As its maker and protagonist states, “this is a totally real, fictional album” (fig. 1). It is an album that “tracks the most poignant events” of the artist’s life up to her eighteenth birthday and consists of pictograms of packaging materials taken from commercial goods. Eperjesi’s album, with its “real-fictional” character, seems to be imprinted with ambiguity and opacity, with constant doublings, distortions, and repetitions. Hence it both models and reproduces, reflects and replicates, those family albums that we all own and hold dear.
Before looking at how it does all that, I would like to look at how it was made. As the artist put it:
I decided to recycle small images destined for the wastebasket, images we discard without giving them the slightest attention. For years, I have been fascinated by packaging materials of all kinds. Pictograms printed on transparent packing material serve as raw material for my art, and I use them as I would film negatives. Placing these in the enlarger, I generate scaled-up images, complementary colors and inverted tonal values.
After reversing and modifying her original images, Eperjesi not only arranged them into chronological sequences, but also created a historical repertory of photography as a medium: from the medallion-shaped portraits of the grandparents to snapshots, the story of photography and the story of her family are fused—the album remembers and evokes both the history of its alleged medium and its assumed object.
In Family Album everything is a bit blurred and grainy, and the colors are off. Family history and its recycled image, reality and its representation, are never in sync: the grass is lilac, the dog is blue, and the grandmother is neon-colored, as if the artist, with a twist of self-referentiality, wanted to reveal the fictionality of what is in front of us. As in Warhol’s silkscreens, where Marilyn’s fabulous blondeness becomes the canary-yellow wig of a clown, the Family Album acts as a travesty of mechanical reproduction. The technical reversal of the commercial pictograms reiterates their recontextualization—their repositioning from the sphere of the commercial to that of cultural goods—while also echoing the process of remembrance. As remembering is as much about substituting one thing for another, repeating and distorting what was not even our own experience but a story heard from someone else, seen in a movie, or read in a book, the replacement of real family photographs with blown-up negatives of commercial pictograms functions not only as a device of the mnemonic practice but also as its model. The pictograms, like memories, are reversed and turned into something else. Thus they open up an endless chain of rethinking, revising, misreading, and imaginary substitution, bringing to mind the mistaken identification of Roland Barthes, who took the necklace of a Harlem matron for the precious bijou of her favorite aunt in Camera Obscura.
Family albums structure the images of past, create chronological narratives out of fragments, and order memories. That is, they write, rewrite and erase, affirm, or fake that obscure and polyphonic story of secrets and lies, joys and traumas, oblivions, and memories that is the history of a family. Proving once again that photography’s truth-claim is anything but justified, family albums look as we would like to see ourselves, often through the images of others. It is no wonder, then, that all family albums are alike, that one life unfolding on their pages seems just like another, and despite our cherished singularity we resemble one another more than we might wish to. Memories too, even the most important ones, are similar to one another. As Eperjesi put it, “we slide back and forth between memories of our most intimate selves and prefabricated clichés.” This sliding starts in and with the family, when one learns the stories of grandparents and parents, then learns the roles that, in a lifelong double-bind of appropriation and refusal, one plays when living life. Family memories are learned and created in the double dynamics of forgetting and recollection, by telling and repeating, looking and looking again at them. Caught between mirrors and masks, images and narratives, we slide from one role to another, just as Eperjesi does when working with recycled images. A pictogram taken from the wrapping of a Vileda sponge represents those processes of social conditioning and self-fashioning through which one appropriates memories and social roles from others, while constructing her own identity. The images of Family Album simulate the repetition-structures inscribed into practices of identity formation and remembrance.
Seen from this angle, the use of recycled packaging seems more than reasonable. Why would one use real photographs if they are prone to all sorts of appropriations; if they can only function as props; if, as Victor Burgin observed, “the wholeness, coherence, identity, which we attribute to the depicted scene is a projection, a refusal of an impoverished reality in favor of an imaginary plenitude”? Why would one use photographs if, as Barthes pointed out, “not only is the photograph never, in essence, a memory... but it actually blocks memory, and quickly becomes a counter memory”? Eperjesi’s gesture of substituting her family pictures for iconic commodity signs of the global market economy is a critical strategy, a questioning of the medium’s claims to represent history and to capture memory. Family Album is based on the recognition that photography cannot be more than a code to a meaning which is located elsewhere, outside of its frame, yet it cannot refuse the possibility of iconic figuration.
