Quiet private shots from photo albums of yore are taking center stage at an exhibition in Berlin. In our age of image overload, the Museum of Things raises big questions about how we document our lives.
Among the flood of selfies, Instagram posts and Facebook updates, our day-to-day lives are visually documented like never before. Social media platforms are awash with shots of our parties, our pets and even those ubiquitous images of what we ordered for lunch. Opening on Friday, a new exhibition in Berlin reflects on life before social media and revisits the humble photo album.
The Foto Album exhibition opens October 20 at Berlin's Museum of Things, which is dedicated to documenting the oft-overlooked objects of everyday life. Its new show delves deep into the museum's archive, finding commonalities among the snapshots in themes and poses. These old images remind viewers how we told the stories of our lives before we uploaded them.
A small exhibition, it asks big questions. "We are exhibiting these photos at a time when our approach to photography is being turned on its head by digitalisation,” Foto Album's curator Sophie Schulz said.
At the start, viewers are greeted by a ten meter-long magnetic wall studded with several hundred photos grouped thematically. Many are historic black-and-white shots of familiar and time-tested subjects: people standing in front Christmas trees, individuals gazing pensively across panoramic views, couples locked in embraces, poses which would feel just as at home on a social media feed.
"By clustering snapshots with similar themes, we can see that some remain everyday visual conventions while some trends look totally eccentric today,” she said, pointing out a now out-moded habit of photographing women next to large vases of flowers or being snapped while standing in or next to trees.
Although some shots were clearly taken by professionals, all of them were intended for private audiences. The museum bought some of its collection from flea markets but most were donated, often after their owners died. Most of the pictures are anonymous and dates can usually only be guessed at from fashions or props and, viewed en masse, their similarities are more striking than their individualism.
Pictures reveal history
German history plays a bit part in a number of the photo albums on display. One book contains people posing with a Zeppelin airship flying in the background. Another has a photograph of Hitler snapped as he passed in a car, positioned in an album alongside typical family snaps. Elsewhere, black and white pictures are invested with tragic meaning by their handwritten messages, for example the photograph of a hesitantly smiling young woman, which is inscribed with a simple message for her loved one: "I hope I reach you.” It is dated 1946.
And the exhibition shows how people's private photos were sometimes uncannily similar despite living on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. Proud individual portraits of young people are grouped together in one corner of the room. At first glance, they look like variations on a theme. But on closer inspection, some mark first communion or confirmation in West Germany, while others show individuals clutching brand new books on socialism, smiling for the camera at East Germany's secular coming of age ceremony known as Jugendweihe.
An "open archive"
The Museum of Things archives the collection of the Werkbundarchiv, an influential German association of artists, architects, designers, and industrialists, founded in 1907. Its exhibition is tucked away in the third story of a former factory building on a lively Kreuzberg street and contains what it dubs an "open archive,” cabinets full of objects from the 20th and 21st century, from kitsch to design classics like chairs or blue and white tins of Nivea hand cream.
The photographs, sometimes quirky, often moving, at first seem like the distant relations of our streams, feeds and clouds, but curator Schulz points out that many of the albums on show were not as personal as they first appear. "The early nineteenth century albums were private but also semi-public, designed as a sort of coffee table book, with their own customs and conventions,” she said.
Not all analogue photography is lost
Although photography with dark rooms and printed snapshots is largely history, there are signs that we are loathe to ditch conventions like photo albums. Companies are doing a brisk trade in printed photo books of customers' digital images. You can print everything from mouse pads to boxer shorts with portraits of your loved ones, signalling our need to keep photographic memories tangible rather than virtual.
Similarly, firms like Polaroid have been rescued from the brink of bankruptcy by demand for instant cameras, and a growing niche still favors analogue format and the imposed need to strictly self-edit when using a 24-shot film.
"The flood of images seems to become more and more unmanageable, it's a case of overload, which perhaps leads us back to tangible material forms,” Schulz said.
The exhibition Foto Album runs through February 26, 2018.