Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Ubiquitous Experiences: Photography’s Relation to Memory

As people we are linked, inexorably, to memory. Our memories become a part of us, and also play a part in how we view future events. We internalize feelings, events and memories; then store them in our psyche to be called upon at a later date. There are some memories that are fuzzy and barley perceptible, more basic impressions of something from earlier in life, and there are memories that are forever burned into our brain, part of us until we die.

Culturally, photographs have also taken on meaning in very unique ways. They “have always served our desire to understand the past, preserving for our view people, places, and ways of life that have long since vanished” (Savedoff, 209). Used as reminders of memories, information on times long before our own, or even as surrogates for memories we no longer have, photography has become as linked to the concept of memory as the memories they often represent. Photography and memory have become so intertwined, that it can be hard to tell where the photograph begins and the memory ends.

Since its invention, the camera has becomes an instrument of creating and retaining memory. It “is an absolute dictator. It shows us a face when we are to see a face, and nothing else…When the camera moves we move, when it remains still we are still,” (Sontag, 244). The subject contained within the frame of a particular photograph is all that that specific photograph can literally reveal, however it may not be all that it suggests. Photographs serve as references to other times and places, and can also contain allusions that reminds us of something totally unrelated to the content we are seeing, creating a chain-reaction of memory.[1]

Photography is also used in a cultural way as a means of verification, as well. “After all, we have come to rely on photographs for identification on licenses, passports, and numerous other documents,” (Savedoff, 88). In this way, when used in conjunction with the official documentation that goes with them, photographs are literally the way we attempt to prove who we are. We are so linked to these images socially, that in many societies it is impossible to function without much of this official documentation.

Being so linked to photography in so many vernacular ways, we have come to accept it as part of our existence, to the point where the average person probably doesn’t give it much thought. Its emergence as both a record keeping tool and an art form were significant in the development of modern culture, and have led to photography’s internalization in our culture.[2]

This level of accepting and internalization of images is part of why photography is able to function the way it does for us.

The familiarity of certain photographs builds our sense of the present and immediate past. Photographs lay down routes of reference, and serve as totems of causes: sentiment is more likely to crystallize around a photograph than a slogan. And photographs help construct – and revise – our sense of a more distant past, with the posthumous shocks engineered by the circulation of hitherto unknown photographs (Sontag, 85)

Photography has achieved a certain familiar ubiquitous quality and comfort level with the average person that allows us to accept it as an everyday part of life. There is something inherent in the very photographic process, however, which also lends to photography’s strong link to memory.

Much of why photography is linked to memory is, in fact, embedded within its very process. “Unlike any other visual image, a photograph is not a rendering, an imitation or an interpretation of its subject, but actually a trace of it,” (Berger,54). As far as art forms go, a photograph is the only one that can actually be considered to have been created, in a way, by the very subject it is capturing.[3]

As light reflects from a subjects surface and burns its mark onto a light sensitive material, . “The photographic image, however, insofar as it is mechanically produced, is not tied in quite the same way to intention and gesture (as other art forms tend to be)” (Savedoff, 47). The whole process being mechanical sometimes makes people tend to see it more as a document, and less of a representation.[4]

This potential trust is from where some of photography’s power is drawn. The camera appears to see the way our eye sees, and that is something to which people with sight strongly relate. What the camera does, however, and what the eye in itself can never do, is to fix the appearance of an event. It removes its appearance from the flow of appearances and preserves it, simultaneously freezing, isolating and preserving that moment in time (Berger, 54). As the human memory can do, the camera can also compress many instances into one single image, both compressing and expanding the time contained within.

“The camera saves a set of appearances from the otherwise inevitable supercession of further appearances. It holds them unchanging. And before the invention of the camera nothing could do this, except, in the mind’s eye, the faculty of memory,” (Berger, 55). The way the camera works compared to the way the human mind works is an interesting concept. The human eye sees something that is unintelligible on its own, but is then interpreted and deciphered by the human brain. Similarly, the lens captures an image, and records it on a media. Further work is then required to produce an intelligible image.[5]

Before the photograph, as mentioned above, there had been no device quite like the camera that could do what it is capable of.

