The following text is related to Photographs of Assemblages and Photographs as Assemblages. This text views photographs in relation to memories and how these memories can be evoked by the things we live with.

Photographic Aesthetics of Home: Objects in Space and Memories made in Mountains.

Christine van Royen
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The northern region of the Italian Alps, where you will find the Italian lakes, is not densely populated except for the lakeshores. Many villages in the mountains surrounding the lakes were abandoned after the second world war. Families left their houses, their crops, pastures, terraces, and chestnut trees in order to live near the lakes or in the big cities, in Italy and beyond. In the nineteen-sixties, the lakes and surroundings started to prosper through increasing tourism. Being left alone, houses collapsed and became ruins and only a few were restored, modernized and kept as summer houses. Some people kept on living in the old fashioned way, now with electricity and sometimes with running water, but many houses and villages are left in ruins. Abandoned villages can be found all over rural Europe.  

  Some people in this region of the Alps however left their houses, but not their homes.They keep coming back to stay connected to the mountain,the view, the space and the objects and memories of what was their home, although they have comfortable houses down by the lake. 

This paper and the series of photographs was created to memorize these kind of homes and through that, to look into the essence of home by doing research and taking photographs. How can a home be without a roof or window and how does a home relate to space, objects and memories? What is a memory of home and what role is there for photography? Furthermore, can the photographs memorize as memory images of mountain homes through a small archive and by being put together? 

The rope.
Initially it was just a thin white rope, stretched between a few branches along the road I walked on, that caught my eye and awoke my curiosity. Behind the rope, a pair of green poles served as steps and went down the steep slope to the left of the road, towards what seemed a small terrace. It was difficult to see what it was because of the lush foliage. I expected a little terrace that was used to grow vegetables or grapes.

There used to be many terraces on that southern side of the mountain, but most of them are overgrown by wild vegetation and the walls that constituted the terraces collapsed. A few fruit trees remind of the former use of the terraces. Behind the rope and the terrace, the mountainside goes down towards the main road along the lake. 

After first noticing it, I saw the rope every time I walked, sometimes connected to a branch, and always carrying out the same subtle message: don’t go in here. I wondered what other people might know about the land and its owner, but no one living along the road seemed to know anything about that special place and the subtle gesture of keeping people out.  I never saw someone going down the improvised stairs or remove the cord. 

I often take my camera with me when walking. On the road to Solivo I found a crushed Fire Salamander and the photograph I took became an important element in my practice, that has a focus on Animals and Plants and Aesthetics of Death.

One day I noticed that the rope was gone. There was no barrier anymore to go down that bricolage of stairs, not a physical one anyway. I went down the green poles that formed the improvised stairs. They led to a small terrace and there I saw no garden but an assemblage of objects, such as a ladder, a barrel, a crate, a piece of blue plastic, curtains, terracotta flowerpots, a clothes hanger, a white plastic chair, a wood stove, a frying pan: an assemblage of household goods. Those objects were not placed in a meaningful setting and functioning, but just put there within a fenced area. Thinking about the rope and seeing the objects and the fence made me realize that I was not just on the mountain, but I was entering someone’s home. I asked myself why this little terrace with its collected objects or household goods evoked a feeling of being in a home to me and I wondered why I had such a strong perception of being in a home. There was no roof, no bed or table or window, nothing that usually contributes to a home. But there was a defined space, the objects and the rope and a question- why would someone take the effort to protect these old objects and his land with a rope? 

I had my digital camera with me and I took photographs, but I felt uncomfortable about that, being there uninvited. I recall thinking about the very private reality that  I found which was at the same time confronting me with the discomfort of photographing without permission. 

Photographs like the ones taken, of unstaged and unmanipulated realities, recall the photographic approach as it was once defined in an 1951 essay by cultural theorist Siegfried Kracauer, an approach that is still valid for understanding photography. It is an approach towards photography that was concieved in the last century and brought forward again by literary studies professor Ernst van Alphen in his book Failed Images. The approach objects to the notion that photographs copy nature exactly. When it  is not yet totally clear which reality is photographed, as was the case with the assemblage of objects on the mountain terrace, this photographic approach allows multiple possible readings of the photographs.

Space, objects and home.
It is not unusual in this part of Italy that families divide their land between many siblings. As a result of that, people end up with shredded and unpractical properties spread all over the mountain. A piece of land here and there. Some own a good piece of land, and others own a house or ruin but no land, and many just steal land by putting up a fence. After 20 years without complaints of the owner it is yours. 

Some people cannot let go of their land and their former homes and this is the story of three of them. They go back to their ruin and place a caravan next to it or put up a rope by means of a fence and one man walks for miles every Sunday to his little stone house, called a rustico, just to sit a few hours on his dangerous balcony. They want to be there, in that space, see that view, that tree, that stream and smell that air, hear familiar sounds. It means home to them when they are surrounded by familiar sounds and familiar objects. In the meantime, they own houses in the village down by the lake, equipped with all modern comforts. A feeling of home does not necessarily only agree with a house filled with beds, a table, a toilet, chairs, and a computer maybe. That I know from experience. 

