From my German Family Album I am running a series of online lectures beginning on September 9th linking the historical, the contemporar...
Tuesday, 27 November 2012
More family album work here in the form of Marc Asnin's Uncle Charlie. This is a very complex book that details the life and decline of Asnin's Uncle Charlie. Brutal and affectionate at the same time, Asnin's pictures are accompanied by Charlie's convoluted text; stories of his childhood, his intelligence, his wives, children and mental illness. It's not a clear cut story with no clear black-and-white narrative. Nor is it really about a Journey into Hell. But never mind, it's great work that is the kind of mega-project that Eugene Smith would have made if he'd photographed his family instead of going off to Pittsburgh.
The middle image is of Charlie after his son died of AIDS.
The text below is from an article in the Independent with that as a title.
Henschke has said he'll meet Asnin "in hell"… Is he really that angry about his portrayal? "On any given day he could have a different feeling towards me. The underlying thing though, I think, is that for 30 years he was interested because he shared those stories and, for whatever reason, it just happened to be that I was the guy he shared that with.
"I've been asked: did you ever hate your uncle? And I've said, 'Yeah, sure, all the time – but there were many days I loved him a lot'. I tried to tell his story. I tried over the years to be a good godson to him."
Read about it in the Independent here.
Monday, 26 November 2012
So then. The last from the Family Albums. This is my late Uncle Detmar. He was in the Wehrmacht in the Second World War and got sent to the Eastern Front for his troubles. He was at Stalingrad, but caught measles and was on one of the last planes out.
Saturday, 24 November 2012
These are my grandparents from Germany. Note the duelling scars and the fine dress sense of my grandfather (who I never met). This is from the 1920s.
My grandfather didn't fight in the second world war, but he was in Berlin at the end of the war, one of those "places you don't want to be" which make one realise how lucky one is to be born in a certain place at a certain time, but also how things can change so quickly. Berlin or Warsaw or Leningrad in 1945 is Mogadishu in 2012, only 10 times worse.
A couple of years ago, my daughter Isabel had a class at school where the homework was to find out what family and friends had done during the Second World War. We extended it a bit and, without too much effort, found a man who had been on the bombing raids over Dresden (he was never happy about it), a neighbour whose father-in-law had been in a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp ( he never got over it - he killed himself twenty years later), a classmate's German grandmother who had been in Danzig/Gdansk at the end of the Second World War (she never talked about it), a grandfather who had fought at Monte Cassino and been imprisoned in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp and a Jewish friend who as a child had been hidden from Nazis in Warsaw for the entirety of the war. Isabel's own grandmother had been a refugee in a British-run refugee camp and seen 3 of her brothers sent back to Yugoslavia to be shot.
Wednesday, 21 November 2012
Monday, 19 November 2012
This one is a passport picture of Pete gurning for his friends - from around 1972 I'm guessing. This summer just gone, we had the best day out in Toronto with an old friend Eric. We found an old photo-booth in the Steam Whistle Brewery. They gave us a free beer and we introduced Isabel to the photo-booth thing. I look at this and wonder at how everything really doesn't change that much.
What at would Broomberg and Chanarin do in a photo-booth?
Friday, 16 November 2012
Wednesday, 14 November 2012
Yes, it's 1970, Pete has grown his hair long and is about to get expelled for the trouble. Why should I? Fuck you! The Economist has some random story about Vietnam, but the Sun on the right has a headline about Muriel McKay
"..the wife of Rupert Murdoch's deputy, Alick McKay, was kidnapped and killed. In a bungled extortion attempt Arthur and Nizamodeen Hosein thought they had taken Mr Murdoch's then wife Anna.
Mrs McKay's body was never discovered, but it was suspected she was fed to pigs on a Hertfordshire farm owned by the brothers."
Tuesday, 13 November 2012
Sunday, 11 November 2012
It also reminds me of the philosophical nature of goalkeepers, mainly because Keith is now teaches philosophy in Georgia, the US one. He's also a Spurs fan, Tottenham not San Antonio.
Here's a picture of Keith falling out of a tree. Trees are one of my favourite places to photograph people - well my daughter really, but she's not a philospher so she doesn't fall out of them.
