City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Photo Album Revisited

During the many months that one has been homebound thanks to Covid, one has had to rediscover aspects of the home that have otherwise been ignored. Closets have been cleaned, papers organised, some culinary skills brushed up on and old photograph albums revisited.

Going back to familiar old photo albums is an exercise in both nostalgia and discovery. The photo album is a memorial site that gives us new rewards every time we visit it. It is the closest that we have to a movie about our lives as it lays out a chronological account of the trajectory of our lives as we grow older. We are always looking at the old with new eyes and finding aspects of our own lives which we had stopped acknowledging or owing. Little bits of memories pop out, questions of an exceedingly insignificant kind are asked. Where has that sweater gone? Do you remember that fight with the boatman in Nainital? Isn’t that friend of yours in the picnic picture the one who was divorced last year? Nana was really handsome when he was young, wasn’t he?

A photo album organises memories, enshrines them. It represents an official account of the past, as it installs images in our mind that become definitive. We remember people as they were photographed, and there are some whom we remember only through their faded picture in the album. The past is made visual and concrete. It allows us to see in people imprints of their former selves and makes us realise that everyone was young once and that everyone will inevitably age.

It establishes a timeline of our lives, and we see the effect of time on all of us. We experience time in both directions- for our own selves it is an account of aging, of infants morphing into sullen adolescence, of waistlines thickening and hairlines receding, of family portraits that expand for a while only to begin contracting as age catches up with some. On the flip side, we side pictures of people we have only known as old, in the prime of their youth and struggle to reconcile the toothless grandmother with the brisk smartness of her youthful photographs.

The photograph as a form too has a story to tell. The early B&W photographs are self-attested documents of the past, as they crackle with self-evident significance. One across a large number of pictures that are tiny is size and lofty in their long shot ambition, testimony to a time when cameras were primitive and photographic prints expensive. As a result, one can barely make out the figures that pose hopefully at the camera. There are of course, the studio photographs, those carefully staged vignettes of families dressed up for eternity. With time, we see colour enter our lives. The early colour photographs have a touch of sepia about them, which later gives way to the deeper tones that we are familiar with today.

The materiality of the photo gave a sense of tangibleness to the people, the places and times associated with it. Like old letters, the album makes memories permanent. The early albums had little captions next to the photographs, either explaining the context or adding a touch of humour. When we thumb through an album, we are transported to a place called the past. The past stops becoming an abstraction and becomes a territory. Nostalgia has an address, and a definite form. The photo album is a principality of the past lurking in the kingdom of today.

The digital photographs of today, on the other hand, give us in profusion what they take away in concreteness. They serve as well as documents of time, but they are difficult to linger over; our mind struggles to enter that time and space that the digital image represents. Scanning digital photographs is an exercise in skimming; for they are all surface and no depth. Also, the absence of any constraints in terms of printing cost means that we shoot everything a dozen times, just to be sure. We have endless photographs of the same meaningless activity, and we cannot bring to delete the extra images, for we are not entirely sure which is the best image to keep. Profusion acts as a form of erasure. The photo album makes memory a prize, its digital counterpart treats it as a promotional scheme.

The selfie narrows the purpose of the photograph considerably. It makes the photograph a personal possession rather than a social object. Nobody else is really interested in thousands of ways in which one can pout at a camera, although that does not stop so many of us from inflicting such poses on others on social media. The selfie is designed for an audience of one; unlike other photographs, the selfie is interested in broadcast, not communication.

Memory needs crevices of specificity, where it can insinuate itself, and the digital photograph is too much of a simulation to offer those. Modern memory is shapeless and gives us nothing to remember it by. Digital photographs have many advantages- they are inexpensive, easy to store and categorise, they can be retrieved instantly and be circulated freely. But they are, at their core about documenting the present rather than creating a past.

The modern wedding album is a case in point. Today wedding photography is a phenomenon by itself. It has a theme, it is choreographed in intricate details, and the protagonists are treated as if they were lead performers in a movie. And yet, the greater the production, the less potent the memories. Eyes slide over an unending array of wedding photos- everyone looks like Diwali. They come to rest on a small B&W picture of one’s newly engaged parents. Memory needs grit.

Art needs galleries, photographs need an album. Without a home, memories hang in virtual space, disconnected from the physicality of life.  The photo album allows to travel back in time, one memory at a time.