When I was twelve years old, I was sent to boarding school in Switzerland. There was everything you needed: a roof, a room, a window, a bed. But I did not feel at home. Afterwards I realized that was not only the house and my family that made me feel at home in my house, but also the surroundings and the vegetation, the kind of grass that grows on sandy soil. The garden with its wild privet and the windblown small oaks, willows and hawthorn and the sounds of the collared doves contributed as much to a feeling of home as the house itself, with its furniture, pots and pans and cutlery and the sound of the double door closing. And although I attached myself to the mountains that became my new surroundings, I still recognize this longing for something that is described as home and the urge to create or retrieve it.  I recognized this yearning in the assemblage of objects on that terrace behind the rope, the caravan next to the ruin, the chair on the dangerous balcony. 

The importance of daily objects for a feeling of home and their influence on our mental equilibrium was discussed by philosopher Maurice Halbwachs in his 1925 essay, Space and the collective memory. In his essay, Halbwachs referred to philosopher Auguste Comte, who remarked how mental equilibrium, first and foremost, is due to the fact that the physical objects of our daily contact change little or not at all, and thus are providing us with an image of permanence and stability. The objects give us a feeling of order and tranquility, an image of permanence and stability and they act as a silent and immobile society. Physical objects are also trees and plants, in fact everything that creates a contact between thought and things. 

Our things are our close companions, and they bear our and others’ imprints and recall friends and family whom we shared objects, food and habits with. Small habits of how to handle objects like a stove or a knife are passed on through family members and the objects connect us also to gestures,  movements and moments. The things we live with form us, as well as our family. Everyone who lived with us and shared the objects will remember them. Each aspect of the space where we lived, and the objects of our home have a meaning that is accessible for those who lived in the framework of the objects in space. 

When I was looking at the collected things that stood on the terrace, leaning against the slope, I imagined how children must have stood by the stove, climbed upon the ladder to pick plums, opened the curtains, planted the terracotta containers. The fact that all this objects, like easy-to-handle curtains for outside balconies but also a heavy stove, ended up on an isolated terrace on a mountain slope without a nearby dwelling, made me wonder where the objects came from. Maybe the objects came from a house that was there on the terrace once and was deconstructed, its stones used for a wall or for another house.  Or the objects came from a house along the road that is now restored, supplied with central heating and a gas stove, electricity and water, and owned by a Swiss couple. It is possible that that house was sold to the Swiss couple but not with all the land and a leftover part of the land might be that on which a home was created with objects. 

The memories of home and their images.
Contributing as much as sounds and smells, space and objects are the memories of home. ’If we have retained an element of dream in our memories, if we have gone beyond merely assembling exact recollections, bit by bit the house that was lost in the mists of time will appear from out of the shadow. We do nothing to reorganize it; with intimacy it recovers its entity in the mellowness of and imprecision of the inner life. It is as though something fluid had collected our memories and we ourselves were dissolved in this fluid of the past’ wrote Gaston Bachelard in 1958 in House and Universe.

Dreams of our childhood house can go back so far in time that they become undefined, and we doubt if they are true. The house dissolves in a dream that is maybe imagination or both: parts of real memory mix with dreams that are based on memories. Is it really our house we dream of or is there a dream coming to life in us, the dream of a home? Home and house assemble from a dream, from a memory but also from a house, a real space that can be anywhere, filled with objects. It is something that is created, and it is finding many forms, in a house but also on a terrace without a roof or wall. It is in our memory, perception and imagination to create that space and let it take almost the shape of a living value.

But how do we anchor these memories of home and house and carry them with us? The motionless society of objects around us and the layout of our home stays in our minds and unites families through memory, even if they live elsewhere. An imprint of space and objects is made readable for family members but, as a model of home, it is also readable to others. Often, this imprint of space and objects is made readable through photography, that machine -made object that carries memories and emotions.  

When I took photographs of the objects that were behind the cord, I realized that I was creating a memory not only of someone else’s memories of home, but also one of my memories and for myself. A memory imprint of a recognized home, in order not to forget these objects in their specific assemblage. 

The terrace with its assemblage of objects brought to my mind the words of Pierre Nora: ‘when certain minorities create enclaves as preservers of memory to be jealously safeguarded, they reveal what is true about all lieux de memoires. That without commemorative vigilance, history would soon swipe them away.’ Places with random objects will be swiped away as they are often seen as places of despair and poverty, and not as places with objects bringing stability and the feeling of home. Also, the attitude of keeping things because you never know what you can use them for later, an old-fashioned attitude today, was handed down to the family in the form and multitude of objects that formed the home. This attitude of keeping everything like broken saucers and mending them, and using half bottles as containers, is not surviving the easy access to Ikea and modern life. 