The Album recognizes the impossibility of its own task and transforms itself, as well as the mnemonic process, into an apophatic discourse. Its apophatic character is shared by many other literary or visual works dealing with family photography and memory, yet Eperjesi’s Album has a special place among them. Georges Perec, in his W, or The Memory of Childhood, describes his own childhood photographs without ever actually showing them. He cannot speak about anything but clothing and gives an annoyingly detailed account of outfits, hats, and shoes, unable to connect the image to any trace of personal memory. In Atlas, Gerhard Richter merges sentimental family photographs of the 1930s with the images of Buchenwald, framing the family pictures as “souvenirs of a past that was left behind forever” (fig. 2). In his slide projection One Moment in Time (Kitchen), Jonathan Monk, the Berlin-based English artist, uses such fragmented descriptions as “Dad as the captain of a sailing ship,” “You wearing stupid glasses,” or “A landscape somewhere” as a substitute for actual family snapshots that were displayed in his mother’s kitchen (fig. 3). Tacita Dean’s Floh, a book composed of found family snapshots of strangers, escapes the autobiographical impulse. It refuses authorship and subjecthood when positioning the sequence of found photographs as a floating narrative of signs whose referents are undisclosed (fig. 4). Fiona Tan’s Vox Populi: Norway, a project commissioned by the Norwegian Parliament, is a collection of private photographs taken from the albums of Norwegian families. All of these projects, including Eperjesi’s, are balancing acts that display the ambiguities inscribed into the medium of photography, exposing it within the binaries of presence versus absence, anonymity versus individuality, private versus collective. Yet none of them offers to show the photographic through the use of non-photographic images as Eperjesi does.
Eperjesi’s images are schemes and pictograms, designed to evoke archetypal images of people and things (fig. 5). The originals of the Album are already appropriated, modeled after images of family albums, private archives, and magazines; sculpted after scenes and sights of everyday life. Pictograms, family photographs, and snapshots share the banality and the repetitiousness of copies and simulacra: seeing them, we always have the impression of seeing them again—they are all without originals. If photography is a multiple without original, that is the ultimate copy, as is suggested by, among others, Rosalind Krauss, then pictograms seem to fall into the much-debated category of simulacrum. The simulacrum, as Gilles Deleuze understood it, “is built upon a disparity or difference, it internalizes a dissimilarity,”harboring“ a positive power which negates both the original and the copy, the model and the reproduction.” Eperjesi’s work proposes a multilayered negotiation between original, copy, and simulacra—a negotiation that is itself defined by acts of repetition, enlargement, quoting, and recycling.
Because they are defined by replication, both photographs and pictograms, just like memories, are treacherous and replaceable. Those who made albums of and for their families from about the 1860s until the recent emergence of digital photography—that is, in the age when family albums functioned as unique repositories of personal and collective memory—knew that well. Thus, in order to avoid confusion, they added captions. The often handwritten text created a material trace of its writer, but primarily explained and attributed the image, making it clear that the old man with the beard is Grandpa Jenő and not the neighbor (fig. 6). And what could illustrate better how much texts do to alter what we see than the way Eperjesi’s images change their context through language? Despite being pictograms and symbols meant to speak for themselves, Eperjesi’s pictures prove that nothing speaks for itself and an image is always half-empty: the picture of a family riding bicycles also appears in one of the artist’s self-portraits with an entirely different meaning. According to the caption of Family Album, the two adults and a child are the parents and the younger brother of the artist (fig. 7), yet in Self-portrait, they appear to change their identity: “My new boyfriend gets along fine with my daughter / I hope it’s not just a show for now” (fig. 8). With a complicated and incestuous switch between genders and generations, the artist turned into her own mother, her younger brother become her daughter, and her father is her boyfriend, as if in a true Freudian family romance.
Family Album’s handwritten notes not only give a specific meaning to what is in front of us, but like signatures, they also authenticate the half-empty image and function as devices of personalization. The ordered chain of images in Family Album could suggest a family history without textual support, but the work could not become a visual biography without the text. It is through her manuscript that Eperjesi can appear as the protagonist of the story and the co-author of the anonymous pictogram designers, partially shedding the role of the household waste-manager, the tireless collector of cellophane pieces and wrappers. And it is by means of captions that Family Album becomes a cultural artifact able to reconstruct both personal and collective histories.
