Photography and the Language of Memory

Photography changed the way that we think of memory by allowing us new conceptual models to use, thus we have terms like “photographic memory” and can think of a memory as a “snapshot” of a time and place that we store in our brains much like a printed photograph in a shoebox. Consider the following from Christopher Isherwood in his novel Goodbye to Berlin, in which he is talking about the way in which he observes life so that he can recall it later in order to write about it:

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite, and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”


Or, take this from Proust:

“…they’re an extraordinary thing to have seen, those Halses. I don’t mind saying that a person who only caught a passing glimpse of them from the top of a tramway-car without stopping, supposing they were hung out to view in the street, would open his eyes pretty wide.’ This utterance shocked me as indicating a misconception of the way in which artistic impressions are formed in our minds, because it seemed to imply that our eye is in that case simply a recording machine which takes instantaneous photographs.”


What van Dijck discusses most in the chapter about photography is how digital photography and associated technologies have opened up new avenues for curating a self-image through pictures.

Cognitive psychologists have investigated the intriguing question of how photographs can influence personal memories. The human mind actively produces visual autobiographical evidence through photographs, but it also modifies this evidence through pictures–cutting off estranged spouses or throwing away depressing images depicting them when they were still seriously overweight.

I would argue that this is complicated and magnified by the social media saturated world that we inhabit today, because now it’s not just the photos in your shoebox you have to personally contend with but your digital archive of photos on Facebook and the like that are public to a whole lot of people to whom you grant access. Photos and their meanings change over time as your life and situation change and they also change depending on the context of who is viewing them. For someone almost at the end of a graduate degree, thinking of moving into the professional world, I feel the need now to curate my online presence a little bit to portray an adult version of myself. Yet I’m still interacting with peers and family members that I want to be able to share silly things with, and at the same time I also want to be myself. Thinking of the way that new people in my life might look through the self-representational collection of photographs makes me think twice about what I want to keep online and what needs to stay on my computer only.


It is important to be straight about one thing: digitization never caused manipulability or artificiality. … Retouching and manipulation have always been inherent to the dynamics of photography. (pg. 105)

This is a good thing to recognize, because of the way that photographs at first seem to be a true, honest portrayal of life captured as it happens, but the reality is oftentimes contrary to this. And what it means for us as we discuss and grapple with first how technologies and media have shaped memory and secondly how this changes in the digital realm is that sometimes the digital piece is the least important. That’s what I felt reading through many sections of Mediated Memory in the Digital Age: the most interesting aspect to me was just the plain old idea of mediated memory and how objects, both digital and analog and of all shapes and sizes and sorts interact with us in our world to facilitate, sabotage, or what have you, our memories: our memories, which indeed make up our past, our autobiographical knowledge and the way we’re situated in the many cultures we are a part of.


The new materiality of digital photographs is often referred to as virtual or intangible, but such denomination erroneously connotes immateriality.

I think that while digital photos and printed pictures are significantly different in terms of their physicality, the basic principles are relatively similar. Both exist; both can be lost or damaged or ruined; both can be shared or kept private; both perform similar functions in terms of memory recall. What is more interesting in this situation is the materiality of any type of photographic image and the power that they hold over us in constructing personal histories.


I interned at the Ann Arbor District Library’s Archive this summer, which holds negatives and newspapers from the Ann Arbor News’ last incarnation, going back to the thirties. You can really see the impact of the switch from analog to digital photography in their holdings: In the thirties, when negatives were big and cost more, there might be one or two photographs taken per news story. We learned that the newspaper during this time was much more selective of who they hired as a photographer back then, because they wanted someone who could get a good shot in one or two takes to keep costs down. However, in the nineties, suddenly there can be literally hundreds of digital photographs taken per news story, and only one or two would eventually be used in the paper. This means that they can worry less about having a star photographer who can snap the perfect shot in one go and just have someone go take a bunch and then pick the best one. Obviously the change from analog to digital photography affects the way photographers work, and I can see this in my own life as well. I normally take multiple pictures of a scene I want to get, “just in case” someone’s closing their eyes or moving or something isn’t right. Back when I had only a film camera, however, I took more time setting up the shot and looking through the viewfinder before snapping away. It was going to cost money to develop the film before I even got to see what they looked like, and I needed to make sure they were going to be worth it. And to complicate it further, nowadays there is a subset of people who still like using film, myself included. But the purpose here is different for everyone. For me, it’s about engaging with something that reminds me of my childhood (film) and makes me feel like I’m part of a community that values the mechanics of film cameras and film development just because it’s an interesting thing that I want to be involved with. It makes me feel connected to the past and to others in the present day. When I take pictures there, I’m interested in precisely everything that can go wrong with film – ooh, the light leaked, there wasn’t enough light, weird shadows, over exposure, multiple frames, etc. So in a way, using old analog technologies in the digital age doesn’t mean that you use them the way people used to – so digital technologies have changed not only the default mode of doing things like taking pictures (which is of course now digital) but also the way that we interact with analog technologies of the past.


Originally, we had planned to include a subsection on this site of “the emotional side of memory.” As we developed our themes, however, it started to seem that memory is pretty much intertwined with emotion and it’s hard to separate the two. How do you feel about that?

I began thinking of a way to distinguish non-emotional mediated memory from emotional mediated memory, and my first thought was courtrooms and interrogations. I was thinking, “well, when you’re interrogating someone you’re trying to get it straight, just the facts, to “prove” something.” Then I thought of how this actually happens, and it’s unbelievably emotional. I thought then of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s TV series which is centered around a murder mystery. During one of the interrogations of a suspect, the agent is asking questions and trying to trigger the subject’s memory, and it’s pretty straightforward and flat. Then he shows a video taken just before the death of the victim, Laura Palmer, and the emotional response in the subject under interrogation is palpable and betrays any concealment he is trying to achieve. Similarly, the agent pulls out one of those half heart necklaces and the emotion is undeniable in the subject.



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