Monday, March 03, 2003

Since the 1970s, the ‘found’ photograph has been a popular accessory for conceptual artists, 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 he identified only as family ‘D’ (later revealed to be that of his dealer). It was impossible to be unaffected by these small re-photographed 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 never would 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 unconditionally, and know those unconditional guardians and their protection were gone for good. It was a simple device, but at the end of the century Boltanski had identified its subjects: memory and death.

Liz Jobey, “Snaps,” in Granta 80 (34-35)

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