoxious, holier than thou prick. Second and more importantly, everything he said is right on the mark. As they say, "the truth hurts." He seems to have the ability to see through my themes and realize that I am really not saying anything at all. I like the concept that our previous work is just like an old photograph. Needless to say, I have a few photographs in my collection which I might want to hide under the bed. As I page through my photoalbum from college, I notice that I seem to be wearing the same outfit in almost every picture. Let's just look at a few.

"By becoming acquainted with the Pardoner in both the general prologue and the prologue to his tale, we become aware of his hypocritical nature. In his prologue, we find that the Pardoner is a very immoral person." Yep, that one was taken just outside of a class on Chaucer. Look at those nicely pressed khaki slacks and that perfectly ironed shirt. I can't believe I'm standing with my hand pressed to my chin deep in thought. I don't think I ever noticed those people from English 220 snickering in the background before. Here's another good one. Lanham would have a Paramedic field day with this one.

"Lawrence Frederick Kohl's book, The Politics of Individualism is at once an account of America's political turmoil in the Jacksonian era and an interpretation of the relationship of these political views to the psychological nature of the American citizen during the era. In this account of the Jacksonian era, the reader is able to recognize the framework for the politics which will dominate the nineteenth century." I think this one was taken outside Gerry Schnabel's history class. That looks like my Chaucer outfit again. I used to wear that outfit for every occasion which I thought was important. I can't help but notice that it doesn't look like there is anything behind that outfit.

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It looks as if I'm standing in front of one of those cardboard cut-outs you see at amusement parks. This one seems to look more silly than most. As I page through the album, I can't help but realize that I'm wearing the same outfit outside of Shakespeare, Literary Criticism, even Films of Hitchcock. I think to myself that my dad, the biologist, would be proud. He'd say something like, "Good job son. You really look sharp. That's how a young man in college is supposed to look. You look like someone who is going places." Yeah- Dad. It looks like I'm going to church. I am ashamed to admit that this next photo is me. I thought I burned this one.

"I was wondering if you were still interested in going to the cabin on the 17th. You will need to inform me in regard to what items I should bring on the trip. I do hope we can catch the ten pound fish which we saw Ted release last summer." Oh man! Look at those spectacles. And that stuffy shirt is just terrible. What made me put that ridiculous pipe in my mouth? You can almost here me asking, "When are we going to tea, old son?" I've never seen the tutor from University College London, but I'd be willing to bet that I'm the spitting image of him in this photo. Yep, I knew it. This time the entire class of English 220 is snickering in the background. I'm glad I lost that outfit. Maybe I'll try to dig it out and wear it again on Halloween. Here's a recent photo taken at the beginning of this course.

"The metaphor of a university being an airport works best if it is looked at in terms of chronology. These chronological points of reference are extremely consistent." What the hell does that mean? These sentences weren't taken out of context. That was actually what I was trying to say. I don't think I really said anything. It looks as if I was still wearing my familiar outfit. Only this time, the shirt is unbuttoned and the slacks aren't ironed as neatly. Instead of writing a theme, I merely wrote a sloppy theme. It is hard to change your clothes when your favorite outfit seems to fit so well. The students in English 220 aren't really snickering in this photo. They seem to be wearing the same type of outfit I am- except for the guy in the corner wearing the ripped T-shirt that says, "Beyond the Meat" on the front.

It is odd and somewhat embarrassing to look at these photos. I feel like I've been wearing that outfit for years and I didn't realize that it looked so tacky. I wonder what I look like now. Let's get out the handy Polaroid and snap off a quick picture. Click. I'll have to wait a while for it to develop. What should I do until then? Maybe I could muse on whether or not there is one outfit for every situation. My themewriting outfit seems to fit well enough to "do well in a class." But does it really enable me to measure what I've learned? Or better yet, does it help me to learn while I'm wearing it? It sure looks awfully constrictive.

I think there are a lot of times in writing when a theme is what is necessary to get by. In history class, the instructor just wants to know if you've read the material and are familiar with it. All you really need to do is regurgitate the "gist" to him and both sides come away happy. Sometimes we need to write in the official style (such as when giving a proposal for some type of monetary grant). There are also times when we are "cut loose" and able to work with words themselves. We can put them on the page not merely to convey an idea, but to demonstrate and support that idea. The reader can then look at what is being said in relation to how it is being said. You can convey your message more powerfully and drive your point home better when you can illustrate it, rather than just talking about it. That is what "exposition that counts" is all about. It "contributes to the understanding of all concerned."

Here we go. The Polaroid seems to be coming into focus. That's me, huh. It just looks like a guy sitting at his computer with gym shorts and a T-Shirt with the sleeves torn off. This is hardly the outfit to wear for a final. Jeez, it looks like he just woke up. This guy doesn't even look like he can form complete sentences. He's no themewriter. My dad would be sooo disappointed.



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