More to the point, there is a connection between the move to colour (and this is very early colour for a snapshot camera - early sixties) and the demise of the family album. It's visible in virtually all family albums, where the sharpness and the composition falls off as people try to catch colours rather than create 'memorable' moments.
Wednesday, 7 November 2012
When I heard the news of my mother-in-law's death, I was staying in Kent with Pete, a kind of brother-in-law/uncle. I found his old pictures and started looking through them.
Here he is with his mum and dad and his Grandma Dorothy in the late 1950s. Aunt Dorothy is the one in the wheelchair with the broken arm in a sling. There's a nurse in the background looking all nursey and stern, striding purposefully towards someone or something, possibly the photographer who has thrown everything off-kilter and half-framed the nurse into the spotlight.
It turns out that Grandma Dorothy had a stroke and was put in a hospital. For six years. But she was single-minded and she fought against the doctors who told her that hospital was the only place for her, and eventually returned home. After six years in hospital.
She lived at home for 6 more years, and then she died. And that is what the picture is all about, the story that goes with it.
Tuesday, 6 November 2012
Sometimes photography seems abstract, but then something happens that makes it concrete. In the last couple of weeks I have been looking at family album pictures from different groups of relatives.
The one family album I haven't looked at is those of my wife, Katherine's family. Perhaps there's a reason for that. Katherine's parents originally came from Yugoslavia. They moved to Canada in 1947 after spending two years in a refugee camp run by the British in Austria - they met and got married there, in a dress made of scraps of cloth donated by other refugees. It was a camp where the rations amounted to only 600 calories, where the impetus was for the refugees to return to Yugoslavia. One of my wife's uncles did return, but was never heard of again. He was shot.
Katherine's parents, Elizabeth and Ivan, eventually got a patch of land on Leighland Road in Burlington, Ontario. They built a garage and that was their home for a couple of years before Ivan had finished building the adjoining house. They lived on that street with other refugees from eastern Europe. They had children, six in total, and the house soon got too small. But still they lived there. Ivan worked as a janitor, Elizabeth as a housewife (and occasionally as a cleaner).
Initially, the house was bordered by orchards and farmland, but gradually highways, stripmalls and car-lots became the surrounding environment. It was the wrong side of the railway tracks that run a little to the north. Elizabeth always wanted a bigger house with a fancy kitchen and modern decor, but she never got it. Instead she continued to live in the house after her husband died. Then she had a fall and had to be moved into a home where she lived, increasingly dependent on others, until she died last Saturday night.
I think it was a relief in some ways that she died, because she wasn't independent and it wasn't the way she wanted to live, but at the same time it was a massive shock. Not because of the death, but because of the passing of an era, the end of a living history. You can keep history alive in various ways , but when the person who witnessed it goes, it does spell the end of a chapter. It doesn't mean we should forget it, but there is still some part of a time that has gone. Things have moved on.
But things are also preserved and the family album does this admirably. It's a shorthand of memory, of history, of an edited and at times idealised past, where certain things are hidden and certain things taken away - sometimes in retrospect. Even so, we still look at it quite objectively as something quite factual.
But Elizabeth didn't have those old photos, so I wonder how she will be remembered. Just as words are sometimes better than photographs, so is food. I remember her Slovenian cooking, her gingerbread, her puddings, her cakes and so does my wife.
So rather than going through old photographs, I think there will a little bit of baking going on in Burlington, of strudel, potica and things that I cannot even begin to spell ( how do you spell kifudgka). And with the baking, a lot of memories will be raised and a life will be replayed and tears be shed. But at the end of it all, amidst all the sorrow, there will also be some joy, that around her at the visitation and the funeral will be her children, six of the kindest, loveliest and most generous people I have ever had the pleasure to have known. And there will be their children and their children's children - and they are all lovely.And I think that when she was surrounded by her family this summer, at the 90th birthday party that was held for her in her oldest daughter's garden, at the lunches and meals she was wheeled out of the home for, and I think of the relish with which she polished off the store-bought potica ('not as good as mine') or anything sweet, I think Elizabeth knew that for all the trauma and disappointment of parts of her life, the legacy that she left behind was really something special.
In other words, who needs the photographs? Food, family and the smell of potica are what matter.