Family Photographs and a Family of Photographers: The Gushul Photo Studio
Tatiana Saburova

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries photography transformed the way identities were created and memories preserved. Family photographs became means of visual storytelling and autobiographical narrative. Photography as a cultural practice of modern society influenced how young couples and families pictured themselves. Due to technological developments in the twentieth century, photographs became affordable and popular, allowing commercial and amateur photography to become a part of daily life. There were photo studios even in small towns, offering “cabinet” and “visit” portraits, wedding and funeral shots, and images picturing all events in the life of local communities. A professional or amateur photographer with a Kodak camera took pictures to tell stories about love, happiness, or grief. Textbooks and instructions on photography were advertised in newspapers – “Кождий може бути фотографiстою” (“Everybody can be a photographer”) – you just needed to order such a book and it would be delivered to your post office.

Photo studios offered their customers painted backgrounds – wild forests, lakes, waterfalls, tropical islands, ancient ruins, and grottos to create an illusion, to “transfer” magically a photographed couple to a different place. Photographers usually gave instructions to their clients on how to hold hands and flowers, where to look, and what facial expression was appropriate. We can see young Ukrainian Canadian couples posing in a studio furnished and decorated to create another reality: a plush armchair, a table with books, a sham landscape background, or even a stuffed goat. “These pictures show us why people went to professional studios. Not only did studio photographers guarantee a ‘quality’ product which could be bought by the dozen, ready for distribution, but they granted clients temporary immunity from reality.”

As Julia Hirsch wrote: "Family historians have learned to read diaries, letters, and autobiographies with care, since unlike demography, these records of personal experience and feelings are colored, for all their immediacy and vividness, by literary and social conventions. We must look at family photography with similar restraint, for it is created by the aesthetic and social conventions of the people who take them, pose for them, and hold on to them. The authority of these conventions, like the hold of traditional family roles which still makes us want strong fathers and nurturing mothers, loving children and sheltering homes, is difficult for any of us to resist."

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