Photography and Memory
Entering into a house, apartment, loft, or office, and we are almost always certain to discover photographs. They adorn walls, litter desks, and clutter shelves. For most of us, we assume that the photographs are providing an anchor in the past and a context for the present. Most often, we think of the photographs as mnemonic devices. And this is how archivists, librarians, and photographers often think of them.
Photographs are more complicated, as Gregory Batchen argues in his Forget Me Not: Photography & Remembrance (New York: Princeton Architectural Press for the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2004), ISBN 978-56898-619-7. Produced as an exhibition catalog, Forget Me Not is not a new book, although it is new to me (I came across it at the fabulous Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan). It is a book that will re-energize one’s ideas about photography, past and present.
Batchen, who teaches courses in the history of photography at the City University of New York, comments on how Americans take hundreds of photographs every second (550 every second it seems), engaged in an activity “as if to fail to do so would be to let our precious memories fade into the mists of time” (p. 8). The memory function of photography is what this book is about and, with an engaging extended essay and beautiful reproductions of photographs, Forget Me Not is not a book to be forgotten. To a certain extent, it shifts our view of photographs from scenes frozen in time to part of our material culture, magnificent artifacts engaging our attention.
What Batchen is wrestling with is the matter of how well photographs help us to remember. As Batchen argues, “Photographs might prompt recall of an absent loved one, but we have all at some time searched our family albums and not recognized those we see within . . . . [The] photograph does not really prompt you to remember people the way you might otherwise remember them – the way they moved, the manner of their speech, the sound of their voice, that lift of the eyebrow when they made a joke, their smell, the rasp of their skin on yours, the emotions they stirred” (p. 15). As you read, think of archivists, librarians, and historians pouring over unnamed faces and trying to determine whether to save them or how to catalog them.
A considerable amount of the discussion concerns photographs as “tactile objects.” Frames and albums transform photographs into artifacts that must be touched as well as seen, and the lavish array of images enhance our sense of this role. Consider how we react to photographic albums: “And when we do touch an album and turn its pages, we put the photograph in motion, literally in an arc through space and metaphorically in a sequential narrative: Albums are also prompts for speech, an excuse for friends and families to gather, for stories to be exchanged, incidents to be recalled, biographies to be invented” (p. 49). If this is the case, photographic albums and the photographs within them must be strong memory devices. It is because of such uses that it is often difficult to toss out photographs, no matter how little we know about the photographers or their subjects.
Certainly we have tried to enhance the value of photographs for memory, such as when we place hair in albums, cases or under frames along with the photographs, making them fulfill a ”metonymic memorial function standing in . . . for the body of the absent subject.” Batchen argues that the “addition of hair to otherwise ordinary photographs can be understood as a vernacular commentary on tracing itself, on the strengths and limitations of photography as a representational apparatus” (p. 73)
Yet, photographs often fail to help us remember who we see in these images. “As historical artifacts residing in the present,” Batchen writes, “these photographs have therefore come to represent not their subjects, but rather the specter of an impossible desire: the desire to remember, and to be remembered.” The “photographs remind us that memorialization has little to do with recalling the past; it is always about looking ahead toward that terrible, imagined, vacant future in which we ourselves will have been forgotten” (p. 98). The photographs wind up in libraries, archives, museums, and closets in home perhaps because we fear that if we don’t keep them then someday an image of us may be destroyed or lost, and the memory of us weakened or eradicated.