§Memorie di Famiglia
When we were older. An impossible biography through photographic medium
by Arianna Lodeserto

«Don’t forget the best!
We are familiar with this remark “from a nebulous bunch of old stories,
although it may not occur in any of them».
Benjamin, Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death


Layer 1: A casual finding (and some consequent questions)

The images that you will find here are neither the result of an “artistic creation”, nor a transparent domestic practice. More than a family history, they testify in a fragmentary way to an adventure amongst machinic elements. They testify to broken paths and missing clues, and a non-responsive material that constantly reminds us of its own aging, and to the fleeting nature of media, better yet – of devices, apparatuses, supports, software that are never working simultaneously. Finally, they involve an archive that keeps shrinking away every time it seems about to reform.

Several years ago, in a visit to the childhood home of my father and paternal grandparents, I found five series of black and white negatives in a little black box. 35mm photographic films shot in a square format (24x24mm). A minuscule support, an example of extreme visual synthesis that I had never personally experienced before since it was not revived in the reflex cameras of the 80s and 90s that I was familiar with, where we could only choose the successful “Leica format”. Not having been cut into strips of 5 or 6 frames, a somewhat necessary procedure, especially in the case of homemade darkrooms, to create contact sheets, to print and even only to help in file classification, one could only suppose the remote existence of roll proofs, a long strip of paper with small prints, involving the only analogue technology that left the film uncut. However, no kind of contacts, test strips or enlargements were to be found, hence I had to presume that these negatives were never been printed. By excluding the overexposed frames, I had 81 observable shots, whose subjects weren’t easily recognizable, except for my father, who died in 1999, my paternal grandparents and two aunts. No note, no caption and no date: unknown protagonists and unknown situations shined on that unprinted film, so too was the unknown author(s) of these photographs, along with the particular cameras that had been employed. And since the “autographic film” had not been used, there was little information to be grasped. The only available details were the edge numbers of the shots, the proprietary manufacturer’s code and the AGFA brand, followed by the acronym ISS and IF L (which might correspond to the Isopan IF and Isopan ISS). These were very popular films for at least three decades, with affordable prices, especially recommended for portraitists.

What follows is an account of my elaboration of this finding. A number of layers are progressively removed: the “old media” survival threshold and their seismic back and forth, the photographic memory cultural myth, the partially recomposed esthetical materials recalling an unknown lineage, the popular heritage involving “photographic happiness” and finally the unrecognizable character of this photographic treasure of mine, this “best” fraught with unexpressed strengths.  


Layer 2: “You can forget everything… except your Optima” [1].
The incoherent story of upside-down films

I have returned to those negatives several times over the years, and recently resumed the restless investigation of those pictures “at the midpoint”: neither latent nor printed on paper. They seem instead to stand between technique and oblivion, the inquiry still belies my presumptions, evades my reminiscences of photographic chemistry, this visual family tree proves the past existence of a ghostly and defiant assembly.

In order to conduct “material” research, I visited the surviving analogue photo labs in Rome and read all the photographic forums run by film wizards. In the meantime, I was forced to brush up on my knowledge of darkroom techniques and to relearn the analogue alphabet, together with all its pitfalls and false friends. This made me realise we forgot such a half-extinct, half-alive language so quickly that I almost felt like I was no longer able to “read films”, nor to decipher the chemical signals and burns on the reel. I tried in vain to trace the camera used to take those pictures in order to track down the possible range of shoot dates. If later my father would always use the OM1 reflex, the 18x24mm or 24x24mm miniature format options are provided instead by the small compact cameras dating back to “the Golden 60’s and 70’s” such as those equipped with the Agfa’s Rapid film system, like the Fujica Rapid, the Minolta 24 Rapid and almost every Optima and Silette [2]

I was convinced that my father could have used a Rapid System Camera not only because of the 24x24mm format, but also in view of the fact that the frame numbering here is both upside-down and reversed. But if some amateurs state that the latter was indeed a typical attitude for Agfa’s Rapid film system, others say that it could only happen with internegatives. However, in the present case, the main problem is the numbering: although the images are provided in the 24×24 size, the numbering count follows the half-frame format (18×24 mm). This format is the same as the movie camera format that originated the 35mm film, a format only provided by the SL and by the classic 135. Moreover, the Rapid cartridge only allowed for sixteen exposures, less than those found on these negatives. So, even if the reminiscence of equipment and techniques hadn’t helped me retrieve the missing memory revealed by these pictures, this late wish for an (auto)biographical enquiry had unfolded in front of me – albeit in a maze of incomplete information and narrow tunnels of amateur explanation – the endless knowledge of all the marvellous compact cameras that my father and his unexpected gang of friends could have used, and of all their forgotten analogue tricks. 

