Wanted – New Custodians


Wanted – New Custodians for Family Photographs: Vernacular Photographs on eBay and the Album as Artwork

“The batch of photos came from a house clearance; I believe that the lady had been a Land Girl during the war, her remaining distant family were sadly not interested in personal effects… I always used to be sad that families don’t want to keep photos, but I feel that there are a lot of other unrelated people who now become custodians, and so all is not lost.” eBay Seller, 2004

“Great photograph of two men standing at a holiday resort looking at the camera. The contrast of the picture is excellent, the picture itself has several creases, nevertheless they look great. And even if the boys in the front aren’t your cup of tea, there are several guys in the back. French origin dates to 1930. Comes from a relative of mine, my grandfather’s dead brother, who was a salesman from the late 1920s till the 1970s. He became 90 years old and didn’t have any children, what a surprise :)” eBay Seller, 2008

Between 2004-2008, I purchased hundreds of analogue family photographs on eBay, collected sellers’ statements and created two unique albums from these materials: Question for Seller, 2006, and Gay Interest Beefcake, 2008. Both physical artefacts were exhibited, sold on eBay and collected as artworks.

The above examples suggest lingering questions. Family members have already abandoned, or are in the process of abandoning photographs that connect them to a dead, distant (and perhaps single) relative. The seller provides some facts on the life depicted. Memory is at best mediated. Speculation, in the form of ‘queering’ of a snapshot, reveals alternative meaning and assumptions of shared identification; it also appeals to a buyer’s impulse to retrieve a hidden history. This is all part of a sale, in which photographs are removed further from their kinship link. The exchange is not simply cash for photographs: connections to kinship, fragments of biography imply responsibility. These are the circumstances in which the buyer becomes the ‘new custodian.’

In her influential work on photographic albums, Martha Langford (2001, 2008) argues for the performative nature of the album. My contribution, as an artist who has purposefully constructed albums, proposes to add breaking up, rescuing and reassembling to Langford’s “showing and telling.” Therefore the album as artwork is an initial starting point to tease out the role of ‘new custodian’, and the rescue impulse that unwanted photographs provoke.

Bird, Nicky. ‘Wanted – New Custodians for Family Photographs: Vernacular Photographs on eBay and the Album as Artwork,’ in S. Arnold de Simine and J.Leal (eds), 171-188, Picturing the Family: Media, Narrative, Memory. Bloomsbury, London, 2018. ISBN 9781474283632

TOP IMAGE: eBay Photographs (the Land Girl), Question for Seller, 2003-2006, by Nicky Bird