Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth


Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth: Generosity and the Digital Exchange of Family photographs

In Locating Memory, Photographic Acts (Kuhn & McAllister, 2006), Martha Langford argues how the family album, as a genre, has its roots in ‘orality’; that narratives are not fixed, and depend on the relationship between storyteller and listener. She also observes how ‘the album’s removal from the private sphere to the public collection tips the balance to inscription by cutting the performative cord’.

While these cautionary words are directed to photographic albums in the museum context, they help raise two critical questions for contemporary artists working with ‘found’ family photographs: what cords are cut when the family photograph is moved from an album into an exhibited artwork? And what ‘performative cords’ come with digital versions of analogue photographs?

My contribution attempts to map out the territory that lies between the analogue family photograph, and other familial objects, as they move from physical artefact to digital counterpart. This is shaped by recent experiences as an artist working in the field, where stories of collaborators are prompted during an art process, then become part of public exhibition. In this situation, the family photograph brings with it the collaborator’s voice in either textual or aural form.

Whether in the format of a recorded voice or a scanned image, the transition from physical to digital artefact arguably allows a certain generosity on the part of the collaborator towards the artist. The exchange, however, also raises questions of authorship, in practical, aesthetic and philosophical senses. Therefore I want to consider the digital artefact as a form of ‘gift,’ a notion that has been investigated by across the disciplines of anthropology and material culture (Mauss, Levi-Strauss, Hyde, Purbrick). This ‘gift’ carries ethical and political responsibilities directly connected to a living subject, family memory and an album of photographs.

Bird, Nicky. ‘Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth: Generosity and the Digital Exchange of Family Photographs,’ in J. Carson, R. Miller and T. Wilkie (eds), The Photograph and the Album: Histories, Practices, Futures, 372-401, Edinburgh, UK & Cambridge, USA: MuseumsEtc, 2013. ISBN 978-1-907697-91-3

TOP IMAGE: Duplicate of personal photograph, courtesy of Drew Johnstone. See Beneath the Surface / Hidden Place, 2007-2010.