Imagined Family Heirlooms: An Archive of Inherited Fictions

by JamesNYCJune 6. 2011 13:52

I have been creating a massive archive of portraits with the tintype process for over 7 years. I use antique brass lenses, wooden view cameras and chemistry I mix according to traditional recipes. Recently, I have begun bringing these images into large-scale installations alongside found antique letters, photographs and textiles, and simulated "heirlooms" that I make using other historic photographic processes including cyanotype and van dyke brown photograms. With these objects I create fictional heirloom collections for fictional families and individuals.

I construct installations that are "curated" from my growing archive of real and imagined heirlooms, hanging them the same way family photos are displayed on household walls. I have installed several different slices of the collection in university and commercial galleries, but I am now building installations that exceed these previous incarnations in scope and size. I bring objects together from a wide range of places and times, sometimes even my own family, but no real family is represented by the installations. They are potential but imaginary heirloom collections, fragments of other collections that have been forgotten in boxes or abandoned to thrift stores. When combined with my own work, each of these objects is put into a new context, a new history, even as the individual object still evokes the unique past it has been separated from.

The project draws attention to the rootless nature of contemporary identities. We all assemble and create our identities from fragments of the past. Some of us carefully reconstruct genealogies and can name the individuals in family photographs back multiple generations, while others see only strangers in old albums and shoeboxes. Some of us choose one ancestor or one ethnic affiliation to identify with over another, while others of us find new, future lines of identity in the images we collect of our children. Through the images we hold on to, we all seek to forge identities, to assimilate into traditions and put our lives into historical contexts.

When looking at my installations, viewers might wonder: Are these people related? What stories bring these objects and faces together? Why have these particular objects been framed and not others? What stories, known only to the collector who left them behind, would be communicated by these objects if we just had enough information? These objects are both mysterious and familiar, just as are, paradoxically, images of our own ancestors. I am very interested in the fictional quality of identity-formation. Specifically, I am interested in examining the role that photography has played since its invention in shaping our sense of identity and belonging.


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