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A Summary of Marianne Hirsch’s Introduction to _Family Frames_

Hirsch opens her introductory chapter with an overview of some of the key points Roland Barthes makes in a section of Camera Lucida wherein a photograph of Barthes’ mother as a child is “read” by Barthes; this description of a photograph is what Hirsch calls an “imagetext” (10).

When one looks at and is “looked at” by a family member in a photograph, this “looking” works to create a new perspective on the relationship between the person in the photograph and the reader. For example, the photo of Barthes’ mother allows self-discovery for Barthes that would not happen for any other person reading the photograph.

Writing an image allows one to negate the “objectification” (4) and static mode of being of the photograph she or he describes; writing an image affords the image life, in other words.

Hirsch goes on to discuss Barthes’ idea of the “punctum” (4), or the uniquely personal shock of recognition experienced when reading a family photograph which repels one even as it entices. The punctum allows the flatness of a photograph to be changed into fluid narrative through emotional connection between the reader of the photo and the photographed.

The invention of the Kodak camera changed how the narrative of family life would be recorded, Hirsch continues, for family photos document rituals, but are themselves evidence of a ritual.

Ideological expectations determine what is photographed in family photos, and how to read them. Family photographs can be located somewhere between the “myth” (8) of a perfect or idealized family and the reality of family life, because photos show what the ideal family is (which suggests that the actual family in the photo is not that).

Hirsch then states that her book will analyze imagetexts in order to create a vocabulary to discuss family photography theoretically, which will allow the ideological framework of family photography to become much more evident so that it may be readily critiqued.

Families are always subject to an external gaze of some kind, and this “familial gaze” (11) defines how families are seen in relation to the idealized image of the family. Hirsch declares that Family Frames will focus on the construction of the individual within a family setting and how family is constructed visually, concluding by raising a number of important questions regarding the theorization of photography and how these theories will critique and redefine how the ideology of the family is reproduced.


Hirsch, Marianne. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, & Postmemory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997. 1-15. Print.



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