Remembrance, The child I never was, (1991) by Annette Kuhn from The Photography Reader, edited by Liz Wells, (2003) Routledge, Abingdon.
Annette Kuhn as a child, by Harry Kuhn, circa, early 1950’s, exact date unknown.
Kuhn uses a photograph taken of herself as a child as the theme to her story or as she says to several stories.
Kuhn suggests that photographs are evidence, but they can not be taken at face value, nor that they mirror the real, nor even that a photograph offers any self-evident relationship between itself and what it shows…a photograph can be material for interpretation – evidence, in that sense: to be solved, like a riddle; read and decoded, like clues left behind at the scene of a crime. Evidence of this sort, though, can conceal, even as it purports to reveal, what it is evidence of. A photograph can certainly throw you off the scent. (p.395, Wells, 2003). As Kuhn points out the closer you get to scrutinise the details of a photograph the less you can see, as the image dissolves into shades of blacks and whites / shades of colour and individual photographic grains of silver oxide, or pixels. In order to show what it is evidence of, a photograph must always point you away from itself. (p.395, Wells, 2003).
Kuhn makes the point that photographs are sign posts to memories. In this photograph she can add additional information that is not in the picture for example the position of the chair as being by a fire and the location as Cheswick, London, that her father took the picture and the name of the budgerigar. However, she also points out that the memories linked to a photograph can be inaccurate, siting as an example that her mother has written on the back of the photo, “Just back from Bournemouth.” However, Annette has crossed out “Bournemouth” and written, “Broadstairs” and added a note, “but I suspect the photo is earlier than this.” Family photographs are supposed to show not so much that we were once there, as how we once were: to evoke memories which have little or nothing to do with what is actually in the picture. The photograph is a prop, a prompt, a pre-text: it sets the scene for recollection. (p.395, Wells, 2003)
The text on the back of the picture indicates a conflict of memories and moreover could imply conflicts within the family. This little dispute between a mother and a daughter points not only to the contingency of memories not attached to, but occasioned by, an image, but also to scenario of power relations within the family itself. My mother’s inscription may be read as a bid to anchor the meaning of a wayward image, and her meaning at some point conflicted with my own reading of the photograph and also irritated me enough to provoke a (somewhat restrained) retort. (p.397, Wells, 2003)
Thus Kahn suggests that a photograph can suggest multiple readings: One reading that Kuhn provides is that of a loving father, her father (Harry) had given the budgerigar to his daughter as a gift and by photographing his daughter for the family album he was staking his claim to her, a claim that Kuhn’s mother would later dispute, that Harry Kuhn was not her father.
Another reading, is that Kuhn recalls at around the time of this photograph her mother had been injured in an accident and had spent some time convalescing at the seaside. Kuhn suggests that her mother is pinning the moment of the photograph into her own life by the caption she has written on the back of the photo. This interpretation splits in to two readings: In the first reading, my mother writes herself into the picture by claiming the right to define the memories evoked by it; and by omission and commission negates my father’s involvement in both the photograph and the family. In the second reading, my own involvement as well as my father’s is negated, as the caption constitutes a central place for the writer herself in a scenario from which she is so clearly excluded: my mother thereby sets herself up as both enunciator of, and main character in, the family drama. (p.398, Wells, 2003) For Annette Kuhn the emotional family drama that she links to this picture provides a strong emotional feeling. A photograph bearing a huge burden of meaning and of feeling, this one – to use Roland Barthes’s term – pierces me. It seems to utter a truth that goes beyond the stadium…(p.399, Wells, 2003)
As well a being open to interpretation, Kuhn suggests that a photograph’s meaning can change over time, to quote Barthes,‘A message without a code.’ (p.15-31, Barthes, 1977) Family photographs may affect to show us our past, but what we do with them – how we use them – is really about today, not yesterday. These traces of out former lives are pressed into service in a never-ending process of making, remaking sense of, our selves – now. There can be no last word about my photograph; about any photograph. (p.399, Wells, 2003)