Category Archives: Photography

Writing Down the Past

At its best, family history is a trespasser, disregarding the boundaries between local and national, private and public, and ignoring the hedges around fields of a academic study; taking us by surprise into unknown worlds.

Alison Light, Common People: The History of an English Family, (2014)

Later this month I will be holding a creative writing workshop in Switzerland (where I currently live and work) for teachers of English as a Foreign Language (EFL). The aim of this half-day workshop is to show teachers how they can use creative writing exercises in their EFL classes in order to encourage their students to take risks with the new language and to personalise it, thereby fostering a sense of ownership and increased confidence in the use of English. The teaching material is designed to be adapted for different levels of language ability, although the workshop will be aimed at native speakers. This is to allow the teachers to experience the activities as learners themselves, enabling them  to tap in to their own creative wellspring.

My interest in family history and the demographic of the group makes it an obvious choice of topic for some of the exercises. For that reason I decided to focus this month‘s post on the different ways in which family history research and creative writing can be combined. To this end, I have adapted some of the activities used in the workshop to focus solely on family history.  These exercises may be of interest to other writers and teachers*, as well as those who would like some creative inspiration to help them write their own family history.

*I use this term broadly as it may include teachers of others subject, such as social history.

Family Photographs

I have touched on the role of photographs in family research in an earlier post (see Those Ghostly Traces), in particular in relation to Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. Both these important texts about photography attempt to get to the essence of what it means to take photographs and be photographed; to collect photographs and use photographs to document events and lives, as well as shape and frame (reframe?) memory. As Sontag points out: What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

Photographs of people are an obvious choice for teaching material as there is a wide variety of activities which can be used in conjunction with images, from simple descriptive vocabulary to complex character bios, to investigating historical details. If students can bring in copies of a selection of their own family photographs, then the activity takes on a more personal and meaningful nature. Naturally, this topic needs to be handled sensitively, but discovering more about the backgrounds of the other students generally increases both cohesion and respectfulness of differences within the group.

A series of photographs in chronological order can be used to create an interesting narrative, such as the ones I have of my English grandmother, Edie, which cover 70 years of her life (see I Remember, I Remember). This makes an ideal longer project and could be used as the basis of a short biography. To illustrate this, I usually print out a selection of my own photographs on good quality A4 paper and insert them into plastic pockets. This allows them to be handled and prevents them from being regarded as  ‘too precious’. The images* (below) illustrate the relationship of my  own grandmother with her beloved oldest brother Tom, before and after the Great War. Such a series could create a jumping off point for a number of activities. *All photographs courtesy of Tom’s grand-daughter, Margaret Andrews.

Tom,_Fred_and_Edith_with_mother_1909_'Taken_soon_after_Father_died' (3)After Father Died c1905: Edie and Tom, with Fred and Harriet

Thomas_and_Edith_with_mother_Harriett_'Before_going_to_the_War' (2)

Before Going to War in 1915: Edie and Tom with Harriet

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Tom’s Marriage in 1917: Edie (back centre) is bridesmaid 

Postcards from the Past

For family historians, historical postcards can be an important research tool. In a teaching situation, copies of the original can be made, or postcards can be mocked up from images in magazines or on the internet. Using such images in a creative way can be a powerful way to attempt to see the world as our ancestors did. For example, postcards of places that family members visited on holiday, or where they lived, can be used as a stimulus to write to someone else in the character of a particular family member. The image I have of Kennington Park in its hey-day is one that helps me to imagine how it might feel to have visited the place at the time my ancestors lived nearby – the gardens being such a contrast to the dull streets and factories of their neighbourhood on the other (wrong?) side of the park (see A Tale of Two Parks).

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Postcard of Kennington Park c1900 (purchased on ebay)

This activity could even be expanded to include postcards of people (ancestors or important figures of the time), such as the old Rotary ones of actors which can be picked up cheaply on the internet. I am currently amassing quite a collection of images of my Edwardian actor ancestor, Herbert Sleath and his actress wife, Ellis Jeffreys, and every so often purchase a used one where the writer might allude to the image on the front. I have even come across cards the couple sent to friends, and particularly relish one where Herbert appears to be arranging a secret rendezvous with another woman (written in shorthand) –  a reminder of  the days when the frequency of the postal service almost resembled the speed of texts and emails. Writing a ‘secret postcard’ could certainly add spice to this exercise. This activity could be expanded to write letters and diary entries in the character of an ancestor.

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Did Herbert Sleath write this postcard (27/2/1908) himself?