In this aquarium of potential cameras and obsolete cartridges, the way of counting and the frame numbers of all the 5 series of negatives I found provided me with one only certainty: the films were tailored in a bulk film loader. Advanced amateur photographers used to be able to save 40% on rolls and tailor the amount of film to their own needs. This option was not highly recommended as it was really only suitable for manual-loading cameras, in that it involves the risk of scratching and light leaks. On the paperboard box of his “Bobinatrice Zeta 15”, the 5,500 lire black bulk loader found in that same childhood home, my father had written in pen: “contains light-sensitive photographic film”, and then he had scratched the same surface of red paper in order to write a clearer message: “Do not open, thank you”. But a late emotion made me open the chamber, though I was convinced there would be nothing left inside. 

According to the rotations made by the simple crank, the bulk film loader Z allowed the user to put anywhere from 6 to 36 frames of film onto a roll, and with 18 precise turns my father always got 18 frames. The back of the box is filled with mysterious, handwritten sets of numbers, from which I could only infer that calculations were based on counting on the half-frame. Not by chance, those Agfa films counted a series of only 18 little square frames as 30. However, the ‘betrayal’ of the shooting format doesn’t end there.

I thought it would be better to read and experiment with these past negatives by using a tool of the present: a 35mm film & negative scanner of mine. Nevertheless, the software that interprets the chassis doesn’t recognize the unusual square format I had to scan, but only the most common “full-frame” format, and it did not even read the over-exposed negatives. Thus, despite the use of my scanner, the developed images remained latent once again. Moreover, since the rectangular format is the only supported one and I couldn’t manually set the frame boundaries, it often halved a side of the square negative, resulting in evocative asymmetric diptychs.

Like it or not, although it should only convert negatives to digital photos, even a scanner can create some effects normally done in the shooting, printing and post-production process, such as double-exposures or chromatic alterations. By playing with the image formats again, it had reintroduced the half-frame, in paradoxical accordance with the frame count that was exactly the original film numbering. In one way or another, the scanner had exposed and re-circulated the negatives as they were re-photographed silent movie format frames. 

Being the “cast” of an image in transit (which, in this case, has not reached its destination: not to photographic paper, not to a family album), a negative may not only be printed in different and unpredictable ways, thanks to the variety of printing methods and techniques, but it may also be read in an eccentric manner. In this particular case, the scanner software acted by stealing knowledge, but also by cutting and reassembling the series, as if to issue a new challenge.

Nevertheless, the scanner itself proved to be an unstable tool. It only takes a few years and even a good scanner becomes obsolete if we can’t replace out-dated drivers for operating systems that are constantly and neurotically in need of replacing. The ageing of media is constantly depriving us of the possibility of an agreement, where personal means and resources struggle against the urgency of technological upgrade. But even so, vintage fetishists keep wondering “How to change a normal frame 35mm camera into a square format 24x24mm?”, or “How To Reload an old Agfa Rapid Cartridge With 35mm Film?”, all while being tenaciously dissuaded by more acute nostalgics [3]. And if the concept of “old media” still need to be redefined along with the problematic character of its “oldness”, our brief media-archaeological report tells us that the combination of technical tools is a concert where most of the orchestra calls in sick, since the encounter between the current and the past recording methods is not always successful. The digital transcription of these old films needed more sophisticated scanners to salvage the sunken frames. At the same time, the incomplete reading suggested to me new assembly instructions, which could in any case put “in motion” these unknown, (un)familiar figures (again).