Eperjesi’s places and stories take us to the half of Europe where, in 1948, dairy plants of grandfathers were nationalized by totalitarian administrations; where, in the 1960s, television sets were cherished as family treasures; where, in the spirit of collectivism, several generations of families had to share their own apartments with strangers; and where the moving of one generation to a state-sponsored housing project was a dream come true. The Album eminently illustrates Pierre Bourdieu’s remarks about family albums as things that express the essence of social memory. In Hungary, where, as the critic Péter György reminds us, most of the traumas and major historical events of the twentieth century were suppressed through a collective, state-administered amnesia, and not only under the Socialist regime, Family Album’s engagement with the impossibility of historical recollection and its overlapping of private and collective history transgresses quietly—one is almost compelled to say, in private—the taboo of history and the politics of forgetting. Nevertheless, the Album’s cultural, social, and geographical specificities and its capacity to deal with collective history are constantly undermined. Like other, real albums, this one also avoids representations of violence and trauma. There are no images of persecutions, revolts, or revolutions: collective and private histories appear separated. In 1956, it is only Mom and Aunt Rozi who are getting in each other’s way in the flat, instead of the Soviet tanks and the Hungarian rebels who were getting in each others’ way on the street. The Album’s potential to reflect history is also undermined by its images’ unknown or nonexistent origin, their simulacra-like character. Questioning the remembrance and the construction of narratives, Family Album confronts its viewer with the question: how can culturally, geographically, and historically specific—that is, singular—stories be told via pictograms that were designed to circulate in the space of a global, transnational economy?
The pictograms made for mass consumption are turned not only into a vehicle of the production of the singular subject, but also, despite their technical inversion, into a material trace of the epoch. In Family Album history is not only enacted in private through the life of the author and her relatives, but it is literally objectified in the appropriated wrappers. Through the enlarged and reversed wrappers, Eperjesi defies the auratic appearance of the photographic image and precipitates its dematerialization in the age of electronic reproduction while also bringing into play another aspect of history, the material history of stuff. Family Album seems to introduce a materialist practice of memory and history, even though its medium and the things it represents belong to different historical epochs. The recycled commodity signs of the newly installed market economy and the implied visual and material world of socialist Hungary produces a gap between the very material of representation and the world that appears on the Album’s pages, demonstrating that, as Anette Kuhn put it, “the past is made in the present.” The image of the new flat, with its spacious design and sumptuous kitchen appliances, is nothing like the Hungarian apartments of the late 1960s (fig. 1), and the futuristic design of Grandpa Jenő’s house after reconstruction can exist only in Eperjesi’s book (fig. 10). Enhancing the arbitrariness of memory production, the Album plays on these historical, temporal, and material disjunctions, stages the difference between the time of events and the time of their retelling, and disrupts its own proposed chronology.
While it evokes the artistic strategies of the historical and neo-avant-gardes, including the found object, the Duchampian ready-made and postmodernist appropriations, Eperjesi’s Album does not simply operate as an attempt to merge high and low, destabilize authorship, or comment on the politics of representation. The acts of repetition involved in her appropriation mirror those “rites of repetition” that are the basis of remembrance and also of the construction of family narratives. Also, Eperjesi brings into question the economic aspects of appropriation, its sabotage-like effect and capacity to break down the chain of both production and consumption. The Album is interested in the culture of use; its critical potential lies precisely in its ability to address the modes of production and consumption, as well as their material history, simultaneously. Family Album is neither a collage, nor a series of photographic doublings or mimetic adaptations, but a sequence of technical, historical, and material reversals and splittings. Akin to the way children deal with the material world—as observed by Walter Benjamin in One-Way Street—Eperjesi exposes the capacity to transform bits of cultural detritus into new things. Thus she practices a kind of recycling that never replicates the world as it is, but rather reminds us that things might be other than they are.
