Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Photographic Facts as Memory

Familie samen, from series_and Willem © Willem Popelier

Willem Popelier's project _and Willem
Of all the media at our disposal, photography is the one we tend to rely on the most when remembering our own histories. The strong connection between images and memory is even reflected in our language. For example in the case of something gruesome we had to witness we speak of an image that we will never forget. It seems that for some reason - maybe even because we are hardwired this way - images have special relevance for us.

Substitutes for our memories
It is thus not surprising that photographers themselves use the medium to try to either record their life or to somehow come to terms with it. This need not even have anything to do with the artist's own life - the power of a lot of vernacular photography derives from the fact that photographs are being treated as substitutes for memories, when they are not exactly that. Our imagination will fill all the gaps for us.

If we are looking at photographs of our own past, everything gets quite a bit more complicated. We usually remember at least some things unless the photo was taken when we were too young to remember anything. Since we take photographs as objective objects, we then - either consciously or subconsciously - reconcile what we remember with what we are seeing, with our imagination filling in whatever gaps there might be. When looking at family albums we basically remember what is presented to us. We do not really see it that way, thinking instead that the photographs show us what we remember. But in reality, it is the other way around. Just recall what happens when someone presents you with a photograph from something in the past you had completely forgotten about: After the usually brief moment of initial surprise, you will probably remember what you are seeing.

It gets even more complex when we use (I should be more precise and say when we create) photography as a means to remember. Our long-term memory is very fickle. It certainly does not feel as if it was - we tend to be very certain about what we remember. But we are also aware of all the scientific research that has shown that many things we remember in fact never happened that way.

Carool C, from series _and Willem  
© Willem Popelier

Family photography within an artistic context
There is a significant branch of contemporary photography dedicated to family photography with many different possible interpretations of this type of photography, but clearly at its core lies a desire to remember, to create evidence, personal evidence. But how can one possibly consciously use photography as a means to remember in this context, given that there are so many complex emotions present?

Willem Popelier's solution is straightforward: Just the facts. __ and Willem essentially is a collection of facts, photographic facts. The work chronicles the lives of Willem Popelier and his identical twin brother, who, however, just like various other family members, did not 'grant permission to have their portraits used.' Consequently, their faces and names are obscured in the documentation. The blank space in the title stands for the twin brother.

Willem Popelier's complex documentation
A documentation it is, with a set of distinct parts. If we did not know any better, it could almost be the product of some scientific research. Just the facts. There are portraits of most of the protagonists, a detailed chronology of the family relations, another chronology that combines the portraits and family relations into a series of increasingly complex family trees (which end up looking more like abstract art than anything else), photographs of keys for the various places of residence, scans of correspondence between the protagonists and various authorities (e.g. Magistrate of the Juvenile Court), photographs of objects that belonged to Willem and his twin brother (e.g. birth tiles), and, lastly, reproductions of older snapshots, one must assume taken from family albums. If this sounds like an exhaustive and exhausting collection of material it certainly is.

The first reaction will probably be confusion. There are nineteen people who are part of the extended family network, and apart from the list giving their details, they are all referred to with codes. I wager that apart from the artist and the family itself most people will find it next to impossible to keep track of things. I also wager that even if this effect was not created intentionally, it does serve a very useful purpose.

Familie Willem, from series _and Willem © Willem Popelier

The people, a part of whose lives is chronicled in __ and Willem, have become abstract quantities. They are reduced to ciphers. We do know what some of them look like - the unobscured portraits of eleven of the protagonists are featured in the book - but embedded in what is made to look and feel like scientific research looking at these portraits does not reveal much - if anything. Portrait photography as a ruse: Hey look, I'm showing you a person, and you learn absolutely nothing from looking at the photograph.

The feeling of snapshots
The juxtaposition with the old snapshots makes for a jarring effect. We get to see the very young twins, we see them growing up, at some stage - it is impossible to tell at what age - cream-colour boxes appear on some of the faces again. There clearly is a connection with the portraits, and the boxes obscuring the faces provide us with clues about some of those. But the snapshots feel more real. It is not that they reveal anything other than that which the portraits do, namely nothing at all. But the feeling is there, that we are given more (whatever that more might really be).

Thinking about the differences between the photographs, about why family snapshots feel more real, is a topic for another day. Here, I will just claim that photography derives a lot of its power not from what is there, but from what we think, hope, or feel is there. Photographs on their own have no meanings.

Anna C, from series _and Willem  
© Willem Popelier

Asking rather than answering
For me, the power of __ and Willem ultimately derives from how successfully it frustrates our desire to know more. Popelier presents everything there is, lays it all out on the table, for us to see. We can look and look, but in the end, we do not understand all that much more than before. I love this. I look at photography not for answers, but for questions.

What certainty can we hope to gain from photography? Photographs are real, of course. If you have a print in your hand, an actual object, that is real. But still... what does that trace from your own - or someone else's - past tell you?

There is no need to despair about photography being less certain than it would seem. On the contrary, there is immense promise. If photographs ask us questions they have the power to turn us into different persons - if (and only if!) we let them! That is the promise of photography. We might as well use it to the best of our abilities.

Jörg Colberg (Foam Magazine #20 and #29)

The complete essay can be read in Foam Magazine #25 Traces.


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