Layer 3: “Nothing escapes Agfa” [4]

What memories materialize from this black and white language that should be relearned? Emerging from the silence of all the technical problems and only interrupted by the dithering noise of a few scanners, these unfamiliar family souvenirs still needed to be plausibly deciphered. What fascinates me about these 5 short series of photos is not, in fact, the last tangible, tactile connection with my own relatives, which generally represents the first and strongest reason why people are interested in antique cameras and vintage films, as collectors of analogue relics so often state (Morrison, 2015). Rather, conversely, although painful to admit, my research was paradoxically motivated by the impossibility to recognize myself within this “family resemblance”. Mid-way between domestic pictures and photos of unknown strangers, these pictures gravitate towards unknown latitudes of a fragment of the world from which I still come from.

Each of the five rolls of film seems to suggest one or two main themes, or at least to intersperse recurring topics. Indeed, by using a bulk loader, one could always shoot shorter rolls to create small and coherent sets, and the roll length could be adapted not only to the lighting conditions, but also to the intended extent of the “scene”. Hence, in trying to bring order to the almost 100 photos, I came upon a few themes, situations and places: internal/external spaces (the balcony and the terrace of my father’s house), a rocky promenade, possibly in Bari (the perfect background for a portrait!), the (always posing, never “strolling”) youngsters hanging around the village, the (gracious) strumming of a guitar up and down the countryside, and finally the first trip to the capital (Rome), visiting mythical monuments. The discreet rituals, the rural concerts, the bicycle games, the sense of community and even the ordinary passion for football, as well as the peaceful promenades along the seafront while wearing a good suit… none of this echoes in my childhood memories, or in my lived experience of that perturbing village. Instead, the latent images of my reminiscences reveal the all-too narrow main roads, irreconcilable conflicts, no marvel and no freedom at all. And the little that corresponds to my memories emerges from family stories tangled up in an obscure skein.

Even the use of a point-and-shoot camera, a simple and automatic device for reliable, standard memories, is an unexpected habit in the remote image of my father. It is distant from the long exposure times of the non-mainstream SLR he used when I was a child, when he was always “behind the lens”. 

This discovery could hardly affect the strength of memories of lived experiences. And yet, it can sketch new parallel identities, alternative to those known. These identities do not overlap but rather pull into another dimension of perception that which I had not seen before, that which I had not been able to see: the optical unconscious of my prehistory. A foreign, yet ever-present gaze that still challenges my child’s eyes.

THE JACKETS © M. Lodeserto

That our image deserves to be remembered, or at least preserved, is what films and cameras have always told us, and continue to do so in bigger and better ways. The obligation to remember our happy times that began with oral and written stories has been perpetuated since the end of the Nineteenth Century by Agfa and its fierce rival and competitor Kodak. By flipping through the intrepid and romantic twentieth-century advertising of photographic products, we are caught by a rhetoric thanks to which we finally discover that “only a Kodak” can save our happy ego from oblivion, which coincides with liberation from work: the ever-elusive holiday.

Along with the obligation to remember, we are immediately reminded of the duty to remember the medium itself. “Don’t forget your Kodak”, since your long-awaited holidays will be carefree only as long as you have a compact camera that frees you from the tedious setup, calculation of exposures and rewinding [5]. Guardian and magic trigger of all happy occasions, a reassuring photographic film makes even the simplest day out glorious. So, “take a Kodak with you”, and you’ll never forget your memorable “Kodak moments,” [6] that are rendered even more alive all thanks to the camera! 

Examining Agfa, Kodak and Zeiss advertising materials and their role in the culture of nostalgia, it is very clear how the ‘obligation’ to remember applies always and only to those “moments of true, carefree happiness”: the “insistent springs” and “the joy of living” during the “fleeting jaunts” among the vivid landscapes, “the fresh air” and the “everything I saw” in every Sunday day trip, the cheerful gags of “our light-hearted groups”, the “smooth and the rosy” and “the sweet atmosphere of the happy memories of yesterday”, the “full freedom” of those “exquisites hours spent too soon” [7]. Images to be saved from the veil of forgetfulness, and to be shown with pride. 

1983 Agfachrome spot

But in those old negatives where do these incredible moments of lightness of an otherwise wrathful and austere family spring from? Were they unconsciously suggested by the persistent campaigns about the “magical” aspect of the optical device now renewed via its automation (Sorlin, p. 74)? Despite the deep dislike of my father for advertisements, was it perhaps impossible to ignore the longing for sweetness and smiles, and not to press the “magic button” of that pretty compact camera, so admired in magazines?