Secret Thought Bubbles

Continuing with the topic of secrecy, the first two activities lead naturally on to one where copies of portraits and paintings of people (usually reproduced on postcards) are distributed to the students, who then have to write a ficticious ‘thought bubble’ for the person (or one of the people) depicted. It is interesting to then separate the writing from the images and ask the other students to try to match the ‘thought bubbles’ to the pictures. This is an activity I aim to do for the two portraits I have of the child prodigy actor, William Robert Grossmith (see Artificial Limbs on Curious Plans), stimulated by the discussion that the Sunderland schoolchildren had on the Shakespeare on Tour website (here) when speculating on his life. Obviously, this activity could be extended to include family photographs. I would also like to write thought bubbles for all the members of my family in the Skelton wedding photograph in the banner image above (reproduced in full below). I often wonder what little Peter at the front was thinking of the whole event.

Marriage_Edith_Stops-Sidney_SkeltonNEW (2)My Grandparents’ Wedding, London, 1923 (c) M. Andrews

Bringing the Past to Life

A couple of years ago I stumbled across these two silent film clips from the Mitchell and Kenyon collection of Local Films for Local People (now in the British Film Institute) which have been enhanced and set to a very evocative score. Whenever I feel a little lost for inspiration, or wonder if my genealogical quest is a worthwhile one, then I only have to watch these short films again to restore my faith in the value of my project. Such a clip can obviously be used in a myriad of ways in the classroom: from chosing to write about one of the people who appear in the film to creating descriptions and narratives (as well as ‘secret thought bubbles’). But perhaps more importantly, most people never fail to be moved by the lively scenes unfolding in front of their eyes, knowing as they gaze upon the curious and open faces that flit across the screen that not one of the population depicted in the film will be alive today. It is a sobering thought, but one that should spur us to action to make the most of the opportunities we have today to document the past lives of our ancestors.

Music of the Past

Although the video above is set to contemporary music (Chanson du Soir and Arco Noir from Richard Harvey’s Strings of Sorrow album), both tracks evoke the poignancy of the lost Edwardian world unveiled to us through the uncanny time machine of technology, and the music greatly enhances the viewing experience. Music in general can be made to stimulate ideas for writing and undertaking timed writing activities to various tracks is another way to unleash creativity. I often find I am drawn to listening to the music of the period about which I am writing: for example, The Lark Ascending  by Vaughan Williams is one which is I find  particularly inspiring when writing about the period set around the Great War.

 The Things They Left Behind

Personal objects are an obvious way to build up a character bio. For example, writing a description of a person from a number of items that they  carry around in their (hand)bag. This could include both something humdrum (e.g. a monogrammed handkerchief) and esoteric (e.g. an amulet). When my Scottish grandmother died and the flat in the sheltered house where she had lived for the last twenty years of her life was being cleared out, a strange crumpled little doll was discovered in her bedside table inside an out-dated Scottish Bluebell matchbox. I could not understand why she would have wanted to keep such a creepy-looking thing close by (particularly as so much had already been discarded when she made the move into sheltered accommodation) until my mother realised that it had been the decorative doll on her christening cake, over 60 years earlier. Such an object (and its discovery) certainly lends itself to a piece of descriptive writing.

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Miniature Doll from my Mother’s Christening Cake

What would they have said?

It is interesting exercise to attempt to recreate the conversations that our ancestors might have had with each other (and also with those outwith the family), particularly at pivotal moments in their lives. One day, while stuck for inspiration trying to imagine the lives of James William Skelton’s and Emma Sleath’s three children – the Sleath-Skeltons, who were born into a different class and lifestyle than any of the Skeltons who had come before them and any to come since – I wrote out a conversation the three of them might have had with each other as they took a walk round Hyde Park to discuss a matter of family importance. It was a tricky exercise that yielded up ideas that might have otherwise been rejected. And a reminder that even if the result  never made it further than some lines on a piece of scrap paper, it still lodged itself somewhere in the imagination, sending out little shoots and tendrils of inspiration at unexpected moments.

Memories, Memories, Memories

Perhaps the most obvious – and powerful – type of creative writing exercise involves working with personal memories, however imperfect they may be. An exercise that worked well in a workshop I once attended is to imagine your grandparents’ old house while walking through it as a child, using all the senses as you do so. After this silent ‘meditation’ there is a timed exercise to put these recollections down on paper. Although the writing is often rough and ready, the raw material can later be worked on to come out with a memory that feels authentic, and which may unleash other reminiscences in its wake.

