vrijdag 23 december 2011

Can Photo Albums survive the digital age? Album of the years: Photographic Memory Verna Posever Curtis

Album of the years: can photo albums survive the digital age?

An evocative survey of photo albums captures the history of American photography – and asks whether we'll ever impose order on our sprawling digital collections

Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography View larger picture
Compiled by Beatrice Banning Ayer Patton; photographed by George S Patton Jr from second world war albums, 1941-1947 ... taken from Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography. Photograph: Aperture/Library of Congress
"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.

A Closer Look -- Photographic Memory by Photo-Eye

Photographic Memory -- Edited by Verna Posever Curtis

New from Aperture, Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography, edited by Verna Posever Curtis, is a look into the art of the photo album. Culled from the vast collection of albums in the archives of the Library of Congress, Photographic Memory organizes the 24 featured albums into five categories, Souvenirs & Mementos, Presentations, Documents, Memoirs, Creative Process. The book opens with an essay on the history of the photo album and includes texts on the status of the album in the digital age, the preservation of these precious objects, notes and an index. Each album presentation opens with a photograph of the closed book facing the story of the album and its compiler and how it came to be in the collection of the Library of Congress. The types of albums contained within run the gamut: political mementos from US campaigns, Nazi propaganda, precursors to landmarks in the history of photobooks like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and notebooks complied from the photographs of Dorothea Lange, documents of expeditions, the personal war album of General Patton, family albums and even a collection of photographs of beautiful, sleek and eerie looking airships.
from Photographic Memory
 The cohesion of this collection is found in the wonderful manner in which the albums are presented. Photographing the books as a whole, the images show full page spreads, allowing the albums to lay open as they would if viewed on a table. Page layouts vary -- some featuring a grid of images while others align the seam of the album with the gutter of the book, making them feel even more alive. This technique has also been employed with much success by the Books on Books series, and is the ideal way to communicate the object beyond the images.Photographic Memory celebrates some of the most resonate qualities of these constructions -- the hand of the maker in the album and the shear physicality of the object. Shown in this manner, the albums appear more tactile and personal, full of handwritten captions, notes and illustrations, discoloration and foxing, photocorners, paper clips and a variety of bindings in an array of conditions. 

from Photographic Memory
Some of my personal favorites -- the handwritten narration and illustrations accompanying George F. Nelson's Alaska; the gorgeous detail work and ornamentation in Jean Anthony Varicle's Sketches of the Northland, including the handmade caribou skin cover, complete with magnificent hand lettered titles and bark and real gold embellishments; the stunning and personal family album of Danny Lyons, innovative in its design and reproduced here with the handwritten captions just large enough to be readable; the beautiful images from the private album of Max Waldman called Color Town; the tiny contact prints that make up the almost haphazardly arrangement of images in Alan Lomax's Spanish Photo Notebooks, his first real effort to visually document his historic field-recording trips. Though Photographic Memory only shows a few pages from each of these fascinating volumes, it is a book that encourages return viewings. I would imagine that a number of the albums in this book could do well as full reproductions, and makes the case for the album to be considered a unique genre of book art.

See also 

Photoalbums from the Dutch East Indies Herinneringen in beeld Photography

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