Category Archives: Reading


G. Hughes . Game Face :Douglas Huebler and the Voiding of Photographic Portraiture

Variable Piece # 101 by Douglas Huebler consists of 10 portraits of Bernd Becher , a German photographer , accompanied by a written statement.

Becher was required to portray the following persona in this order :

– A priest
– A criminal.
– A lover
– An old man
– A policeman
– An artist
– Bernard Becher
– A philosophiser
– A spy
– A nice guy

Huebler returned the images to Becher two months later but the photographs were sent out of sequence to the originals. Becher was then asked to remember and “make the ‘correct’ associations with the given verbal terms” (Hughes ,pp. 53) .

Becher’s statement is as follows

– Bernard Becher
– Nice guy
– Spy
– Old man
– Artist
– Policeman
– Priest
– Philosopher
– Criminal
– Lover


‘Words and image combine, one playing off the other ‘ (pp. 53) highlighting the difficulty of determining the truth of the relationship between the two.

Two widely circulated catalogues of the work were published :

1992-93 —a retrospective exhibition held in Limoges , France.
In the catalogue Becher’s selection appear to correlate with the numbers on the photographs and appear to be accurate and well reasoned representations of the various characters. ‘Word and image seem to dovetail neatly as photography captures its types’ (Hughes, pp.53) . However whilst both the original and Becher’s statements were included Huebler does not indicate which of the two lists corresponds to the images shown in the catalogue.

1995-96 Reconsidering the Object of Art , Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art
Whilst the images were numbered in the Limoges catalogue they were left unnumbered and ‘worse still , the first and third photograph in each of the series is different , appearing in one catalogue but not the other’ (pp. 54) . However whilst the statement was unchanged it was impossible to link words with image hence ‘two forms of information–text and photograph– confuse and conceal rather than affirm and disclose’ (pp.54).

Hughes describes Huebler’s Variable Piece # 101 as a ‘critique of two very different forms of photography’ ( pp. 55) — Becher’s typological studies of industrial buildings and structures to that of photographers such as Richard Avedon , Diane Arbus and Bruce Davidson. The 10 portraits of Becher are presented in a grid seen ‘as the representative figure and form of a rational , systematic approach to photography’ (pp. 55) whilst the contorted facial expressions ‘signal a form of photography that is the polar opposite of the Becher’s ‘ (pp. 55) . Both forms of photography ‘are voided in Huebler’s photographic portraits’ (pp.55). Huebler’s portraits mimic Becher’s objective style of photography , ‘these multiple images of Becher make evident the precise aspects of photographic portraiture negated by the Becher’s : the reliance on text as a means to determine identity’ (pp.63) .

Mixing the chronological order of viewing is something Huebler makes use of ” I have always scrambled my photographic representations so that ‘time’ would not be read through a series of sequential events ” (Hughes ,pp. 56) ‘Across the surface of Becher’s face we see the signs of his assumed character-types cleaved from their referents. Unable to match word to image, we see in Becher’s caricature the constitutive illiteracy of the physiognomic face’ ( pp.61) Hughes suggests a ‘photographic portrait functions in a manner exactly opposite to photography’s innate material function of fixing and preserving’ (pp. 61) .

‘Reflecting the Becher’s photographic technique back onto Becher himself , Huebler not only foregrounds the Bechers’ critique of physiognomic photography , he also makes explicit the Bechers’ polemic engagement with—-the “new objectivity” –of August Sander’s photographic portraiture’ (pp. 63) . Between 1910 and 1934 Sander travelled across Germany with the aim of chronicling modern German society through posed portraits of a broad spectrum of its citizens. ‘In its attempt to structure the social face of Weimar , Sander’s project neccesitated an archival will to truth , objectivity , and comprehensiveness through a suppression of individual style’ (pp. 66) .

Sander’s seven categories were intended to catalogue archetypical shared human characteristics

– The Farmer
– The Skilled Tradesman
– The Woman
– Classes and Professions
– The Artists
– The City
– The Last People.

Each of the seven categories included subjects with representative similarities. Within each category both the bricklayer and industrialists share the status of Skilled Tradesmen. The final group , The Last People included within its category the elderly, those with disabilities (physical and mental ) , the homeless , beggars etc , the most vulnerable section of society. Sander’s intention was for the portraits to objectively depict archetypical shared human characteristics.

Hughes notes ‘Becher sardonically performs for Huebler’s camera—Sander’s physiognomically based photographic portraiture’ (pp. 66)

Variable piece # 101 voids Sander’s typological categories as Becher makes faces for the camera –faces that can never be properly aligned with their descriptive type’ (pp. 66) . It additionally breaks down the tacit connection ‘between text and photograph opening an abyss between Becher’s identity and representation’ (pp. 68) . Furthermore Huebler never reveals the correct correlation between text and image hence without this information ‘like Becher we can only guess who is who , never knowing when we are right and when we are wrong’ (pp.69).

