No wonder we record banalities. Photographs are how we keep in touch. (…)
Photographs provide at least a visual record of our past. Looking at our parents and grandparents and even our great-grandparents; looking at their dress, their surroundings, their class and aspirations, fixes us in society (…) And in this photographs also provide us with a collective identity, a sense of shared experience at a particular time and place in history. Photographs can evoke a collective emotion-a generalized, rather than specific identification with the past-and this is the power that at the end of the twentieth century found itself harnessed to contemporary art.
Since the 1970s, the ‘found’ photograph has been a popular accessory for conceptual artist, and in 1990 I found myself in the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, at an exhibition of works by the French artist Christian Boltanski, standing in front of a wall of small black-and-white photographs not unlike the ones of my own family. In Boltanski’s case he had taken them from the albums of a family identified only as family ‘D’ (later revealed to be that of his dealer). It was impossible to be unaffected by these small rephotograph snapshots of uneven quality which showed mothers and fathers and small children in all the groupings, formal and informal, familiar to anybody who had grown up, like Boltanski, in the immediate post-war period. I believe none of the visitors I stood next to at the Whitechapel at that point knew of the existence of family D, let alone had any relationship to them. But there was a sense of recognition that brought with it a powerful mix of emotions: love, fear, sadness, amusement, dread. Boltanski understood the effect these photographs would have. It was a shared experience-we recognized our own childhoods, we recognized a past when the future was full of promise, people we had lost and would never find again, times and places we had been happy, times when we had believed we would be safe, or successful, or were blessed. They reminded us of when we believed that friends and marriages and principles would endure for a lifetime. And they told us that once we had been loved unconditional, and now those unconditional guardians and their protection were gone for good. It was a simple device, but at the end of the century Boltansky had identified its subjects: memory and death.
All photographs are about the past. (…)
“Lost in the depths of the Winter Garden, my mother’s face is vague, faded. In a first impulse I exclaimed, ‘There’s she is! She’s really there! At last, there she is!’ Now I claim to know-and to be able to say adequantely-why, in what she consists. I want to outline the loved face by thought, to make it into the unique field of an intense observation; I want to enlarge this face in order to see it better, to understand it better, to know its truth (I confide this task to a laboratory). I believed that by enlarging the detail ‘in series’ (each shot engendering smaller details than at the preceding stage), I will finally reach my mother’s very being.”
It explains part of the magic of the photography-not only to copy what we can see with our eyes, but to make visible that which we can’t.