David Bate :The Memory of Photography

Some initial brief notes

This was recommended by my tutor but I have found it a difficult and rather challenging read . After reading through it several times I have broken the essay down initially to what I feel are the key points.

I shall be referring back to it frequently as I prepare for Assignment 4 .

I am currently reading a few different books and want to link what I am reading to some of the issues raised by Bate. I shall do another write up when I have completed this.

Bate’s paper investigates “what contribution has photography made to the practice of memory in human culture?”

Photography has always been used as a traditional mechanism to aid memory. Rather than contemplating “what is missing or what cannot be seen in a photograph” he considers the nature of photography as a mnemonic .

(p.g 243)

Bate examines the nature of “memory itself” .

Freud sees a difference between what he terms “Natural memory” and “Artificial Memory” It is impossible to remember everything hence an ‘array of technical devices invented by humans’ are used to aid synthetic memory , of which photography is one.

Bate questions what is the particular ‘impact that photography has had on human memory and the cultures that use it’ collectively and individually ?

Due to the growth of digital technology is this in danger ‘partly because digital databases and artefact-based achieves offer different types of permanence’ ?

French philosopher Jacques Derrida questions ‘what impact technologies have on the physical apparatus’ i.e. memory . The method of archiving ‘affects the inside’ .

(p.g 243-5)

Collective memory

Museums , libraries , monuments , the written word and public archives are all ‘instruments for collective cultural memory’ . Historian Jacques Le Goff believes photography was ‘especially significant for the process of modern collective memory—–it gives it a precision and a truth never before attained in visual memory , and makes it possible to preserve the memory of time ‘

From his sociological research into amateur and family photography Pierre Bourdieu concluded ‘to photograph one’s children is to make oneself the historiographer of their childhood , and to create for them, as a sort of inheritance the image of what they have been….The family album expresses the truth of social remembrance’ . But importantly Bate reminds the reader “the point of view of such family archives is not neutral ”

What constitutes a ‘family’ ?
In his analysis Bate uses the term family in the loosest sense and despite acknowledging his scepticism “about the ‘truth’ of such archives” Bate believes these albums enable ‘specific social groups , perhaps hitherto unrepresented , to find an identity or identification within a specific common visualise memory’ . Family/domestic albums provide a bottom-up history of ordinary lives

Bate extends Bourdieu’s idea of the family album as an aide-memoire , suggesting the following photographic archives of the following institutions be included:
a. The state (police , military , government , local government , scientific and ethnographic archives
b. The media, newspapers , television, photographic libraries / documentary advertising archives.
c.The arts, museums , galleries, public , private and individual archives.
d. independent social groups (political/social/ cultural/economic) archives –he makes an important note that these all ‘form collections as visual memories that often overlap with or even conflict with public media archives’

Bate contends ‘if we follow Bourdieu’s argument about the memorial function of family photographs, are these also all archives that establish ” the truth of social remembrance” , the ” remembrance of events worthy of presentation” , a unifying factor, as monuments of and to the past?’

Bate describes photography as a mechanism to create ‘ a meta archive’ , a ‘photograph has a capacity to incorporate and absorb many other already existing visual memory devices’ for example memorial buildings , the written word etc.

(p.g 246-8)

Talbot’s meta -archive

William Henry Fox Talbot , creator of the first photographic negative , chose specific images for his book The Pencil of Nature which illustrates ‘ the specific capacity of photography to remember or to “memorize” things for us’ . His image here of Nelson’s Column , which was not included in the book , illustrates Goff’s suggestion of how monuments , and photographs of them , can re-shape ‘modern memory ‘ due to ‘the development of public space as literal memory and the photograph itself as memory device’ .
(p.g 249).

Prosthetic Memory

Foucault argues that ‘ people are shown not what they were , but what they must remember having been’ , ‘popular memory’ can be interfered with. Photographs , schooling , ‘popular literature’ can extinguish and be used to alter how and what is remembered . Bate concedes ‘no doubt some of this scepticism about the truth-value of images in archives is quite justified ‘ .

‘Not everyone remembers visually’ . Freud points out that smell , sound and gestures are also memory triggers but is resolute in his belief ‘that childhood memories are primarily visual’ .
(p.g 250-51) .

Mnemic -traces

What is the relationship between innate memory and ‘the function of photographs as “artificial memories” ?

Freud believes our brain ‘ has an unlimited receptive capacity for new perceptions and nevertheless lays down permanent -even though not unalterable -memory-traces of them’. Hence although we have the ability to recollect what is remembered may not be totally accurate.

He identified an inborn structure that organises our sensory memories.

