picture: Colin Pantall - New Year's Day, 1956
Larry Sultan's Pictures from Home is a wondrous mix of snapshots from the family album and stills from old home movies and Sultan's own portraits of his mum and dad. Larry Sultan gets away with using all these images because he's using them for a reason - to connect the social, economic and personal histories apparent in his family's move to California. Everything looks great in Pictures From Home, especially Sultan's large format portraits of his parents. These could stand alone and Pictures From Home would still be a great book. They are lovely and full of insight and the snapshots fade into the background to create a foundation for the Sultan family's varied perspectives.
For the rest of us, it's the other way round. We have our portraits and pictures of contemporary life and then stumble upon a snapshot from an old family album. And snapshots from old family albums have a habit of looking good because they are more than snapshots: people took more time making them than they do now, people wore better clothes than they do now, people didn't necessarily know what was expected of them in front of the camera and if they did, they performed their task with more dignity, conviction and self-belief than they do now.
It's old, it's black and white if possible, it's connected to whatever you are doing in a vague way, because everything is connected really isn't it and a bit of creative captioning and a creative artist's statement can work miracles for sneaking an outsider into your project? Just mumble something about archives, family albums, vernacular and in it goes. Then say it out loud, and again, and louder and soon you'll believe the transformative powers of your own alchemy. Ooh, and there's another one, and another one, and another one. The problem is if all the informing from the past overwhelms the informing from the present, if we end up looking too much at the pictures of our parents and grandparents' lives instead of our own, then the snaps from the olden days become decorative addenda that overwhelm the tedium of our own pictures.
We can rationalise the importance of the pictures and their inclusion in our book/project/series/whatever, but deep down we know the only reason we are including them is because they are more interesting and evocative than the work we produce ourselves.
Reminiscing with the odd found photograph is great, reminiscing with too many turns the project into some kind of weird scrapbook - great if we're making a scrapbook, not so great if we're not unless you approach the thing with the brashness, chaos and rigour of Peter Beard or Ed Templeton for example.
The real problem comes when our solipsism becomes so great that we don't just include the pictures from our past, we include the debris of our lives, the stuff we find at the bottom of pockets, bags and in small piles gathered by the side of our desks. Old receipts, bus tickets, notes and doodles that we once thought was so insignificant that we couldn't even be bothered to throw it away.
Sometimes these insignificances can add up to more ( as in Keith Arnatt's Notes From My Wife), but most of the time we are trying to flesh out a project with something banal and humdrum, something that doesn't illuminate anything except the tedium of our lives both past and present.
The only exception to this rule is maps. They tell us where things are, what happened where and if they're drawn by hand, it's even better. Maps are always good.