The Memory of Photography

Bate, D. (2010) ‘The Memory of Photography’ In: photographies 3 (2) pp.243–257.
Barthes, R. (1993) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (Vintage Classics). (New Ed edition) Translated by Howard, R. (s.l.): Vintage Classics.
Frampton, B. (2018) MG, Made in Abingdon: Echoes from the shopfloor. (s.l.): Veloce Publishing Ltd.

David Bate makes the connection between photographs as memory archives and older mechanisms used as means to record collective memories. In the past these were often tributes to famous people or events, or buildings used to house books or art. Since the means used to record them would require substantial means and influence to complete. Although these works would provide memory links for anyone and everyone, by their nature they may only record a specific version of events. Museums and libraries may be impartial (nowadays at least) but public works will often only record one side of a story. Winston Churchill is often quoted as coining the phrase “History is written by the victors”, and major towns and cities throughout the world have statues and monuments testifying to this remark. As Bate says “the ability to inscribe events, descriptions and traces is a site of social power: a means for some social groups to impose their will over others” (Bate,2010:248).

As Bate makes clear though, photography is much more egalitarian in its use as a memory archive. It can operate at a much more personal level than the other memory archives that he mentions. Certainly prior to the 20th century museums and libraries would be out of the reach of the majority of the populace, and in the case of libraries would not be much use to the general public if they could not read anyway. This is not to say that the population in general did not have other means to create similar archives. Legends, folk songs, dances would all have a way of recording people and events even if that memory becomes translated many times in the process. These would all have provided a memory link for the poorer members of the population. On a more personal level handicrafts and furniture would also be used as a means of remembering ancestors.

The relevant point about photography is not just that it has become much more ubiquitous than any other archive mechanism. As Bate says, “The photograph has a capacity to incorporate and absorb many other already existing visual memory devices within photographic re-presentation”(Bate,2010:248). He describes it as “a machine for what I would call a meta-archive” (Bate,2010:248). This is in reference to a photograph by William Fox-Talbot showing the construction of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. A (memory archive) photograph of a (memory archive) monument. He then mentions how photographs can record “From coins to theatres, from writing to monuments”(Bate,2010:248). This leads to an important point that he does not explicitly make. Of the four subjects he mentions here, two would not be constructed as archives. Coins and theatres have other specific purposes but they can act as memory archives; we can and do use many things as memory triggers that were never intended for that purpose.

Bates the goes on to discuss how a photograph can provide a separate personal memory link, an indirect trigger to something else. This is different to the intended archive purpose of a family album; this is something that may not have a direct representation in the photograph at all. He refers to both Marcel Proust and Roland Barthes as having identified this as an “involuntary memory” (Proust) or “Punctum” (Barthes); a jumping-off point at which the depicted image triggers a completely independent memory that is totally personal. In one of my previous OCA courses I had read Barthes’ “Camera Lucida” but now realise I’d not really got the point of his distinction between “Punctum” and “Studium” before. Bates’ essay makes it much clearer how the two differ and that although any photograph has a “Studium”, it is entirely the viewer’s reaction that determines if there is (to the viewer alone) a “Punctum” element.

While reading Bob Frampton’s book as part of my research for the previous exercise “Local History”, one photograph in particular triggered additional memories in me that were not part of the intention. The photograph is a simple portrait of one of the author’s interviewees. I do not know this person at all but his clothes and hairstyle triggered memories of my youth in Abingdon. He suggests to me an archetype of everyone I regarded as nemesis at the time. I know now with benefit of hindsight and wisdom of age that it was often a misconception on my part that any true enmity existed but at the time I knew it to be true. A market town in the 1970s is not always the best place to adopt anything resembling a different lifestyle or attitude and this photograph brought back distinct memories of places – pubs, social clubs – that I would never feel comfortable in during that time. This one photograph said much more to me than any of the others in the book even though the car factory was very much part of my environment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.