A closer look to the photographic series I found, reveals that in most cases they were not composed by pictures that “seize the moment”, they are not instant proofs of “having being there” showing someone caught in the spontaneous surrender of the expression, as well as they don’t even depict recurring events or anniversaries. Instead, relatives-characters are always constructing minimalistic mises en scène. And the human figures are often not portrayed according to conventional standards. On the contrary, they adopt an actor-like pose, they do display a sort of “acting” in connection with “archetypal figures”, or they allude to recurring prototypes of a collective imagery. Never taken by surprise, wherever the photographed subjects actually are, these pictures attest to and participate in the sacredness of the pose. The strongman, the wrestlers, the football player virtuoso, the village sheriff, the politician escorted through Roman corridors of power, the insatiable and carefree tourist, the up-and-coming songwriter and, finally, the entire happy family… Similar to silent movie stars, the figures I see in these pictures have intense facial expressions, they seem to adopt bizarre, or overly serious poses. The need to show more than themselves, to go beyond the banality of everyday life to be found in the series is quite striking; the subjects seem to act as if posing would awaken a certain need for mythical features, and for brilliant interpretations of well-known roles.

Perhaps the 35mm, this “standard gauge of memory” [8] first used for motion pictures, helped creating this desire to infuse more movement into the frame, to escape from one frame to another, as if each detail was the next frame’s parergon. As if every “intruder” and every “scatterbrain” who just stumbled into a family portrait was ready to slip into the next frame, the figures fixed on the film are indeed part of a sequence, that is, looking at the photographic series one can really sense the snap which moves the film roll and determines the passage through the borders of the small frames from one to the other.

Because of these sequences, we almost regret the mythical self-timer delay, which is barely perceptible nowadays. That delay, and above all the spatial distance (much longer than the distance between the wide-angle distorted hand, or that distance produced using a selfie stick) allowed to set up the pose, to leave the viewfinder and let the face you wanted to include in the picture prepare so to be sure to have it in the frame. It allowed us to challenge, and even to deride those mythical figures if necessary. And the young and old blend in well together, everybody wearing their Sunday best clothes, ready to play their roles. This is particularly true in tiny villages, such as that where these pictures were taken. The kingdom of the pose par excellence, the place where distinctive signs and nicknames became identification marks of sorts.

Yet these mythical figures don’t stick around very long. Consciously or not, irony leaves the door open to those who are already leaning out of the frame and sceptically peeking into the next picture (and so into the next role), and even the sequence of couple and family portraits ends with a kid on the run.

DOMESTIC RING © M. Lodeserto

 Layer 5: “Treasures in the sober rooms”: light sensitive escaping memories.

How these nobodies jostle each other, all these lifted arms linked together,
these numberless feet treading so close!
Of course they are all in dress suits.
We go so gaily, the wind blows through us and the gaps in our company.
F. Kafka, Excursion into the Mountains

Why is the current overdose of portraits and self-portraits (the cumbersome immediacy of what seems to be just experienced and already fulfilled, quickly glorified by shared snapshots, fair game for Smartphones) seem less uncanny than portraits from our past? And why are bygone pictures so agonizing and so invaluable at the same time? Did “they do things differently there”?

No, it’s not so much the emulated ancient customs that dazzle the present gaze. Rather it’s the forgotten, like the carefree attitudes of our fathers covered in a heavy blanket of fog. Defying our screen memories and filling the family album with our childhood scenes revisited. And so, even if it can’t disengage us from the conspiracy of oblivion, the photographic reminiscence could at least act as an illusory way to reduce the distance dividing us from past and its image bait to lure the sunken and to apprehend its distance, in other words, to realise the abyss of what we dare not to remember, this entire, posing family who would never again pose happily. Emerging from a past packed with domestic guilt, and ripped away from a fate of absence and stale, foul air, these photos do not impress me for their old-timey attire but for the implausible happiness of their characters unfurled in their black and white play, for that “best” that I could have neither remembered nor forgotten. An unknown “best” that alters my past as well, as well as that history of me that I cannot draw.

