Exercise 1:4 – Archival Intervention

the cover of a photo album put together by my father sometime in the early 1950s

‘Look through your own family archive and try to discover a series of portraits (four or five) that have existed within this archive, but have never been placed together before. The portraits can contain individuals or even couples; they may span generations, or just be of the same person throughout the years (chronotype). Whichever way you wish to tackle this exercise, there must be a reason or justification for your choices. What message are you trying to get across about these portraits?’
– IaP Coursebook, p.34

I think this set of five pictures (plus one extra, acting as a full stop) tells a fairly straightforward story – a man is born, grows up and gets married, has a family and then dies – without much need for explanation. But I shall provide short captions anyway to try and make this story a bit more complex, because it is about other things too, including history and class and society and place. And, of course, because the man is my father, me.

fig.1 – 1920s: Douglas, Isle of Man

This is the first picture in Dad’s album. Eric Graham Chirgwin is about three years old and everything in it suggests he is  the focus of his devoted parents’ attention. His mother, Alice – Al – looks down from the corner, while he squints into the sun. A title “Gypsies…” is written in white paint on the grey card of the album’s first page.

It is obviously not a professional picture – Dad’s position at the centre of the picture, the slightly wonky horizontals, Alice’s awkwardly cut off right elbow all scream out “vernacular” – but I do not know who was behind the camera. It could have been one of his adoring maiden aunts, or maybe my Grandfather…

Whoever it was, the picture provides evidence that my father’s family had already slipped into the habit of taking pictures on special occasions, such as this holiday on the Isle of Man. Maybe because the first ‘serious’ camera I used had been his, I associate photography with my father, though of course he didn’t take any of the pictures here, because he is in them all.

fig. 2 – 1930s: Birkenhead? Or Liverpool?

And this is dad with his father, Alfred – Alf – Chirgwin. Along the admirably straight horizon is either Liverpool or Birkenhead, depending on which side of the Mersey they are standing.

Like Sanders’ Young Farmers, they are both dressed up in their best for a day-off walk.  If August Sander had taken this, the title would be something like Grammar School Boy and his Proletarian Father.

Unlike  anyone in my Grandmother’s somewhat better-off family, Alf had a trade, working at Cammell Lairds Shipyard as a fitter. He was a shop steward and a freemason. From Swindon, he joined the army in 1914 but – instead of being sent to France – was sent to Birkenhead to build ships. He was billeted in my Great-Grandmother’s house and married her youngest daughter in 1918.

There are no photographs of the wedding that I know of.

fig.3 – May 1949: Claughton Road, Birkenhead

Alf and Al lived in the house in Claughton Road that was owned by my Great-Grandmother where they had met.

There is a picture of the older of my two sisters, Jane, sat formally on her knee in the back court, shortly before she died. It was probably taken the same day as this picture of mum, dad and Jane who, like Grandma in fig.1, is focussed on dad.

My parents had met at Cambridge after the war, where Mum had finished her History degree and was training to be a teacher.

They were married in December 1947 and spent their honeymoon in London. They went to church at St Martins in the Fields and visited Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery. They may have looked at the statue of Eros, in Piccadilly circus, but there is no record, no proof.

When Jane was born, Mum and Dad lived in Manchester, but they would move to Orkney the next year. Both of them would spend the rest of their lives there.

fig.4 – 1950s: Dundas Crescent, Kirkwall

Suddenly, towards the end of the nineteen fifties, it all bursts into colour. The family – which now includes my other sister, Laura – has moved from the small island of Sanday to Orkney’s capital, Kirkwall.

There are three or four slides taken at the same time and in all of them, they’re looking off to their right, out of the frame. Was that a ‘thing’, back then?  I wish mum had taken a half-step to her left so we could see her smile (but they do look happy, don’t they).

I love Jane’s stripey top and the way dad’s pipe juts out, just like his father’s, twenty years earlier. The light is from the east. It is morning. The sky is kodachrome blue. It has almost become the world that I will know. And there is the spire of the cathedral – the orientating landmark from my square mile exercise – at the bottom left of the picture.

fig.5 – 1960s: Orkney

It is hard to tell the story of a man’s life in four or five pictures and I have missed out a lot here. There is no second world war. There is very little of my mother. There’s no picture of me. Nor is there any of the day-to-day business of life.  And other than that first title, “Gypsies…” there is next to no sense of how my father saw the world.

The dog collar says he was a minister, but you can’t tell what he believed. Maybe though, you can tell that he was not a solemn, sanctimonious man. That he was fun.

I think you can see that people liked him.


fig.6 – 1967: St. Olaf’s Cemetary, Kirkwall

My father died of what always gets described as ‘a massive heart attack’ on the morning of July 19th 1967.

My sisters were away youth hostelling in Scotland – there are pictures of them there, laughing, having fun – but three year old me was at home with mum and dad. I remember something going on.

There are far more slides of the flowers piled on his grave (from two cameras: a square format instamatic – Jane’s, with the hostelling pictures already taken, earlier on the same roll of film – and one 35mm camera – dad’s Ilford Sportsman, which I would go on to use, much later) than can be explained by anything other than not wanting to leave, of not wanting to go back home from the graveside and its view out over Scapa Flow.

5 thoughts on “Exercise 1:4 – Archival Intervention

  1. Catherine

    I enjoyed reading this – a snapshot of a family and yet with a deeper underlying narrative. Your father definitely looks someone who was fun to be with.

  2. Pingback: August Sander – A Postscript | Simon Chirgwin's Learning Log

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