Acting as a scavenger and an archaeologist of the everyday, Eperjesi converts the debris of mass-market culture into visual autobiography, producing a work that could also be considered an example of trashcan culture or rubbish theory. Building memories out of rubbish instead of photographs, as was stated already, is part of Eperjesi’s acknowledgment of photography’s incapacity to deal with memory. It is a recognition shared by many, most famously by Siegfried Kracauer. When linking trash, photography, and memory, Kracauer stated, “from the perspective of memory, photography appears as a jumble that consists partly of garbage.” Discarding photographs and preserving a piece of trash while returning it to the universe of usable and valuable goods seems not only a good idea, but also an economically and environmentally advisable one.
And who would care about the content of the household trash more than those women who are also in charge of putting together family albums? Eperjesi’s recycling and appropriation shares a lot with the domestic economy and waste management of the households of the Soviet bloc, where women had to learn how to preserve everything in case it might be useful for something else. The material scarcity of the war years and then of the socialist era prolonged the pre-consumerist culture of recycling that, well before the emergence of environmental consciousness of today’s market economy, necessarily treated as reusable the bits and pieces of everyday life (fig. 11). A constitutive experience in Eperjesi’s work and subject formation, this form of recycling compliments those gender-specific analogies of Family Album that could be found among the fancyworks, scrapbooks, family albums, and memory books of millions of other women, both in Hungary and elsewhere. The laborious transformation of everyday objects, like the preservation of family history, is not only gender-specific work, but is also characterized by multigenerational experiences and practices.
In Family Album, domestic life and family photography are brought together in a single act. Overlapping the family album as a medium of private, domestic life with the wrappings, the material residues of domestic and household goods, Eperjesi merges the spaces and concepts of domesticity. Preserving and treasuring the packaging like photographs of carefully edited family albums, she focuses on the material aspects of memory: whether it is the reminiscence of consumer culture or family life, in Eperjesi’s practice memories are materialized and appear in bodily forms. Collecting, keeping, and recycling wrappers as photographic images were once collected, kept, and occasionally recycled, she brings together the pre-digitalized form of family photography with patterns of pre-consumerist recycling while also modeling their simultaneous disappearance. Family Album “is a totally real, fictional album,” that is, a fictional private document, but also a not-at-all fictional discourse. While remembering, repeating, and working through, as Freud might say, Eperjesi has created a discursive object that is historically specific, yet acknowledges the impossibility of historical representation; that is an autobiographical confession, yet through its opacity resists prevalent industries of ego-history; and that contains not a single photograph, yet is still able to speak about the photographic.
Ágnes Eperjesi, Family Album, 2004. Edition of 28, numbered and signed, 26 x 35.5 cm, 18 pages, 52 original C-print, hand-bound. Unless otherwise noted, all references to Eperjesi’s text are retrieved from
Margaret Olin, “Touching Photographs: Roland Barthes’s ‘Mistaken’ Identification,” Representations, no. 80 (Fall 2002): 99–118.
Victor Burgin, “Looking at Photographs,” in Thinking Photography, ed. Victor Burgin (London: Macmillan, 1982), 147.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 91.
Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive,” October 88 (Spring 1999): 136.
Tacita Dean, in collaboration with Martyn Ridgewell, Floh (London: Steidl, 2001).
Fiona Tan, Vox Populi: Norway (London: Book Works, 2005).
Rosalind Krauss, “Reinventing the Medium,” Critical Inquiry 25: 2 (Winter 1999): 289–305.
Paul Patton, “Anti-Platonism and Art,” in Gilles Deleuze and the Theater of Philosophy, eds. Constantin V. Boundas and Dorothea Olkowski (New York: Routledge, 1994), 149.
Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale, ed. Constantin V. Boundas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 53.
Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 30.
Péter György, “Az emlékezettörténet társadalomtörténete” [The social history of memory], Élet és Irodalom 49, no. 51 (2005).
Annette Kuhn, “Remembrance,” in Family Snaps: The Meaning of Domestic Photography, eds. Jo Spence and Patricia Holland (London: Virago, 1991), 22.
Martha Langford, Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 36.
Walter Benjamin, “One-Way Street,” in Reflections:Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writing, trans. Edmund Jephcott, edited and with an introduction by Peter Demetz (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 68–69.
Michael Thompson, Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).
Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography,” Critical Inquiry 19: 3 (Spring 1993): 425–426.