WHILE meandering through an art gallery the other week, I was stopped short by a strange character who advised me to forsake paintings for the delights of photography.

I was almost forced to agree with him, particularly as he was my sort of bloke - slightly dishevelled and mouthing heresy in impeccable English.

Also, the show was one of those at which eight out of ten exhibits leave the viewer cold, even allowing for the tendency of galleries and museums to be overwhelming. I countered with some remark about the trickery practised by photographers. Wasn't the famous photograph of a Republican soldier caught at the instant of stopping a bullet in the Spanish Civil War a fraud, the theatrical pose having been assumed on manoeuvres for the sake of drama?

But my informant was wise to contradiction, arguing that the provenance of the picture didn't matter: it was the image that counted.

I could have mentioned the art critic John Berger, who defies anyone to look at Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows in the same way on being told that moments after painting the picture the artist killed himself.

In the matter of those photographs that mean most to us - the autobiographical record of life events - it is the context that is important, though the image can stand alone as an illustration of vanished times.

They are also, incidentally, and in a way that paintings never can be except in terms of how the artist looks at things, a history of photography.

At the start of life for the over-50s, snapshots were almost as small as postage stamps. They were black and white and sharply focused, and everyone seemed to occupy the middle ground.

If you had a photographer uncle with a darkroom, Christmas was marked by the receipt of a photograph of badly drawn snowmen on whose shoulders the photographed faces of family members had been superimposed.

I have a holiday photograph of my little sister outside a caravan so flimsy that it looks as though the people inside - me, my brother and mother - are holding it together for the purposes of the shot, while my father, in an attitude of prayer, looks down into his box Brownie camera.

One of my favourite snaps is of my father and uncles as teenagers on a Sunday school outing. Chewing sticks of straw, they lie languorously on a hillside with their Homberg-hatted elders; the sun is out, there is the hint of a breeze and they cast Bible-black shadows.

It's a picture almost of innocence, certainly of rectitude in a Welsh chapelgoing sort of way, but it can tell us nothing of private hopes and torments. That's the attraction of family albums: they mostly chronicle the good times.

I've just read a book about the Victorian artist community at Bettws-y-Coed, whose example was the landscape painter Clarence Whaite. The book has an extraordinary photographic portrait of Whaite with his wife and young child. The wife is patently ill or deeply troubled, and one is tempted to find out why.

It seemed curious that the most potent image in a book about painting and drawing was a conventional photograph by a "snapper" unknown.

One way of hiding secrets or one's distaste for the probing camera lens is to pull a face. Every album has at least one picture of a nephew doing an impression of a lower life form while everyone else smiles benignly.

Before cameras turned foolproof then digital (even more foolproof) and when print size was still standard, I took some coloured holiday snaps in Corfu, where we had met the former British Ryder Cup golfer Alex Caygill and his wife.

Yorkshireman Alex is pictured one morning at the Bella Vista Restaurant in Paleocastritsa with four empty lager bottles lined up on the wall behind him like trophies. Next to it is one of me with a half-empty bottle of 7-Up.

It's not art, but it tells you a lot about the sobriety of a lapsed Methodist from the Eastern Valley of Gwent.