When was the last time you looked through a photo album? And I don’t mean Roderick’s “Las Vegas 2012” or Bethan’s “Mainly Eating in March” facebook albums. I’m talking about a real album. One you can hold in your hands that smells of old paper and glue. One where you can hear the crinkle of cellophane as you turn its sticky pages. I’m gonna guess that unless you’re recently married, you’ve probably flipped through an online album a lot more recently than you have a physical one.
Our relationship to photographs is evolving, but even though our trips down memory lane are now as likely to consider “Last Night’s Outing for Korean Food” as they are “Alex’s Bat Mitzvah”, the destination remains the same. Photographs, and the albums we collect them in, help us fashion stories about our lives, both past and present. When we make and consume photographs and albums – be they physical or digital - we are the arbiters of our own memory. We decide what’s important, how we want to be remembered.
Family albums are central to two photo exhibitions in Amsterdam at the moment. Erik Kessels’ Album Beauty at Foam is an archival collection of anonymous family albums. It foregrounds the physical photographic artifact, revealing albums’ commonalities and idiosyncrasies. Further along the canal, at Huis Marseille, Chino Otsuka’s A World of Memories focuses on the artist’s own family photos (both old and recent) to more broadly suggest individual memory as something written in pencil not pen, something worth revisiting.
Erik Kessels, from Album Beauty; Courtesy of the Artist and Foam - Fotografie Museum.
Album Beauty presents pages and images from hundreds of photo albums. Actual albums lie open in vitrines and sit stacked on the floor, giant blown up images populate the walls, and life-sized cut-outs stand in the middle of the room. The overwhelming installation reveals themes (pets, babies, vacations, weddings – sound familiar?) and underscores the impossibility of getting a timeless haircut.
At its best, the show is about albums as receptacles of composed memory – memory that is contingent, nonlinear, strange. It demonstrates historical attempts to remember and be remembered. That these albums have ended up in Foam is at once a joyful and heartbreaking turn of events. They’re given new life under our gaze, but we can’t remember them in the way that their original creators and subjects could.
The exhibition isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s fun and has some real gems. Moments that highlight photos and albums as objects people live with are the most interesting and revealing. A poetically creased photo of a young bride suggests time passed, while photos with faces or whole bodies cut out show attempts to heal pain, to actively remove something from one’s memory.
Chino Otsuka, Imagine Finding Me 1982 and 2005, Richmond Hotel, France, 2005, C-print; Courtesy of artist and Huis Marseille.
Chino Otsuka’s photography and videos pick up this thread. The Japanese artist lives with photos, revisiting them and excavating her own history in order to explore the flexible nature of memory. In her best-known series, Imagine Finding Me, Otsuka makes digital composites from old travel photos, placing her adult likeness alongside her childhood one. What might initially sound like a Photoshop 101 assignment, is actually a sophisticated, intimate, and technically remarkable endeavor. Sometimes Otsuka’s past and present selves are closely involved, as in one image where they lie together on a hotel room bed in France (1984/2005). In other photographs they seem to pass each other undetected, a missed opportunity.
In another series in the same room, Otsuka directly addresses the materiality of the family album by removing the photographs, showing only their trace remains (hand scrawled captions, triangular photo corners) on near empty album leaves. Throughout her work, Otsuka is keenly aware of the constructed nature of memory, asking whether photographs can be accurate records of the past. Because of their mimetic nature we afford them greater truth as signifiers. By removing the images, the artist underscores the notion that photographs can be speculative and misleading.
Perhaps we can see ourselves reflected in both exhibitions, which taken together highlight our desires to document both critical and random moments in our lives as well as our ability to reflect on those moments. Taking the photograph is only the first step in embedding a memory. Memory is more process than object – it is only when we revisit the photos in our albums that we create and sustain it.