Part One, Project 3, Exercise 1.4, Archival Interventions
A very interesting exercise that I could easily get lost in once I started. Looking at the outline of the exercise, I thought about the large numbers of very old family photographs that I now have since the death of my Dad last year. I found it really hard to get rid of them as the old tiny black and white pictures of my grandparents in particular are a window onto a different time and fascinating in the clothes, cars, setups they have for their snaps. Sorting through them also struck me as to how little we actually take time to look at printed images and try to connect with what happened at the time they are taken.
My thinking was to somehow connect the past with the present through the family and had a couple of options. The old photos were mainly of my Dad’s family so I had a starting point of looking at the paternal side rather than maternal. Plus, I don’t have many photos of my mum’s. I am quite close to my aunt, my Dad’s sister, and I was interested in the connections to her and family. One option that I pursued was of the women starting with the grandmothers, then my mum and aunt moving on to me and my two sisters. The photos of my grandmothers are of them in their 40s or 50s. I always thought that one of them was in her 60s, judging from her white hair and dumpy physique. In fact, she was only 55 when she died and in these photos she is much younger. It highlighted the fact that we make judgements on appearances even if they may not be true.
I decided instead to look more closely at the military connection of the men in my family. I would not consider us to be a military family in that we have not had generations following each other into the armed forces, but there is a connection of sorts. Both of my grandfathers were in the armed forces during the First World War, one in the Flying Corps and the other in the Army, the Artillery Division. Their portraits are formal and posed using the style of the day. One is full length in a studio set up with props and countryside scene, the other has heavy white vignetting around his head and shoulders. My father was in the Army at the end of WWII and went to Northern Ireland to train new recruits to shoot. His portrait is similar to that of his father, a head and shoulders but without the vignetting.
My two sons have been involved through one being an Army Cadet at school, and the other was a Recruit with the Royal Marines but had to make the tough decision to leave because of injury. I have a snap of the Cadet but in full rig with cap and badge in place. The other is the formal photograph that all new recruits have taken along with a Troop photo shortly after joining. His is the formal portrait of head and shoulders, but in contrast to the older ones he is looking at the camera. I can see a confidence in him but is that because I know him and what he went through in order to join? I am sure that the other difference to the older generations is that he chose to join rather than being drafted which I know happened to my dad and very possibly to my grandfathers but I am not sure.
As a family, we had conversations about the army as for my generation WWII was still quite close and our parents had lived through it as young people. I was always fascinated by the fact that my grandfathers had been in the First World War and as our knowledge of it grew I wondered about the horrors that they may have faced. One of them got a medal for courage under fire when he helped other soldiers while being gassed. My dad loved talking to his grandson about uniforms, weapons, drill and bad food. It gave them a connection that had been missing and a talking point to bring the generations together. I would have liked to have had that opportunity with my grandparents but unfortunately they were all gone by the time I was old enough to understand and question them.
When putting them together, I started with what I believe is the first one taken of my mother’s father in the Flying Corps in about 1914 then my father’s father in the Royal Artillery in about 1915. Then my father in the Army about 1945 followed by my younger son in the Army Cadets in about 2006 and finally my older son after joining the Royal Marines in 2015. If only George Armitt had been wearing his cap with badge, it would have made the set more complete but we don’t have one with him wearing it. There are only three or four photos of him in uniform and all are without his cap. Personally I find this connection interesting because while I was aware of it, this is the first time that I have had them all together.
This exercise was interesting in bringing out family photographs and putting them together with different connections. I also looked at weddings in the family and how they changed over time. This has sparked something that I would like to pursue further and it is a reason for getting out the old photos rather than having them away, to look at the past and discover where we all come from and how we come together with shared interests, jobs, lives and families.