A Technology of Memory

All photographs are there to remind us of what we forget. In this – as in other ways – they are the opposite of paintings. Paintings record what the painter remembers. Because each one of us forgets different things, a photo more than a painting may change its meaning according to who is looking at it. ~John Berger

When I pick up a photograph off my stack of old family photos, I’m always curious about why the image was taken, why this moment was chosen to be captured. Oftentimes the answer is easy, as the photograph commemorates some special moment or occasion. But sometimes not. Sometimes it is just a moment. To me, those are the fun photographs, the ones which capture the little moments which often slip by, unnoticed, quickly forgotten. Photographs like those put me into the moment, a time machine to a point in the past. A window on a world long gone.

One part of my work as an archivist is the preservation of historical materials, including photographs. In learning to care for photographs, I’ve done a fair amount of reading about photography in general and especially discussions about photographs and memories. The two are often linked, as in claiming someone has a photographic memory or using one term as a metaphor for the other. I was surprised to discover, however, that there is some debate within some academic circles about the interaction of photographs and memories. Photographs capture a moment in time, freezing those seconds potentially forever. Yet, how does looking at a photograph interact with or even change our memories?

In the early days of photography, author Oliver Wendall Holmes was a photographic enthusiast and enchanted with the permanence of these new photographic images. He also happened to be a Spiritualist, strongly believing that spirits existed within and around the mortal world. Photography, he believed, was yet another way to triumph over the passage of time and even death. He referred to one of the earliest forms of photographs, the daguerrotype, as “a mirror with a memory.” The truthfulness and accuracy of this new technology, he and others believed, was far more reliable than simple human memory. Even George Eastman developed a very poignant marketing slogan for his company’s Kodak film by suggesting that “Kodak doesn’t sell film, it sells memories.”

Some more contemporary historians and other scholars, argue that photographs tend to supersede memory, that the image itself becomes the memory, rather than allowing us to recall the details of the moment the photograph captured. In essence, they suggest, a photograph aids forgetting more than remembering. Susan Sontag, for example, suggested that photographs capture the surface and not the meaning of things, so that in the end, the photograph is the only thing remembered. In a 1997 book Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, The Aids Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering, Marita Sturken wrote about this topic:

No object is more equated with memory than the camera image, in particular the photograph. Memory appears to reside within the photographic image, to tell its story in response to our gaze…Yet memory does not reside in a photograph, or in any camera image, so much as it is produced by it. The camera image is a technology of memory, a mechanism through which one can construct the past and situate it in the present. Images have the capacity to create, interfere with, and trouble the memories we hold as individuals and as a nation. They can lend shape to histories and personal stories, often providing the material evidence on which claims of truth are based, yet they also posses the capacity to capture the unattainable.

In part, I think that idea is true, especially when talking about iconic photographs, images which define national moments and memories. Think here of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, or the twin towers on September 11, 2001. Photographs like that do capture the memory of the moment, so much so that seeing the image recreates the feelings and emotions of the moment. Yet those feelings sometimes get refined, condensed, to just that moment, so that memories of a series of moments or events are centered on the one captured, the one given permanence. It becomes the thing remembered. In this age of digital prints, easy to take and easy to delete, questions now turn to how the newest round of photographic technology will change how life in the twenty-first century will be remembered. This is especially true when talking about images which have been digitally altered — another whole question about photographic reality.

As I pull out a box of family photographs and begin sifting through a particular set of photographs and memories, I think about the pictures and what I remember. Sometimes I know the photograph itself is just the object — they are of people I never met, gone before I was ever around, or of places I never visited. But I remember stories I heard about them, oftentimes told to me while holding that very same picture in my hands. As I turn the pages of sometimes ragged scrapbooks, I find pictures of vacations or people that I did visit or know, and, for a moment, I am right back in the moment of that picture, feeling the wash of ocean against my legs or hearing my grandmother’s whistling as she sat next to me on the porch.

Is the photograph the memory, or is memory larger than an image?

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