A similar exercise I undertook at another workshop is to write a description of  a childhood incident  in the 1st person, then once the piece is complete to pass it to another student to rewrite in the 3rd person – the other writer being ‘given permission’ to change some of the details if need be, usually naturally forming it into a tighter narrative in the process. This is a fascinating exercise on many levels, and it is particularly interesting to reread ‘your’ memory when rewritten as a short story, blurring the distinction between fact and fiction, something which can really lift a piece of writing. However, this exercise works best if you are not aware of what will happen to the text in the second part of the workshop!

The final ‘memory exercise ‘I would like to describe is one which returns to the initial theme of family photographs, and is from a practice called memory work that aims to bring to light repressed memories (and is thus a more private and personal exercise). As Annette Kuhn points out in her book Family Secrets: Anyone who has a family photograph that exerts an engimatic fascination  or arouses an explicable depth of emotion could find memory work rewarding.

The basic idea is to take such an image and start to describe it, moving from the obvious external cues to taking up the position of the subject (using the 3rd person), and attempting to bring out the feelings that may have been associated with the photograph. At the same time the context of the photograph should also be given consideration. So questions should be asked about why it was taken, where and by whom etc. In addition, attention should be paid to the technology used as well as the photographic conventions of the time. These guidelines stem from the work of artists Rosy Martin and Jo Spence, and encourage those undertaking memory work to be more critical and questioning of their lives and those of others. I have also found it also interesting to do this with other family members who may or may not also be in the photograph.

For myself I always feel strangely sad when I look at photographs of myself with my grandfather, Sidney Skelton (whose harsh beginnings I have written about in Of Lost Toys and Mothers). I never felt quite at ease when I was with him: I often could not understand his strange Cockney accent; his abrupt nature was disconcerting to me; his habit of permanently smoking strange-smelling roll-ups was off-putting to a young child. When I look at the picture (below) taken of us together at Ayr beach in the 1960s, I know that I am aware I have to pretend to love this taciturn English grandfather of mine as this is what is expected of me. Yet he is a stranger to me. And when he died when I was about ten (my first experience of the death of a grandparent) the only emotion I felt was a terrible sense of guilt that I was not able to be sad (wondering if that meant I would always be incapable of experiencing true grief).

397 (3)With my grandfather, Sidney Skelton, Ayr c1967

But after recently enlarging the photograph to investigate it further, I could see there was more going on in the image than I had initially thought: the (most likely) painful burns on limbs which had been left unprotected from the sun (normal at that time), the small rag/towel that I am clutching for some reason – could it be to dry my feet? Suddenly I remember that I did not like going barefoot at Ayr seaside as the pink road between the beach and the low green was covered with a layer of very tiny sharp stones – but maybe Grandad had carried me over and deposited me on the low wall. So perhaps I am being too hard on myself, and there is no need to blame my miserable looking countenance solely on my grandfather (who most likely treasured the few occasions that he spent with his Scottish grandchildren). And I think about my father who might have found this photograph charming: his elderly father and first child, together in what was a typical family pose – although it does not seem to come naturally to Sidney, despite the fact that he looks happier than he does in other photographs from that time.

Later I discovered that the image was just one of a series taken on the same summer day at Ayr beach in 1967 (hard to believe this is half a century ago already!) I am currently arranging them into chronological order in an attempt to trigger more memories from that day at the beach, a fascinating experience that is yielding even more insights about this long-forgotten time in my life.

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The Incidental Genealogist, May 2017

 

 

Those Ghostly Traces

As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of a much larger family aggregate, photography came along to memorialize, to restate symbolically, the imperilled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life. Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives. A family’s photograph album is generally about the extended family – and often, is all that remains of it.

Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)

In the second part of Camera Lucida (1980) – Roland Barthes’ strange and moving text on the nature of photography – Barthes describes the futile search for the essence of his recently deceased mother in her collection of family photographs. Now, one November evening, shortly after my mother’s death, I was going through some photographs. I had no hope of ‘finding her’, I expected nothing from these ‘photographs of a being before which one recalls less of that being than by thinking of him or her’ (Proust), I had acknowledged that fatality, one of the most agonizing features of mourning, which decreed that however often I might consult such images, I could never recall her features (summon them up as a totality).

