Suspended Conversations by Martha Langford

The author of Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums, Martha Langford, began the book as part of her dissertation research at McGill University in Montreal. The book is based around a collection of photo albums held at the McCord Museum of Canadian History. Langford’s argument is that conversation is a key part to experiencing photo albums; without a person who can activate the album, the album has lost its original purpose and meaning. As Langford states in the first chapter:

Voices must be heard for memories to be preserved, for the album to fulfill its function. Ironically, the very act of preservation – the entrusting of an album to a public museum – suspends its sustaining conversation, stripping the album of its social function and meaning (5).

Also in the introduction Langford points out that photographs in an album are of worth to researchers not for their recording of place names, but for portraiture, which in turn leads to interest in relationships (7). Through studying an album the viewer begins to see relationships. Viewers are “lobbed back and forth by the album’s cross-references and connections. Links between pictures, whether by place, date, costume, pose, composition, physical resemblance, or placement on the page, demand to be checked” (15). This sounds familiar and is how I’ve experienced the photo album I’m currently digitizing at work. There are clusters of photos from one event spread throughout two photo albums. Similar people recur as well as dates and locations. This indicates that the photo album, like memories, is a jumble, and not arranged as orderly as it may first appear. There are multiple gaps. In some cases multiple duplicates of uninteresting moments, and a lack of representation for a multitude of more important moments (6).

I’m looking forward to reading more from this book about photo albums and approaches for interpretation. There seem to be a few chapters that cover the photo album more broadly and a few that look quite specifically at albums from the McCord Museum.

For further reading on the photo album in the archive and how scholars might use them see the blog post Memory and Absences: The Challenges of Interpreting Scrapbooks and Photo Albums from Educating Women: Blog of The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education at Bryn Mawr College

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