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Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance

Does photography stimulate recollections or is it merely a crude substitute for ‘true’ memories? Forget Me Not explored the complex relationship between photography and memory.

Since its invention, photography has always been linked with memory: photographs recall family, friends and special moments, transcending time and space to create an emotional bond between subject and viewer.

Does photography stimulate memory—allowing us to keep alive people or moments that would otherwise just fade away—or is it merely a crude substitute for ‘true’ memories? Forget Me Not explored the complex relationship between photography and memory and showed how people have attempted to enhance photographs by adding words, fabric, embroidery, flowers and even hair.

Selling memories

George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, summed up the company’s enormously successful marketing strategy in a few words: ‘Kodak doesn’t sell film, it sells memories.’ In so doing, he acknowledged the strong link in the public perception between photography and memory. Popular surveys of what people choose to photograph and why regularly ‘discover’ that one of our primary motivations for taking pictures is to preserve family memories. However, is this imperative something that photographic manufacturers have merely responded to? Or is it, rather, something they themselves have created?

The fundamental shift in photography heralded by the introduction of the Kodak camera in 1888 was to have a profound effect on the nature of photographic advertising. As photography became a truly popular activity, the preservation of domestic memories was to become the dominant theme of all photographic advertising. Indeed, capturing personal memories was widely promoted as the raison d’être of snapshot photography. Yet this preoccupation with the mnemonic properties of photography did not appear overnight. There was, rather, a gradual change in focus from photography as a form of leisure to photography as a form of memory. Photography stopped celebrating the present and became, instead, a means of safeguarding the past and protecting against the uncertainties of the future.

Today, we are witnessing another change. The rapid growth and ease in communications means that greater emphasis is now being placed on the ability to capture and view images spontaneously—ephemeral images intended to be enjoyed and then deleted. Instead of being told to ‘Save your happy memories with a Kodak’ we are now expected to ‘Share moments. Share life.’ As we delete these digital images, are we also erasing our memories?

The mirror with a memory

In the 1860s, the American poet and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–94) was one of photography’s most enthusiastic advocates. For Holmes, photography was nothing less than a means of triumphing over time, and, indeed, even over death itself. He wrote: ‘Those whom we love no longer leave us in dying, as they did of old... the unfading artificial retina which has looked upon them retains their impress... How these shadows last, and how their originals fade away!’ Quite clearly, the ‘truthfulness’ and accuracy of the photographic image was a distinct improvement on the vagaries and weaknesses of human memory. It is an assumption that we share today in our enthusiasm, indeed, almost obsession, to capture significant people and events in our lives through photography.

To some commentators, however, the very permanence of the photographic image, while seeming to offer the possibility of a memory that never fades, also threatens to eclipse that original memory and, ultimately, to destroy it. Through repeated viewing, they argue, it is the photographs themselves that become implanted in our memory rather than the people or events that they represent. Photography, instead of being in the service of memory, is actually in the service of forgetting. Implanted images such as these are no more than ‘false memories’, overwhelming the viewer with their potency and usurping the possibility of experiencing true or ‘involuntary’ memory.

Forget me not?

In Marcel Proust’s autobiographical novel Remembrance of Things Past, just one bite of a madeleine is enough to transport the narrator into an extended reverie where he vividly experiences the past as a simultaneous part of the present. The taste of the biscuit is a trigger for ‘involuntary memory’—an immediate, all-embracing, almost physical sensation. Occasionally, we have all experienced such involuntary memories. Usually stimulated by smell, touch or taste rather than by sight, they can stir up extremely powerful emotions. Compared with these, photography, with its frozen, static and unchanging representations of the past, is a very poor memory trigger.

Does a photograph really enable us to remember a person as he really was or an event as it actually happened? Does the sight of someone bring back the sound of her voice, her smell, the way she walked? Can a photograph of a childhood holiday ever bring back the sensation of warm sand slipping between our toes? Images can stimulate memories but memories are not images. They are sensations. As such, they cannot be encompassed within the boundaries of visual representation—photographic or not.

Some have argued that for photography truly to serve the cause of memory, it has to transcend the merely visual and engage the other senses. It has to become something that you can feel as well as see. Since photography’s invention people have responded to this challenge in many different ways in an attempt to overcome time and space and create an emotional bond between subject and viewer. The results are photographs whose memory potential has been enhanced by adding words, fabric, embroidery, flowers and even human hair—extraordinary works of art created by ordinary people.

Forget Me Not was curated by Geoffrey Batchen, Professor of the History of Photography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.