The Memory of Photography – David Bates
We are asked to read this essay and note the main points. Also, we are encouraged to read further into areas of the essay that interest us.
Sourced:Bates, D. (n/k). The Memory of Photography. Available: http://www.tandfonline.com Last accessed 30th July 2017.
This paper opens with a Freudian observation that photography is often linked to memory as one of many mnemic devices. That is, an aide memoire that serves to trigger wider memories of the photographed and the people who were witness at that point in time.
David Bates’s research considers that photographs can be misleading due to the missing information residing outside of the frame. This, or hidden narratives residing in the minds of people contained within the frame. He also aims to look at the wider issues of photography as a mnemic device since its invention. Also, how it has shaped the evolution of cultural collective memory, and how history is now archived. He refers to Jaques Le Goff observations of pre photography archival systems and how the curation of archives were linked to political rhetoric in the French Fevolution.
David Bates talks about reframing our thoughts about what a photograph is and its place within in an archive. Bates refers to Jaques Derrida’s book ‘Archive Fever’. “Photography is in a state of flux when it comes to archives” According to Derrida, within conventional archives there are issues to consider in the “destructive drive” and “of loss” within an archive. (Further explore what Derrida means by this).
The cascade of new archival technology is suggested as being a threat to the conventional archive that traditionally served as a way to remember. Bates poses several questions about this with regard to what part photography has played in human memory. What contribution has it made to memory? He also asks what’s, why’s and how’s about how collective memory and how individual memory has changed since the advent of photography.
Attempting to answer these questions, Bates starts by quoting a passage from Sigmund Freud’s book “Mystic Writing Pad”. Freud observes that referring to a written a note on a pad of paper will prompt a memory that will be preserved and unaltered. Without this note, his memory might begin to distort any given memory of an event over time.
Bates then brings to the ’table’ Jaques Derrida who poses another question that runs alongside Freud’s observations. Derrida looks at aspects of the way that a mind is influenced with evolving technology. He asks if the evolution of archival technology has affected the way we think, and if the new advances in technology have been resisted? Has the mind been better represented? Or, has the essence of memory and archive essentially changed beyond the Freudian “mystic writing pad”? Does an entirely different logic need to be applied in this new era?
Derrida has written about how these technological advances may have affected the human psyche in “Prosthetics of the inside”. Bates points to this debate not being a new one and mention is made of Walter Benjamin and Siefried Kracauer’s work in the 1930’s.
Bates cites Jaques Le Goff in his article. He speaks about observations Le Goff made about the pre and post French Revolution museum and library archives. In post French Revolution, the politics of curation led to documentary accounts being destroyed; it could be deemed as having been deleted from the national collective memory. If the collective nation doesn’t remember, then it didn’t happen?
This leads to Bates questioning how photography affect the archive of national memory? Especially in the digital age/ WWW. age? Bates tells us that Le Goff suggests that collective memory is democratised. I suppose that the medium is now so easy to share that it is much harder for a handful of curators to control collective memory alone. We have become our own curators; therefore is seems that technology has allowed collective memory to be democratised according to Le Goff.
Le Goff also considers the official role of a portrait that is presented in the way that shows the viewer what they want it to show – eliminating hidden truths. An heirloom is created and natural social order is reinforce via family archives. Group photographs present evidence of unity; or is it a show of enforced unity? Portraits serve in the same way as a monument that is a reassuring memorial to the past.
Many have since reinforced this notion that the family archive is not ‘neutral’. Issues of patriarchal and matriarchal representations etc. lend itself to other narratives that lie somewhere beneath the ink of a print . Richard Billingham and Nan Golding look at this within their own practices. What is the reality of the represented ‘truths’?
Bates mentions Pierre Bourdieu, who questions the similarities of family archives to that of wider photography produced by the media, the state, the arts and social groups. These too can be considered monuments of the past. The discourse of collective memory and what is included and not included is therefore extended further. Derrida is again referred to his point that archives don’t just serve us to remember the past but they also influence the future via responses to the imagery and this can be seen throughout the history of art.
Bate’s concludes that photography is so important because it can record other mnemnic devices in one frame – a ‘meta-archive’. .
In this part of this paper considers William Henry Talbot Fox’s observations of the meta-archive. With the advent of photography, everything could be archived. The photograph archive could also be photographed.
Bates mentions Fox’s book, ”The Pencil of Nature”. Fox photographed objects and noted photography’s use in supplying an inventory. He also considered when spaces became places as defined by the placement of monuments. A photograph served as a memory of these places.
Bates contradicts Michael Foucault’s complaint in ‘Film and Popular Memory’. Bates considers that the post digital age is not too different to that of the pre digital age. This is insofar as the camera as a mnemic device doesn’t encourage the ‘psyche of identity’ to be influenced by a historic photographs, anymore than any other pre dating mnemic device already had.
The debate of ‘truths’ within a photograph is a common debate – a photograph or an archive can only be considered a partial truth at best. A big question mark remains over the influence of ‘partial truths’ of a photograph and the reality of ‘actual experience’ and ‘facts’.
Bates goes back to Freud to explain the nature of memory. In childhood, apparently early memories aren’t to be trusted. Misremembering is a common theme through life and it will be interesting to further read Freud’s theories in this area. Freud suggests that the loss of past memories is the minds way of screening out events that the mind doesn’t want to remember. Roland Barthes talks about the punctum of a photograph being the involuntary reaction we get when we see a photograph. It affects us, but the reason isn’t clear. Barthes suggests that this punctum is the device that pokes at our long forgotten life events/ experiences that lay deep within our psyche. He goes on to explain a chain of life experiences / memories that contributed to his involuntary reaction when he first Fox’s photograph of Nelson’s Column.
Talbot’s photograph of Trafalgar Square is spoken about at length as an illustration of Freud and Barthes’s theory. The only added consideration is what else has been included in the photograph. Fox’s photograph isn’t just an archive record of a monument placed for the collective memory of the nation. Also within the frame is a conflicting narrative of contemporary life of the time in the form of posters situated in the foreground. The inclusion of this element of social commentary illustrates the discourse of truths within a photograph. So, it seems that a photograph is many things that can influence collective history and personal history.
“ As composite formations, photographs, like childhood memories, have a sharpness and innocence that belie meanings that have far more potential significance that is often attributed to them, which means that in terms of history and memory, photographs demanded analysis rather that hypnotic reverie.”
Further ongoing reading: