Conference of International Association of Art Critics, 2006, November
On Ágnes Eperjesi’s Family Album
“This is a totally real, fictional album”, an album which tracks the most poignant events of Ágnes Eperjesi’s life up to her 18th birthday, and which is comprised of pictograms of packaging materials taken from commercial goods. (Figure 1.) Through its “real-fictional” character, FamilyAlbum 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 which we all own and hold dear to us.
Before asking how it does all that, I would like to ask how it was made. As the artist explains:
“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 them 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 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. (Figure 2.) 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, would have wanted to reveal the fictionality of what is in front of us. As in Warhol’s silk-screens, where Marilyn’s fabulous blondness becomes a canary yellow wig of a clown, Family Album acts as a travesty of mechanical reproduction. The technical reversal of the commercial pictograms reiterates their recontextualization, while echoing processes 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 as mnemonic device. The pictograms, like memories, are reversed and turned into something else, and 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 Lucida.
Family albums structure the images of past, create chronological narratives out of fragments, 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 which is the history of a family. Proving once again that photography’s truth-claim is anything but justified, family albums look like as we would like to see ourselves, often through the images of others. No wonder then that all family albums are alike, that one life unfolding on their pages seems just another, and despite of our cherished singularity we resemble more to each other than we might wish to. As Eperjesi put it: “we slide back and forth between memories of our most intimate selves and prefabricated clichés”.
This sliding starts when one learns the stories of grandparents and parents, then learns the roles which in a life-long double-bind of appropriation and refusal one plays when living life. Family memories are learnt and created in the double dynamics of forgetting and recollection, by way of 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 elaborated,
“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 to substitute her family pictures for iconic commodity signs of the global market economy is a critical strategy, a questioning of the medium’s potential to represent history and 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 her Album 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 work 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, when describing his own childhood photographs without ever actually showing them, 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”. In his slide-projection, One Moment in Time (Kitchen), Jonathan Monk, the Berlin-based English artist uses fragmented descriptions – such as “Dad as the captain of a sailing ship”, “You wearing stupid glasses” or “A landscape somewhere” – to substitute actual family snapshots which were displayed in his mother’s kitchen. Tacita Dean’s Floh, a book composed of found family snapshots of strangers, escapes the auto-biographical impulse, refuses authorship and subjecthood when positioning the sequence of found photographs as a floating narrative of signs whose referents are undisclosed. 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. Despite the particular scope of its images, Vox Populi fails, or to put it differently, avoids the representation of national and cultural specificities, and thus it inscribes itself into the patterns of both Modernist universalism and contemporary Globalism. All of these projects, including Eperjesi’s, are balancing acts which 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 archetypical images of people and things. The originals of the Album are already appropriated, modeled after images of family albums and magazines; sculpted after scenes and sights of real life. Pictograms and family photographs 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 (Figure 3.). If photography is a multiple without original, that is the ultimate copy, as it is suggested by, among others, Rosalind Krauss, 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 which is itself defined by acts of repetition, enlargement, quoting and recycling.
Because they are defined by replication, both photographs and pictograms, just as memories, are treacherous and replaceable. Those who made albums of and for their families from about the 1860s till 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 more than well, and thus, in order to avoid confusion, also accompanied their pictures with captions. The often handwritten text created a material trace of its writer, but first of all explained and attributed the image, making it clear that the old man with extensive facial hair is Grandpa Jenő and not the neighbor. 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, that is instead of texts, they 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 Eperjesi’s Self-portraits, with an entirely different meaning. According to the caption of Family Album (Figure 4.), the two adults and a child are the parents and the younger brother of the artist, yet in Self-portraits (Figure 5.), they appear to change their identity. With a complicated and incestuous switch between genders and generations, the artist turned into her own mother, her younger brother became her daughter and her father is her boyfriend, as if in a true Freudian family romance.
Family Album’s hand-written 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. And it is by means of captions, that Family Album becomes a cultural artifact able to reconstruct both personal and collective histories.
Eperjesi takes us to the half of Europe where, in 1948, dairy plants of grandfathers were nationalized by totalitarian administrations; where, in the 60s, television sets were cherished as family treasures; where, the moving of one generation to a state-sponsored housing project was a dream come true. The Album eminently illustrates Bourdieu’s remarks about family albums as things which express the essence of social memory. In Hungary, where, as the cultural critic Péter György reminds us, most of the traumas and major historical events of the 20th century were condemned to 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 prevalent politics of forgetting. Nevertheless, Family Album’s capacity to evoke collective history is constantly undermined. Like other, real albums, this one also avoids images of violence – there are no images of persecutions or revolts: collective and private histories appear separated. In 1956, it is only Mom and Aunt Rozi who is getting into each other’s way in the flat (Figure 6.), instead of the Soviet tanks and the Hungarian rebels who were getting into each other’s way on the street. The other factor which undermines the Album’s potential to reflect history is the unknown or nonexistent origin of the images, their simulacra-like character. Questioning both origins, remembrance and constructions of narratives, Family Album confronts its viewer with the question: how can culturally, geographically and historically specific, that is singular stories could be told via pictograms which were designed to circulate in the space of 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, but it is literally objectified in the appropriated wrappers. Through the enlarged and reversed packaging, 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 introduces a materialist practice of memory and history. However, its medium and the things represented through it, belong to different epochs. There are gaps between the word which appears on the pages of the Album and the very material of representation. The commodity signs of the recently installed market economy and the implied visual, material world of Hungary under Socialism creates a conflict and makes evident that, as Anette Kuhn put it, "the past is always made in the present". The image of the new flat with its spacious design and sumptuous kitchen appliances does not at all confirm to the Hungarian apartments of the late 60s (Figure 7.), and Grandpa Jenő’s real house, not even after reconstruction could have recalled the futuristic design of Eperjesi’s image (Figure 8.). Enhancing the arbitrariness and the shifts 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.
