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Photography and Memory

What is it about photography and memory?  Why is the photo album the one thing most people would grab in a fire before running out the door when the house is burning down?

In Sally Mann’s memoir Hold Still, Mann argues that our memory becomes the photograph as it strips away the real memory of the person or event.  She explains this as “Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their memories.”  She uses examples of photographs of her late father to prove her point. She searches through scrapbooks and photo albums, and she finds his likeness in a silver gelatin print in the attic.  She studies the photograph, revealing “I’ve lost any clear idea of what my father looked like, how he moved, sounded; the him-ness of him.  I only have this (photograph).  It isn’t death that stole my father from me; it’s the photograph.”

I would argue that a photograph does not subvert memory.  A camera doesn’t capture the truth, but it does speak of a specific time, place, and details like the warm light of an autumn afternoon.  Mostly, pictures document the physical likeness of a precious face and body and hold it still with a steadfast refusal to age or decay. In Rolahand w photo silo 3nd Barthes classic Camera Lucida, he refers to photographers as “agents of death.” He explains that once the shutter clicks and the moment passes or dies that the picture is committed to a flat surface of death – the photographic print. Barthes searches for an image of his deceased mother that represents her inlife – one that captures her “essence.” Although the photograph he finds is not a shared memory between mother and son, the image he describes captures her explicitly in the way he remembers her gestures and mannerisms.

After a high school friend died, I saw Facebook posts from his daughter requesting that his friends contribute stories and photographs of her father when he was young.  When people obliged, the daughter responded with sincere gratitude, but also curiosity.  It seems as if she was searching for clues into her father’s past as a way to construct a broader view of his life story, and her story as well.  Was she looking for details she never knew of her father?  Maybe his gesture and body language in an unfamiliar photo was a perfect reinforcement of how she perceived him, or perhaps the photo recorded a stranger she didn’t recognize. The pictures either confirmed something she remembered about her father, or it created a mystery of something she did not know.  The scenarios either produced a longing to understand more or conversely, a longing for the past – nostalgia.

I understand now how grief can create a desire for photographs of a beloved, even if the picture was taken by a stranger and in an unfamiliar place in time.  I recently lost my mother and consequently dissected every image of her I found in her house. In fact, I inherited thousands of pictures, over 100 years of our family photographic history. The process of sorting through the imagery and looking at my mother’s life in snapshots, family pictures and school portraits helps me through the process of grieving; by confronting the photographs, I have been able to let go of the heaviness of her passing and cherish the moments we had together.  If my house were burning down, I would grab my external hard drives in my desk drawer and all the photo boxes of my immediate family and my deceased relatives stored in closets and under the stairs, and most likely, die in the fire. I would be taking too much time gathering photos.

Polly Gaillard is a fine art photography, arts writer, and photographic educator. Her website is Follow Polly on instagram and twitter @pollygaillard.