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The Memory of Photography

The feedback I received on assignment 3 (see here) recommended that I read the paper by David Bate, The Memory of Photography. Here I note thoughts on the article and my perspective of photography as a mnemonic medium.

Bate’s paper is concerned with the relationship between photography, memory and history and covers 16 pages of heavily referenced material, drawing on the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida and other frequently referenced sources including Barthes and Benjamin. Here, I attempt to focus on the thoughts of Bate himself:

  • Bate mentions that photo-archiving programs have given momentum to the question of ‘how to archive photographic images and what to do with them once deposited’. In fact something I am still struggling with for my own images – the administration involved in archiving images effectively seems to be something beyond my available time, yet I’m painfully aware that not doing this habitually will only end in chaos.
  • At some length Bate discusses how photography can be a device for remembering, the imperfections on human memory itself, and the imperfections of photos as mnemonic devices, with their selective framing of fractions of time and place. We should not 100% trust our own memories, nor should we trust photographs as reliable mnemonic devices. But I am unsure how many people would treat their memories as factually accurate, with expressions like ‘off the top of my head’ being common place and signifying cultural acceptance that memory is fallible.
  • Bate discusses how the invention of devices to aid memory has extended human ability, … ‘invention of writing, for example, is a collective form of “artificial memory” to accumulate what has already been thought, said or done, thus leaving space for other fresh thinking.’ He considers other types of memory devices and their history, including photography, saying, ‘It is a history that once humans embark upon seems to set them on a path of problems of accumulation’. There is only so much data we can process or is desirable for us to spend time processing (at the expense of acting in the world).
  • There is an exploration of how ‘photography is so crucially important [to memory], with a large caveat that the point of view of archives is not neutral. Perhaps very little, if any, information is neutral – there is always some personal or cultural perspective at play or omission of alternative perspectives. Objectivity itself is a fallacy. The description that archives ‘establish “the truth of social remembrance”, the “remembrance of events worthy of presentation” seems a good way of describing their role.
  • I quote at length here, a point that seems central to the position of photographs within memory:

Photographs are one of the most important technological inventions … photography is the machine that industrializes visual memory. The photo-graphic image is not just another memory device … but a machine for what I would call a meta-archive … The photograph has a capacity to incorporate and absorb many other already existing visual memory devices [monuments, statues etc] within photographic re-presentation … [photography’s]  capacity to store and reproduce other objects as a visual image.

  • Bate’s conclusion, offers some wise words, ‘As composite formations, photographs, like childhood memories, have a sharpness and innocence that belie meanings that have far more potential significance than is often attributed to them, which means that in terms of history and memory, photographs demand analysis rather than hypnotic reverie. ‘ Beware of the confusion caused in the mind through the indexicality of the photograph!

Bate D (2010) The Memory of Photography, Photographies, 3:2, 243-257. PDF available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17540763.2010.499609 [accessed 14.5.16]

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