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Photography Criticism

Suspended Conversations

The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums, Second Edition

by (author) Martha Langford

McGill-Queen's University Press
Initial publish date
Oct 2021
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2021
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Jun 2001
    List Price

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In Suspended Conversations Martha Langford shows how photographic albums tell intimate and revealing stories about individuals and families. Rather than isolate the individual photograph, treat albums as texts, or argue that photography has supplanted memory, she demonstrates that the photographic album must be taken as a whole and interpreted as a visual and verbal performance that extends oral consciousness.

Exhibiting a collection of photographic travelogues, memoirs, thematic collections, and family sagas compiled between 1860 and 1960 and held by the McCord Museum of Canadian History, this second edition includes a revised and expanded preface along with new photographs of the Notman albums. Printed in colour throughout, the enhanced material draws out the distinct nuances and details of each album, giving them new life to tell their stories. Albums are treasured by families, collected as illustrations of the past by museums of social history, and examined by scholars for what they can reveal about attitudes and sensibilities, but when no one is left to tell the tale, the intrigue of the album becomes a puzzle, a suspended conversation. Langford argues that oral consciousness provides the missing key. Correlating photography and orality, she explains how albums were designed to work as performances and how we can unlock their mysteries.

A fascinating glimpse of the preoccupations of previous centuries, Suspended Conversations brings photography into the great conversation of how we remember and how we send our stories into the future.

About the author

Martha Langford is research chair and director of the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art at Concordia University and author of Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums.

Martha Langford's profile page

Editorial Reviews

"The notion that the album is meant to be performed, or orally narrated is appealing and credible, conjuring images of older family members identifying, remembering and explaining, while occasionally digressing into extraneous personal and family histories for a younger audience ... Photographic albums deserve close readers like this one." Border Crossings

"Martha Langford ... challenges the usual stress on photography as an exclusively visual medium in Suspended Conversations ... Langford is also profoundly aware that a photographic album begins a problematic, second life once it is deposited in an archive ... provide[s] preliminaries for an inclusive anthropology of photography that abandons, or downplays, aesthetic judgement." David Evans, Source

"Langford's book joins those few exceptional works, by scholars and writers from Roland Bathes to Pierre Bourdieu to Susan Sontag, which move these meaningful documents into the forefront of communication and cultural studies. Her thesis that these albums contain fundamentally oral mnemonic and symbolic structures is both innovative and insightful." Pauline Greenhill, co-editor of Undisciplined Women: Tradition and Culture in Canada

"Rich and informative, theoretically fluent and emotionally involving ... Langford's original achievement in Suspended Conversations is to show how even photographs whose stories have been almost forgotten can act as prompts or notations for a performance that needs to be enacted to be kept alive, not in an original state that never existed, but in a constant process of translation, according to clues found not between the lines of texts but between the photographs on the pages of albums." History of Photography

"Langford's dedicated "reading" is transformative ... True to her word, Langford reanimates the conversation meant to be inspired by the album, but suspended by time ... Suspended Conversations is a remarkable book." CVphoto

"This is a beautifully written work on photography and memory that at times startles with its poetry. Langford offers new insights into the understanding of visual technology, particularly as it breaks with a dominant scholarly mode that overwhelmingly tends to 'read' photographs as textual instances within a paradigm of visuality." Elizabeth Seaton, Communication Studies, Department of Social Sciences, York University

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