Pierre Nora distinguishes several types of memory. There is the memory that lies in gestures and habits, craft traditions and physical knowledge, ingrained reminiscences and reflexes; the memory as individual duty. A source of that memory used to be the family and the church, a passing of memory on through people. The memory of a home is related to the family and through their use of its objects and their habits. Without that family, the memory will fade away.

There is also the kind of memory that is longing for history through keeping record, the archival memory. That has been delegating part of the responsibility to photography. 

Photographs have been called memory images, defined as such also by Siegfried Kracauer. When he brought forward his photographic approach and stated that the photograph is not a copy of real nature, he also argued that a photograph is seen together with other images from memory and imagination. Therefore, seeing a photograph is a coming together of other and older memories and images. The photographic image becomes thus more than just a picture of people or objects, it becomes a memory image filled with our imagination, assembling with many other memories and perceptions. Through photography, it is possible to unite the individual and the archival memory.

The archival gesture.
A photograph is, according to Kracauer, not truly archival since it lacks order. It has archival qualities because it is a record of something, but its archival qualities are messy because the photograph is severed from its indexical contingency when it is taken. We see only a little of the situation that created the photograph. Therefore, a photograph asks for an archival gesture to create contact with the situation it was made in. In early photography this was often done by grouping photographs together, as what later became known as the series and the grid structures. The grid and the series have become a kind of grammar in creating an archive, as photographs refer to each other and to a category when placed in a series or grid. 

In this essay, the photographs are following each other and are similar in topic and size. The series of photographs of homes has become an archive, and that archival series is, in itself, a home as well for the Photographic Aesthetics of Mountain Homes. When photographs are presented in similar forms, this provides an order that subsistutes the referents of individual photographs  and makes them easier to understand and appreciate.

A home in a home.
When I went down the slope and saw the many objects within the fence, I recognized them as forming a home in the space behind the cord. The photographs I took of this unstaged reality made me wonder how to approach the photographs and the essence of home that I felt on that part of the mountain. 

  It made me question what is it that ties some people to a space and what could be the role of space and objects in creating a home. Is there also a broader feeling of a home imprint or half-forgotten memories of home inside us all, I asked myself and can we share and evoke memories of homes through photographs.

Maurice Halbwachs said that a feeling of home is built largely on objects that spread equilibrium, order and stability to people. Memories of that home lie in hearing the familiar sounds and seeing the familiar objects as furniture and trees but also in half- forgotten dreams of our childhood homes. 

Homes are specific for families, in space and with their objects, but there is also an imprint of home that is recognizable to all, a blend of perceptions, dreams and imagination assembling towards a memory image that is larger than our true recollections. 

While life on the mountain has changed fast, some cannot forget the objects in space that form their motionless society, their histories and realms and will continue to keep them alive. The photograph has its own role in keeping and preserving memory as a carrier of an image. Through photography, it is possible to unite the individual and the archival memory. The photographs I took will allow the continuity of memories of mountain homes, with their objects and histories. By presenting them in similar forms, an archive has been created of memory images that offers a referent to the individual photographs of the mountain homes and that forms a home by itself, to be shared. 


Alphen van. Ernst. Failed Images, Photography and its Counter Practices. Valiz Amsterdam, 2018. p 13

Bachelard, Gaston. House and Universe. //1958. Memory. Documents of Contemporary Art. London, Whitechapel Gallery, 2012. p 59.

Dyens, Olivier. The Sadness of the Machine. // 2001. Memory. Documents of Contemporary Art. London, Whitechapel Gallery, 2012. p. 77

Farr, Ian, (ed.) Memory. Documents of Contemporary Art. London, Whitechapel Gallery, 2012.

Halbwachs, Maurice. Space and the collective memory//1925. Memory. Documents of Contemporary Art. London, Whitechapel gallery, 2012.

Nora, Pierre. Realms of Memory. Memory. Documents of Contemporary Art. London, Whitechapel Gallery, 2012

Reference List

 1. Alphen van. Ernst. Failed Images, Photography and its Counter Practices. Valiz Amsterdam, 2018. p 247
 2. Alphen van. Ernst. Failed Images, Photography and its Counter Practices. p 13 
 3.  ibidem

 4. Halbwachs, Maurice. Space and the collective memory//1925. Memory. Documents of Contemporary Art.London, Whitechapel gallery, 2012.            
 5. Ibidem p 47
 6. Ibidem p 47
 7. Ibidem p 48

 8. ibidem p 48
 9. Bachelard, Gaston. House and Universe. //1958. Memory. Documents of Contemporary Art. London, Whitechapel Gallery, 2012. p 59.

10. Dyens, Olivier. The sadness of the Machine.// 2001. Memory. Documents of Contemporary Art. London, Whitechapel Gallery, 2012. p. 77
11. Nora, Pierre. Realms of Memory. Memory. Documents of Contemporary Art. London, Whitechapel Gallery, 2012. p. 61
12. Realms of Memory, p. 64
13. Realms of memory, p. 63
14. Realms of Memory, p. 63
15. Alphen van, Ernst. Failed Images. p 203
16. Ibidem p. 236
17. Ibidem p. 236