Camera Lucida (1980)Later in the book, however, we discover that Barthes finally believes he  has  succeeded in finding  the image which defines his mother for him. There I was alone, in the apartment where she had died, looking at these pictures of my mother one by one, under the lamp, gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth of the face I had loved. And I found it. Barthes goes on to describe this photograph (the ‘Winter Garden Photograph’) of his mother as a young girl in great detail – although maddeningly  he chooses not to reproduce it in the text, as he does other images. His reasoning for this decision is that for us it would be nothing but an indifferent  picture and would not possess the ability to wound us or remind us of our own mortality in the same way it does for him.

Much has been made about the omission of this photograph, with some scholars going so far as to even doubt its existence – at least in the form that Barthes described. Whether this is true or not, Barthes is at pains to describe the anguish felt at being unable to penetrate the other images of his mother, whereas the only one which has given me the splendour of her truth is precisely a lost, remote photograph, one which does not look ‘like’ her, the photograph of a child I never knew.

This search for the ‘true identity’ of his mother relates in part to the first section of Camera Lucida, in which Barthes describes the impact that certain photographs have on the viewer. He does this by using two terms which have since become commonplace in the study of photography. The first is the studium – which can loosely be described as what the photographer intended the image to represent (a calculated decision); whereas the punctum is what unexpectedly ‘pierces’ the viewer, breaking through the intellectual coldness of the studium. So according to Barthes, the ‘Winter Garden Photograph’ would possess no punctum for us – but would simply be a study of a brother and sister in a conservatory, or winter garden, at the turn the century. In other words, it would (if at all) only affect us at the level of the studium.

CAMERA LUCIDA QUOTE

By deciding not to publish the picture, Barthes is possibly recreating his own frustrations at being unable to go beyond his initial feeling of euphoria at having ‘discovered’ his mother – to accede to what is behind. Barthes goes on to describe his desire to enlarge the details of the photograph in order to try to get closer to the essence of his mother, knowing as he does so that it will only distort the image and render it even more difficult to ‘see’. According to Barthes, a  photograph can never totally surrender its secrets to the viewer: this is the ultimate nature of the photograph as that-has-been.

Barthes does, at least, admit to photography’s more superficial ability to make the genetic attributes of a person more prominent – something of particular interest for family historians. He states: But more insidious, more penetrating than likeness: the photograph sometimes makes appear what we never see in a real face (or in a face reflected in a mirror): a genetic feature, the fragment of oneself or of a relative which comes from some ancestor.

edith_stops_at_95_denmark_road_camberwell-3 (2)Perhaps it is both things we ourselves are seeking when we scrutinise our own family photographs. When I look at the picture of my grandmother as a child outside the old family home in Brixton (I Remember, I Remember), am I not looking for  her essence and her connection to me? When I look at the photograph of myself as a baby on her lap, over half a century later, am I not asking myself: Is this where my fat face comes from?

Coker Woods (4)And my renewed interest in discovering more about  my  London ancestors was, in part, rekindled by the discovery of the hand-coloured photograph of my father as an evacuee in East Coker (see In my Beginning is my End). When I first came across the image it was as if I was looking at another father – one who seemed more carefree than I had ever known him to be – and the idea that this ‘lost father’ could be the key to understanding the complex and at times contradictory individual I’d known, seemed very appealing. But, like Barthes, my initial feeling of excitement at having this sudden window thrown open onto the past soon turned to a certain degree of frustration at the obvious limitations of the exercise.

In the final part of Barthes’ many-layered and wilfully obscure text, in which he reduces the idea of the photograph to that-has-been (the ultimate evidence of the existence of a moment in time, a mad image, chafed by reality), he attempts to pin down the emotion that certain pictures aroused (or ‘pricked’) in him – first calling it love, then settling on pity as a more apt description: . . . I passed beyond the unreality of the thing represented, I entered crazily into the spectacle, into the image, taking into my arms what is dead, what is going to die . . .

The same sentiment is echoed in On Photography, when Sontag states that: Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos. An ugly or grotesque subject may be moving because it has been dignified by the attention of the photographer. A beautiful subject can be the object of rueful feelings, because it has aged or decayed or no longer exists. All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

Much has changed in the world of photography since these two influental texts were written –  we are all photographers now, and the modern world is awash with a superfluity of images. However, in an age dominated by nostalgia, there has been renewed interest in ‘looking for the lost’: cataloguing things which have disappeared or are on the cusp of oblivion. Old photographs are treasured, reprinted, exchanged and collected, allowing us the opportunity to become custodians of the past. As Sontag points out: A photograph of 1900 that was affecting then because of its subject, would, today, be more likely to move us because it is a photograph taken in 1900. . . Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.