What served in place of the photograph; before the camera’s invention? The expected answer is the engraving, the drawing, the painting. The more revealing answer might be: memory. What photographs do out there in space was previously done within reflection (Berger, 54)

Photographs take a literal time and place, and condense them into an easy to view package, able to be called upon whenever one desires. They condense several moments down into one, and create a reference out of the information gathered at the scene of the image taking. This reference will exist as long as the media it is captured on, and has the ability to be reproduced over and over again.

The implications of photography’s relation to memory are also important, and, in a cyclical sort of way, help to both inform the link between the two and further strengthen that very link. The fact is, people generally want to remember, good things at least. Remembering through photography roots us in our history, grounds us in our present, and offers us glimpses into worlds we were unable to experience first hand as well.

There is more to it than just this, however. There is something within us that wants to remember for perhaps deeper reasons, as well. “Memory implies a certain act of redemption. What is remembered has been saved from nothingness. What is forgotten has been abandoned (Berger, 58). No one wants to be forgotten, and no one wants to fade into nothingness. To see images, especially those that clearly demonstrate times gone by, or people no longer living, reminds us that these things were real. This remembering in and of itself can be a redemptive act, and help to link us to our world and each other.


Berger, John. About Looking, New York: Vintage Books, 1980.

Cotton, Charlotte. The Photograph as Contemporary Art. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2009.

Savedoff, Barbara E. Transforming Images: How Photography Complicates the Picture, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation. New York: Picador, 1966.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003.

[1] Photography has been used as a sort of treatment in the cases of people with diseases like Alzheimer’s that affect the memory. In many cases, when a patient starts to lose their memories of people, and begins having trouble identifying them, photographs of those people can be used as surrogates for their actual memories. Though they cannot always remember the people the way they once did, new associations can be formed with the images of them. Knowing people that this has happened to, it is interesting to see how the mind works to associate images of people to the people themselves, and how the photographs can serve as memory for the people who have trouble with their own.

[2] There are certain images that have become iconic, and are associated with whole generations. The first that come to mind are images like the sailor kissing a girl in times square, the flag raising on Iwo Jima, or Russian forces replacing the flag on the German Reichstag after the fall of Berlin. These images helped to define the generation that came of age around World War II, and are now part of our vernacular. Everyone has seen them at some point or another, many to the point where they have simply become clichés and aren’t taken as seriously anymore. Those who were not alive when they were taken only have the images themselves to go by, and they don’t stimulate memories of those times and places. However, they may have their own unrelated associations that people have developed with them as they have still grown up with them.

[3] When a photograph is created by light condensing time into a single two-dimensional object, making an image of a place, person, event etc., however mediated by the photographer it may be, it is still the result of that very light bouncing off the subject and burning into a light sensitive media. With it, there comes a certain status and knowledge that photography holds in the minds of most people. Due to the nature of its method of creation, a photograph can still convince people it is actually true in a way something like a painting never could.

[4] This is part of the strength of photography’s link to memory. However far some photographs may stray from what they are capturing, or however altered they may be, there is still a vein of vernacular photography that runs through our culture and is seen as documentary. In every posed snapshot, or family portrait, there are captured memories. People and places that may be gone remind us of what has been and what has changed, and the visual representations of things we can no longer actually see in reality have a certain amount of gravity to them.

[5] As soon as this happens, the moment enters the realm of memory, is stored in its short -term area, and is either kept at the ready for easy recollection or stored away in the annals of our mind. This relation, in a way with the camera the model of the mind, lets us see the result of each set of circumstances. The mind produces intangible memories, visually unapproximated; the camera, however, yields a physical and visually existent image to be viewed or easily shared with others. In a sense, the camera gives us proof of the moment captured, something more than an internal thought or feeling to remember what happened. Photographs help to heighten our memory of particular events, people, places and even more.

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