Monday, 16 July 2012

On Places, Photographs, and Memory

Recently I visited a place that I knew intimately in childhood, a waterfall with cliffs on both sides and a pool of cold water below. We used to jump from those cliffs despite our parents' concerns and a posted sign that read, "Warning: accidents may result in serious injury or death."

I loved this place, and revisiting it I am amazed by all that I can remember. Bends in trails, sap stains on bark, crooks in branches, the intricate web of root structures, the shape of trees - all are startlingly unchanged and I remember them precisely. A small tree is in the middle of the trail. I put my hand on it for support and drops of moisture fall on my back from above, and I realize: I have done this before. I remember the sensation precisely, the sound of rustling leaves above, the freshness of the smell, the temperature of the droplets, the mixture of apprehension and pleasure. Standing on a rock ledge getting ready to jump, I reach for a handhold so I can lean over the edge and prepare myself for what I am about to do. The shape of the rock where my hand touches it is known to me: I have performed this ritual.

Places hold memories better than people and better than photographs. Family, or people from our past who may remind us of events in our lives and with whom we may reminisce, are themselves constantly changing, as is their version of events.  Conversations with others about shared experiences of the past can seem to augment memory but quite often, more often then we probably realize, they operate in the opposite way: they alter or even replace our own memories with those of another. Whatever the event, one's memory of it is inevitably altered through conversation; recalling the same event at a later date, it becomes difficult or impossible to distinguish an original memory from the altered version that emerged.

Photographs act on us in a similar fashion. Whatever their apparent precision or correctness, photographs inaccurately reflect experience from the start. They convert the three dimensions of space into two and eliminate, or at best encode- as Flusser suggests- the third spatial dimension and time. Also sacrificed are smell, touch, sound, and context.  In a word, a photograph is an abstraction of experience. Yet we take them compulsively. We fill scrapbooks and hard drives with family outings, vacations, ballgames - Scotty in front of Niagara Falls, dad and grandma smiling in front of the famous restaurant- in the hope of friezing time, making experience tangible for future reference, preserving memory. I do it, too.  But it is well to realize that photographs do not preserve memory, they replacememory. Just as photographs are an abstraction of experience, they are even more so an abstraction of memory - a dangerously compelling abstraction.  Memories are fragile and impressionable. They cannot hold up against the seemingly irrefutable factuality of a photograph. It isn't that what is in a photograph is false: a photograph's version of events did happen, what is in a picture did indeed pass before the lens. The problem is that photographs only tell such a small part of any story.  And while they may be technically correct, nonetheless they deceive.  Does a smile in a photograph mean that a person is happy?  Or does it mean that a photographer prodded, "look up and smile"?  Was the fish I caught really bigger than my uncle's, or did I cleverly, intentionally hold mine closer to the lens? Photographs deceive in another respect.  Whatever the event one wishes to preserve, snapshots are most commonly a break from that event. The moment that a photograph is taken is experienced as a moment taking a photograph, not as a moment engaged in the activity implied by the resulting image.  Time taken to make photographs is time subtracted from the experience of the thing being photographed. What photographs most accurately record, ultimately, is nothing more than the act of photography, itself.

To be sure, photographs can form a record of our lives that has value, and I cherish my old snapshots as much as the next person. But as image-makers and consumers, which all of us are these days, there is also value to be had in a recognition of the limits of photography to the facility of memory - in an understanding of what images can and cannot offer us in this regard. Moreover it is precisely the deceitfulness of photography as it pertains to memory that gives the medium its unique platform to address the nature of memory itself: its malleability, its unreliability, its elusiveness. It seems to me that no conversation or photograph can make memory so vivid or recognizable, so physically palpable, as the return to a place. Such a visit cannot draw conclusions about one's past- perhaps it is the lack of drawing conclusions that makes accuracy possible. But it can with accuracy remind us how we felt. In my case, I was reminded how it felt to be in the body of a twelve year-old boy. And that is perhaps the best that reminiscence has to offer.

Chris Engman (Foam Magazine #24/Talent)


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