The photo before the family

The formal group photograph – in this case a typical college portrait of a particular year – is both a launchpad for stories, or a place where they seem to stall. The front plane of smiling faces and presented posture has no side or back, and there is no way round or into pictures from the past. We keep expecting photographs to do that, to offer a window which we can look through, where space is literally perspectival, delineated and traversable. And maybe we’re more able to do that, in thought at least, when the scene is ‘event’ or ‘place’ – genres in which we can attach ourselves and our looking and our thinking directly to the scene represented.

But these ‘people’ photographs don’t work like that. They thwart by the multiplicity of seeing that ought to reach us, but doesn’t. They thwart by the ranked platform of arranged faces whose overall flatness refuses conversation. You don’t expect to do quite so much unreturned looking when it comes to pictures of the animate human body, even when you know what you’re looking at. They don’t know what they’re looking at, and yet they are clearly attentive en masse, so the alienation hovers unresolved.

And yet, we seek out points of contact. Barthes knew it, and talked about the often random nature of these points – the dog, anyone? Or the personal nature. This photograph includes my mother and my father, at a point in their lives where they’d only recently met, and had only just divined a future course together. Like galactic trajectories, Dad came from years teaching in Turkey, Nigeria and Uganda, my Mum from years teaching in India. Both saw those lines extending, after gaining a qualification or two, along the same largely undeviated paths. Yet here, at Trinity College in Bristol, they met, they socialised, they caught each others’ eyes in some different way, and BANG, a dimension of the universe changed.

Not knowing quite when this photograph was taken, it was either not many weeks before, or not many weeks after my parents married (on 1st April). My Dad (4th row up, first full person from left) and my Mum (1st row, first full person from right) have perhaps broader smiles than most, but frustratingly, there is no way to visually connect them. I almost want to draw on the picture, to etch the thing with history, but I can’t. It’s something like a missing link, because I know that the two individual lines that connect me to each of them HAVE to join in a triangle with a line between them – quite literally, because they joined in order to have me a year later. I don’t exist without that line, but the photograph – the authority on verifiable truth – keeps it invisible. It is a photo before our family, and the ‘before’ has something elusively, stubbornly spatial about it, even now.

Header image: Trinity College Bristol 1978 (detail).

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