Indeed, these past images present today recall not only happiness, but the possibility of happiness. They recall that possibility that you’re always bound to chase, to expand, to extract and to perform. Here it is expressed and protected by tiny snaps, by ambivalent formats, by impenetrable codes. And thus, although our ancestors may have followed the “mysterious instructions” of a roll’s radiant slogan, the impossibility of a uniform memory persists, along with the need for “something to forget”, which is also what makes them so important for us, their pending potential hidden in the freedom of oblivion.

Their mystery virtually untouched, the scanned negatives could at least be re-shuffled, pairing off in different ways and awaiting new translations, and I have no desire to “enhance” them for creative purposes. So, I have tried to heal their wounds: the bulk loader’s scratches and wrinkles, the expired devices’ blackouts. I tried to give these small 35mm formats another chance, but the persistent attempt to rehabilitate these images has perhaps, at least partially, failed. Even the second and the third full-scan were lost because of a recent theft of my hard drive. Magic fairy and wicked witch at once, technology deceives with the mirage of an ever-available memory; and torments us with the nightmares of the sudden loss that lurks around the corner.  

Maybe I do not possess “developers active enough to scan such surfaces perfectly” (Benjamin, 1999), and to give a complete account of the strata broken through with “a good archaeological report”. Time travelling new media can’t bridge analogue gaps and empty captions, and neither can they explain what’s been missing. They can narrate all the present to all present, and they will, and yet the majority of our analogue past remains shrouded in the mist of missed connections and swift demises, where just a few findings light up the land of latent images, calling our biography into question once again.  

Gone without a word, my father did (not) leave (even) these photos behind. But now that they’re no longer buried away in that little black box, in that half-empty house fraught with silent ghosts, I wish their happy characters would travel again, still disguised, still playing those mythical intervals for others. Telling me again the way we were (acting ourselves), when we were older, and what those chemicals smelled like and the subtle noise of the bulk loader. And they keep suggesting that the only coinciding moment between me and the film is the unspooling of his restless youth and of mine.

GETAWAY © M. Lodeserto


[1] Agfa French advertising slogan, 1962.
[2] Cameras that composed photos in a square frame were not uncommon even thirty years prior these decades, though they didn’t have a long shelf life.
[3] For all the time it sang its sublime swan song, the film cannot surrender. Ilford, the queen of the darkrooms, was recently purchased by Pemberstone Ventures Ltd. But make no mistake: the company will not be rescued for the sake of the old nostalgic, but precisely for “this younger generation”, those young people unwilling to sacrifice their possibility of expression, and who are fascinated by a non-linear history of technique.
[4] Agfa advertising slogan, TV commercial, 1990.
[5] An article on Italian Popular Photography relates a French collective advertising campaign based on 30 television ads massively spread just before the summer of ’71 and followed by a hundred thousand copies of leaflets whose slogan was always “do not forget your camera” (Dahò, p. 51).
[6] In 2012, The Guardian celebrated Kodak’s demise by asking readers to collaborate in a collection of “their favourite Kodak moments”.
[7] I examined the brand and product identity from 1899 to 1993, especially by leafing through the extraordinary Italian version of “Popular Photography”, as well as through “Designer magazine”, “Ladies’ Home Journal”, “Life magazine”, “McCall’s Magazine”, “Saturday Evening Post” and “The American Magazine” and more recent European illustrated magazines. The sentences quoted here are slogans or product descriptions. (A useful database is also slogans.de, “Die Datenbank der Werbung”).
[8] The title of a recent screening organized by the Parisian experimental film archive Light Cone, proposing only 35mm short films. 



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Graduated in Aesthetics, Arianna Lodeserto got an international PhD at La Sorbonne with the thesis The image and the archive and did postdoctoral researcher in contemporary philosophy and media archaeology at Paris IV (La Sorbonne), ENSA Malaquais and LIRA (Sorbonne Nouvelle). She also studied analogue photography, film editing and documentary writing. Often exploring different media (walking, audiovisual practices, filmmaking and theatre), she is currently a member of DOM-, an artistic collective resident at the Teatro India-Teatro di Roma.