Guest Artist - Nettie Edwards and The Austrian Shoebox

The iPhone Arts is pleased to introduce Guest Artist, Nettie Edwards, who just this week was awarded the 2013 American Aperture Awards, Mobile Artist of the Year. She was also winner in two other categories, Landscape/Seascape/Nature, and Video/Moving Images.

We wish to extend our heartfelt congratulations to her and her accomplishments. 


While Nettie and I collect abandoned family photographs, we do so for different reasons. It is also evident in the way either of us approach and choose to reproduce and give new meaning and life to the image. Nettie delves deep into each photograph, examining various components and then extracts those parts that speak to her.

She says, “I am not trying to create works of art but that the process, of which the photographs are a component, is the artwork itself. Therefore, the images are almost like faded sketches, snapshot of my mind working.”

The Austrian Shoebox
by Nettie Edwards

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins" T.S. Elliot

Fragment 01
iPhone Collage 2009

When I was eleven years old, my great grandmother gave me a much-treasured photograph of her mother. At that moment, my fate was sealed: I was to become the family Memory Keeper, taking it upon myself to gather together every fragment of our history that could be searched for and found: every photograph, scrap of ephemera or official record hidden away in public archives. Inevitably, genealogical research and collections of keepsakes became an important part of my creative practice. In time, I looked beyond my own family's history to that of friends. Finally, strangers moved into my life as I developed an irresistible fascination for anonymous and abandoned collections of photographs: jigsaw puzzles without pictures to follow.

So it was that one recent Saturday morning, whilst visiting a nearby Vintage Market, I noticed a large pile of photographs and postcards on the counter. The vendor remarked that he'd found them at a local Car Boot sale. Leafing through, I could tell that this was probably one family's collection: a ‘comfortably off’ Austrian family. My imagination piqued by images of exotic strangers clad in dirndls and lederhosen, posing in front of Edelweiss-strewn mountains, resistance was futile. As my brain shouted "stop it! You don't have the time or money to get involved with this lot!,” I heard myself asking the question "how much for all of them?" After a bit of friendly haggling, a deal was done, the photographs stashed into a cardboard box for safe carriage and I walked home with my new project: The Austrian Shoebox.

Do all genealogists share the same impulse when they encounter a new collection of family photographs? Mine is to look for evidences: names, dates, addresses and photographic studio locations. Sorting through the box, I was disappointed to find just a few names of people and places. However, many of the snapshots have dates handwritten on the reverse and these have enabled me to construct a rough chronology. Most of the photographs were shot between the 1920s and early 1960s, although there are few covering the 1938 to 1945 period. I'm mindful that these are images from an era before online social sharing, when family photographs were private possessions intended for viewing only by a chosen few. At a rough estimate, there must be about 500 snapshots, enabling me, a total stranger, to witness intimate moments and highlights in the lives of complete strangers, almost from cradle to grave.

But what exactly am I witnessing? Much critical debate surrounds the veracity of photographic images. Richard Avedon wrote "all photographs are accurate. None of them  is the truth." Taken out of context, how much "truth" is there to find in my shoebox of family snapshots? The well-dressed, smiling people they depict appear to have had such golden lives. With no knowledge of them personally, it's all too easy to be sentimental, whilst in reality, I know absolutely nothing about the complexity of their personalities or the complications of their relationships.

As I'm not only a genealogist, but also an artist, it was inevitable that in the absence of information, I would begin to imaginatively construct my own narratives.

Whilst they remain with their subjects, the contents of family albums are generally treasured as captured memories, but as Joerg Colberg has observed "conveniently, we tend to ignore the fact that photographs are manufactured memories." Where do memories end and stories begin? Each individual recalls a different version of the same event, family arguments erupt over whose memory of an incident is correct. In the same way, a single photograph tells not one story, captures not one memory, but many: each viewer brings their own perception to the table.

As I become more acquainted with the contents of the Austrian Shoebox, layers of memory and meaning are blending and evolving as do layers of a photographic image composited in an app or Photoshop. Captured moments in the lives of people unknown to me are becoming part of my own store of memories. My invented stories are becoming an extension of their family history. Should I impose limits upon my imagination? As I never knew these people, perhaps the least that I can do is treat them with respect, give them the benefit of the doubt that they were decent Human Beings. But life is much more complicated than it appears in smiling holiday snaps. This was Austria in the 1920s and 30s: the darkness was encroaching over Europe.

Why do I feel compelled to rescue collections of anonymous photographs? Is it because I come from a broken home and can't bear to think of families being split up? This may also be the reason why I feel compelled to solve mysteries, to create some kind of order from out of chaotic unknowns. Digging deeper, I suspect that I'm also tapping into a fear of being dead, anonymous and forgotten: I salvage these people in the hope that one day I might be salvaged and treasured also. Where is my work with The Austrian Shoebox leading? I have no idea. This project is process led, so I'm not rushing to some printed, mounted and framed finishing line. The Austrian Shoebox is not so much an exercise in image making or even storytelling, as an account of my evolving personal relationship with this particular collection of family photographs and ultimately, with Photography itself.

©2013 Nettie Edwards - All Rights Reserved


Nettie Edwards - website
Nettie Edwards - Lumilyon Flickr
Nettie Edwards - Instagram
Nettie Edwards - Twitter

AX3, American Aperture Awards page

1 comment:

urban muser said...

loved this article nettie. thanks for sharing your collection. i find old photos of strangers fascinating too!

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