What Old Family Photo Albums Teach Us About Creativity

Erik Kessels art exhibition, Album Beauty, sees lessons in “less than perfection.”

Once upon a time, the average life was documented in about eight or nine photo albums. For some people now, that same number of photos might equal a week’s worth of Instagrams.


The old-fashioned family album is a dying art form that Erik Kessels–artist, designer, photographer, and founder of agency KesselsKramer–aims to translate for a 21st Century audience with his exhibition “Album Beauty,” now showing at Les Rencontres d’Arles in France.

“Creativity in general doesn’t come from perfection, it comes more from imperfection.”

After years of combing flea markets for discarded family albums from decades past, the taps are running dry as the transition to digitize our lives continues. “The exhibition is meant as an overview of this phenomenon of the photo album that lasted about 100 years and is now coming to an end,” says Kessels.

Visitors are meant to feel as though they’re walking through a photo album, with enlarged photos from Kessels collection, interactive albums, and other photo props used to bring the original photos to life.

These anonymous momentos inspire Kessels for a number of reasons. “As a designer and art director, a lot of the imagery I work with in that industry is close to perfection, but I get a lot of inspiration from amateur images where they make mistakes or dare to make mistakes, which I always learn from,” he says. “Creativity in general doesn’t come from perfection, it comes more from imperfection.”

Between the instant editing possibilities of digital photography and the nature of social media, Kessels says family photography today is more perfect and public than ever before. “Family photos are now a certain form of propaganda,” he says. “You want these images to be perfect because, with all the sharing, it’s like advertising for your family.”

But is there something lost in that perfection? Kessels says that while we’re in the midst of a photography renaissance thanks to all the affordable and accessible tools of the trade, many of our photos start to look the same.


“There is a lot of copy behavior out there,” says Kessels. “When someone has a cool idea, like holding a record album cover in front of their face, then everyone will do it. There is so much out there, which is great, but it has certain consequences as well.”

Have a look through more of Kessels’ photos in the slides above.

[Photos courtesy of KesselsKramer founder Erik Kessels]

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.