1. The perception-conscious : ‘receives perceptions but retains no permanent trace of them ‘

2. The conscious – preconscious and the unconscious : which retain ‘mnemonic traces’ .
‘Memory , in the everyday sense of the word , is located in the preconscious : memory we call recall at will ( or after a bit of searching) and bring into consciousness’ . These memories are held in what I suppose could be likened to a filing cabinet so we do not get over-engulfed with recollections.The conscious-preconcious is subject to what Freud calls “screen memories” ‘ which are ‘ fixed images from childhood that haunt each individual ‘ yet paradoxically these memories are commonly of inconsequential events whilst significant moments are forgotten.
Freud believes these unimportant memories are ‘actually screens’ which act as a kind of safeguard i.e facilitate the unconscious transfer of an intense emotion from one object to another. Hence ‘the screen memory has the purpose of having one memory within another’ , which
Freud likened to fairy tales , ‘neither true or false , screen memories are still “physical realities ” ——-as such they are more like fantasies about a childhood’ . The mythical stories “can be made use of as screen memories in the same kind of way that empty shells are used as a home by the hermit crab”
(p.g 251-3)

Bate debates how a photograph functions as an “empty shell” and that ‘the image is used as a space , a location for memory-traces’ . Hence a photograph might be thought of as a screen memory . This is an interesting concept , I find when looking at old photographs previously forgotten events or people come to mind that are not directly connected with what is show by the image I am looking at.

Bate refers to Barthes’s Camera Lucida and the contrast between voluntary and what Proust called “involuntary memory”.

The Studium or voluntary memory—the general interest in a photograph , what it shows.

The Punctum or “involuntary memory”—something within the image that transfixes , a personal response , an “ element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow , and pierces me” ( Barthes ,2000 , p.g 26 ) . ‘We look at it more what we “see in it” . It has an effect on us involuntary . If we follow an associative path for the image to our memory it can lead to other memories , even a suppressed memory and , with critical work , an essential repressed memory-trace’ .

‘Voluntary memory is like the work of history , but involuntary memory belongs to person affect. These are both often interwoven in complex ways’

Returning to Jacques Le Goff’s theory that monuments and photographs of them reshape memory Bate discusses Fox Talbot’s image of Nelson’s column under construction. Nelson’s column was built in 1844 , Nelson himself died in 1805 , ‘ he is memorialized retroactively ‘ . ‘The monument to the “memory” of Nelson as a national war hero is built up long after his actual death’ ‘Le Goff states such commemorations bind social memory into a unity and the role of a photograph also functions as a device for social memory ‘ .

Bate contemplates the composition because ‘at the heart of Talbot’s image is not only a “record” of the retroactive remembering of Nelson , whose historical purpose is forming a national identity but also an interpretation of it’.

Bate himself associates Nelson with boyhood trips to see HMS Victory , near Portsmouth where he was brought up , a place he visited regularly and heard sailors’ stories about Nelson’s life and death. He continues ‘the photograph by Talbot of the Nelson monument base and square evoke ,I suggest , a certain remembrance of this childhood scene “involuntary” . ‘ Bate further recounts how whilst reading a novel it made him remember the image , which in turn ‘triggered retroactively a personal memory via a photographic image’.

Bate further comments ‘ my own associations with the photograph belong to a “personal register , one whose interest is displaced via the photograph. One association ( a photograph or Trafalgar Square ) acts as a container for another association ( Nelson’s ship and my childhood) . Thus , as “artificial memory” device a photograph intersects with a “natural memory” in complex ways. It can be said that photographic images do not destroy personal memories , but that they interact with them in very specify ways , which may not always be conscious’

‘With photographs , memory is both fixed and fluid: social and personal.’

(pg. 254 -255 ).

What a difficult article this was to read giving me a lot to consider photography’s function as an aide-mémoire a complex issue.

Barthes , R (2000) Camera Lucida . London: Vintage
David Bate (2010) The Memory of Photography, Photographies, 3:2, 243-257, DOI:10.1080/17540763.2010.499609
Accessed 16/6/15

3 thoughts on “David Bate :The Memory of Photography

  1. Catherine

    There’s so much to absorb in this Judy and I’ve think you’ve done very well to summarise what’s important for you. I’ve started to read Bates’s article but will have to do so very slowly!


  2. Judy Bach Post author

    I have been reading this article since the summer — I kept returning to it and really needed to post my initial thoughts as I would probably have never completed it ! However I am beginning make connections with some the issues raised by Bate as I am researching , I just need to actually write about them . I am behind again –as usual –and finding it difficult to find time & get motivated. It’s the time of year I think , I would rather like to hibernate 🙂
    Hope all is well with you.


  3. Pingback: Reading / Research : Memory , Photography , Ireland by Timothy O’Grady | Judy Bach: Open College of the Arts Documentary Blog

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