Those of us who can remember when cameras were not so ubiquitous may now lament the missed opportunities to document our lives and those of our families and communities. (In youth it is hard to make a connection between one’s own present and a future past; and the aging process inevitably does away with the notion of distant future.)

On the Low Green, Ayr 1965
Family Slide: Picnic on the Low Green, Ayr, 1965 (with my mother and paternal grandparents)

Our family were very typical of those in the pre-digital era, taking photographs only on holidays and high days. These select images were captured on Kodak slide film, which meant that they have been relatively well-preserved – even though there was often a certain amount of exasperation surrounding their inaccessibility (inevitably there were no functioning batteries available for the slide viewer when nostalgia struck). For a brief few years we also had a projector which magnified the images onto a screen – something which delighted us as children as we played poor man’s ‘home cinema’. But oh, if only we’d had the luxury of owning a ciné camera! What a privilege it would be to see those who are long-gone in front of us once more on fading Super 8, romping and waving with the air of determined glee that old amateur films seem to demand of their subjects.  

Conversely, Barthes is of the opinion that photographs are more poignant than the moving image by virtue of the fact that they capture only one specific moment and have no future referent. (In the Photograph, Time’s immobilization assumes only an excessive, monstrous mode: Time is engorged). He believes it to be impossible for photography to conjure up real memories (which are not static),  and that it  may in fact even lead to  replacing them with  false ones.  It is true to say that family albums do engender a certain amount of selective recall: for me, I can only ever recall being dressed in a kilt when I went to visit my grandparents in London.

LONDON-SHIP
With my mother, in homemade kilt, London, early 1970s. What fascinates me now is the undeveloped dockland behind us.

In terms of the power of photography to offer up a truthful likeness, Sontag believes that most devotees of Shakespeare would prefer to have a photograph of the Bard (however faded it might be) than an exquisite painting by a master portrait painter, such as Holbein the Younger, because a photograph is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask. As she so aptly points out: Having a photograph of Shakespeare would be like having a nail from the True Cross

ARTHURFor family historians, the possession of a picture of a long-deceased family member may arouse similar feelings. When I first  encountered the group portrait of my grandparents’ wedding (see banner image in the heading above) I was mesmerised by the fact that I was seeing my great-grandfather Arthur for the first time. Someone who had been born over a century before me and who had previously only been a name in a parish register and census return had suddenly taken on a ‘living’ form. Finally I could see where the family eyes came from, the bushy eyebrows, the high forehead. And when Barthes describes his wonderment and awe at seeing a photograph of Napoleon’s younger brother, knowing that he was looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor, then I understood exactly what he meant: I felt the same unsettling emotion at the idea that I was looking at someone who had known my mysterious great-great-grandfather, James Skelton (who plays a pivotal role in the family  story).

It is hard for me to find an illustration of my own personal equivalent of the ‘Winter Garden Photograph’, but one which comes very close is the image of my paternal grandfather, Sidney Skelton, below. Little is known about this studio photograph, except that it was taken when he joined the Hussars, several years before the outbreak of World War One at a time when the British army was building up its reserves. Wanting to escape the poverty of a working class boyhood in Lambeth and the endless waiting at the docks in the hope of a day’s work, he may have inadvertently saved his own life by making that decision. (As a trained cavalry soldier he would have been in a much better position to survive the conflict than those who were hurriedly conscripted later).

When my parents first received a copy of this photograph from my aunt, my mother decided to frame it and put it out for my father to appreciate – and this in a family that very rarely displays family photographs. But a few days later it disappeared: my father had packed it away because he found it too disturbing to see the image of his deceased father as a young man with his life still before him. At the time I thought this a rather odd thing to do. I loved the picture of my soldier-grandfather who I’d only ever known as a rather quick-tempered and gnarly old man, and of whom I had always been slightly afraid. And it fascinated me that the long sinewy fingers which held the riding crop were identical to mine and my father’s, particularly evident in the way we held books and newspapers. 

But for me it is the slightly drooping eyes – another family trait – which ‘pierces’ me. There is something both innocent and knowing about the way this young man looks straight at the camera, resplendent in his new uniform. It is almost as if he is able to see fearlessly into the future. His steady gaze and the slight flicker of a smile make me feel that he is telling us he has accepted his destiny , whatever it may bring, and that he is finally ready for his life to begin.

GRANDAD S

To be continued . . . 

Happy New Year! from The Incidental Genealogist, January 2016