Friday, October 21, 2016

Memory and (Southern) Photography

Since memory is an important part of Southern culture and cultural identity, the recent essay by Teju Cole in the New York Times, entitled "Memories of Things Unseen," might be of interest to some of us. 

Cole makes the argument that "Photography is inescapably a memorial art. It selects, out of the flow of time, a moment to be preserved, with the moments before and after falling away like sheer cliffs."

"At a dinner party earlier this year,"Cole goes on, "I was in conversation with someone who asked me to define photography. I suggested that it is about retention: not only the ability to make an image directly out of the interaction between light and the tangible world, but also the possibility of saving that image."

Cole uses examples to argue his case for photography as chiefly about memory that are drawn from the world of painting. 

He offers us photographs of paintings that have since been destroyed, so that, as he puts it, "when the photograph outlives the body — when people die, scenes change, trees grow or are chopped down — it becomes a memorial."

Cole goes on: "[W]hen the thing photographed is a work of art or architecture that has been destroyed, this effect is amplified even further. 

"A painting, sculpture or temple, as a record of both human skill and emotion, is already a site of memory; when its only remaining trace is a photograph, that photograph becomes a memorial to a memory. 

"Such a photograph is shadowed by its vanished ancestor."

The relationship between the photograph and its subject is worth pondering, especially when the subject is no longer available to our sight. 

But the problem with broad generalizations, especially when they are strongly argued, is of course that one wants to think of counter-examples. 

And so I immediately thought of the work of Canadian photographer Jeff Wall (see image above), whose practice is to make photographs that look documentary, but in fact are photographs of staged events.

So if the event never happened that appears to have happened, in the photograph, how can it serve as a memorial of anything? 

Your thoughts?


  1. If you're making work that never really happened (instead, staged), but that looks documentary-- I would say that you are simply photographing (staging) what's in your visual memory, or what you have, in fact, experienced yourself at some point-- so that work does originate from an individual and, possibly, collective memory-- since they resonate with us on some level-- so that's a memorial to what once was, or what you imagined it to be.

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