At first sight, one might be tempted to link Eperjesi’s Album to works which revisited the Duchampian ready-made, or to the examples of modernist or postmodernist appropriation. Kurt Schwitters, Sherrie Levine or Richard Prince, to quote only a few utterly different artists, used the found image or object as a way to undermine authorship or the distinction between high and low culture, to demonstrate the tautology of art making, to comment on the politics of representation or on the culture of spectacle. In the Album, however, one encounters quite different strategies. On the one hand, acts of repetition involved in Eperjesi’s appropriation function as those "rites of repetition" which are the basis of remembrance and also of the construction of family narratives. On the other hand, as opposed to other examples of appropriations, Eperjesi’s brings into question the economic aspects of appropriation, its sabotage-like character and capacity to break down the chain of production and consumption. Interested in the culture of use, the Album’s critical potential lays 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 it was observed by Benjamin in One-Way-Street – Eperjesi exposes a capacity to transform bits of cultural detritus into new things, and 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 archeologist of the everyday, Eperjesi converts the debris of mass market culture into visual autobiography, and thus her work could also be considered as an instance of the trashcan culture or an example of rubbish theory. Building memories out of rubbish, instead of photographs, as it was stated already, is part of Eperjesi’s acknowledgment of photography’s incapacity to deal with memory. A recognition shared by many, and most famously by Siegfried Kracauer who when linking trash, photography and memory stated that “from the perspective of memory, photography appears as a jumble that consists partly of garbage.” Discarding photographs and preserving a piece of trash while turning it back to the universe of useable and valuable goods then 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 block, 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 Socialist economy prolonged the pre-consumerist culture of recycling, which, well before the emergence of environmental consciousness of today’s market economy, considered, out of necessity, the bits and pieces of everyday life as reusable. (Figure 9.) This experience is a constitutive one in Eperjesi’s work and subject formation, and thus it compliments other gender-specific analogies of Family Album, which 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 as much a gendered work as the preservation of family history, and they are both characterized by multigenerational experiences.
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, on the substance 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 once photographic images were collected, kept and occasionally recycled, she brings together the pre-digitalized form of family photography with patterns of pre-consumerist recycling while also models their simultaneous disappearance.
Family Album“is a totally real, fictional album”, that is a fictional private-document, but it is also a not at all fictional discourse. While remembering, repeating, and working through, as Freud might say, Eperjesi created a discursive object which is historically specific, yet acknowledges the impossibility of historical representation; which is an autobiographical confession, yet through its opacity resists prevalent industries of ego-history; and which contains not a single photograph, yet it still able to speak about the photographic.
Ágnes Eperjesi, Family Album, 2004, URL=
Ágnes Eperjesi, URL=
Margaret Olin, “Touching Photographs: Roland Barthes’s ‘Mistaken’ Identification”, Representations, no.80. (Fall 2002): 99-118.
Eperjesi, Family Album, 2004.
Victor Burgin, “Looking at Photographs”, in Thinking Photography, ed. by Victor Burgin (London: Macmillan, 1982), 142-153, at 147.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. by Richard Howard (New York : Hill and Wang, 1981), 91.
Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive”, October, no. 88. (Spring 1999): 117-145, at 136.
Tacita Dean, Floh, in collaboration with Martyn Ridgewell, (London: Steidl, 2001).
Fiona Tan, Vox Populi: Norway, (London: Book Works, 2005)
Cf. Rosalind Krauss, “Reinventing the Medium”, Critical Inquiry, vol. 25, no. 2. (Winter 1999): 289-305.
Paul Patton, "Anti-Platonism and Art," in Gilles Deleuze and the Theater of Philosophy, ed. Constantin V. Boundas and Dorothea Olkowski (New York: Routledge, 1994), 149.
Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. by Mark Lester with Charles Stivale, ed. by Constantin V. Boundas (New York : Columbia University Press, 1990), 53.
Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 30.
Péter György, “Az emlékezettörténet társadalomtörténete”, Élet és Irodalom, vol. 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,"Reflections:Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writing, trans. by Edmund Jephcott, edited and with an introduction by Peter Demetz (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 61-96, at 68-69.
Michael Thompson, Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).
Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography”, Critical Inquiry, vol. 19, no. 3. (Spring, 1993), 421-436, at 425-426.