Bibliography / References

Hughes, G.. (2007). Game Face: Douglas Huebler and the Voiding of Photographic Portraiture. Art Journal, Volume 66 , No 4 Winter , 2007, pp. 52–69.

Accessed 26/4/16

Reading : Snapshots by Geoffrey Batchen

Geoffrey Batchen discusses the limited availability of written history about snapshot photography as a genre and the reasons why . He notes ‘modernist art historical discourse , with its narrow emphasis on avant-garde practice and aesthetics remained the the dominant way of talking about photography’s history throughout the twentieth century’ (p.g 125 ) .He continues that the majority of snapshots are tedious and dull and discusses the difficulty of making a hypothesis due to the proliferation of snapshot imagery , what to leave out , what is important.

He speculates as to why we take so many family photographs , what can we make of them retrospectively and why our own snapshots are so moving . Batchen suggests we feel compelled into taking copious amounts of photographs because snapshots are capable of conjuring up the past , ‘ a trace that both confirms the reality of existence and remembers it’ The snapshot outlives the original subject to evolve into a treasured ‘talisman’ . Furthermore they ‘might also be regarded as a collective declaration of faith in the midst of an increasingly secular world’ (p.g 135) .

He also proposes due to their lack of artistic merit this ‘shifts the burden of imaginative thought from the artist and subject , where historians usually seek it , to the viewer , who is invited by such pictures to see much more than meets the eye’ (p.g 134) . A photograph of a cherished person ‘conjures how they were then and how I am now , in the same all-encompassing look’ (p.g 134).

Snapshots are rarely included in customary histories of photography because they are ‘cloyingly sentimental in content and repetitively uncreative as pictures , having little value in the marketplace of either ideas or commodities. For all these reasons , they don’t easily fit into a historical narrative still anxiously , insecurely , focused on originality , innovation , and individualism ‘ ( p.g 123) . However Batchen suggests turning this idea of family snapshots on its head and viewing it from another angle ,’family photographs challenge us to find another way of talking about photography’ ( p.g 124) and to do that the standard principles for writing histories of photography need to be reconsidered. He points out that even though the majority of images ‘are about conformity , not innovation or subversion’ (p.g 125) if carefully examined , despite the similarities of pose , they are also not quite the same.

He discusses the problem of writing a history about a medium that ‘escapes easy definition , has no discernible boundaries , and operates on the principle of reflection’ (p.g 126) . Only a carefully chosen small number of images fit the requirements to be included in an art history of photography , histories that frequently commemorate ‘singular achievements and their moment of origins , so that even objects having multiple manifestations and meanings are treated as unique and individual events’ ( p.g 125) . This practice diminishes the unique features of photography that have become part of modern society. Batchen states ‘the problem I have with our existing , standard histories of photography is not just the matter of content ( of what’s included or excluded from that history ) . My concern is with the mode of historical discourse itself , and with the conceptual infrastructure on which this history is built’ ( p.g 126) .

However change is taking place ‘evidenced by the publications of a new generation of interdisciplinary scholars who take for granted that photography is predominately a vernacular practice and has always been a global experience’ (p.g 126) . Batchen considers the role of visual culture methodology , and how this in turn has motivated him to investigate

– The significance of the owner not the creator
– The response of the owner

Rather than the study of individual photographers visual culture has stimulated explorations of different genres of photography and practice. However ,as Batchen points out , it is not without its critics because of what is considered ‘its affinity with “anthropological discourse” and therefore with an analytical relativism that erases cultural and temporal specificities’ ( p.g 127)

The conundrum for Batchen is ‘what would a representative sample of snapshots look like, anyway , and how would one go about choosing it ?’ (p.g 129). The popularity of vernacular photography and the snapshot has become increasingly commonplace. Batchen suggests this could be due to their historical relevance in a digital age, ‘the advent of digital technologies means that this kind of photography has now taken on an extra memorial role’ which ‘suffuses snapshots with the aesthetic appeal of a seductive melancholy , whatever their actual age or the particularities of their subject matter’ (p.g 130) . As well as their status as an aide mémoire snapshots are also documents , they record private and communal histories . He further discusses their role in the history of photography , how images provide ‘a social history of the snapshot itself….tracing the founding of the Eastman Kodak company in 1888 (p.g 130) which , as noted in my 4th assignment , used clever marketing that emphasised the ease of use of its cameras and their ability to freeze time.

Batchen discusses two publications:

1. Snapshots:The Photography of Everyday Life , 1888 to the present. Distributed by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1998
2.Other Pictures , published in 2000 simultaneously with an exhibition snapshots provided from a collection belonging to Thomas Walther in New York , at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Both collections were exhibited in non-chronlogical order with minimum written information. Seen out of context Batchen concedes ‘ these pictures do become precious , even extraordinary’ (p.g 130 ) but contends they tell us little about the snapshot as a socio- cultural event . From the large number of available snapshot images only a comparatively few were chosen, Batchen comments that they are in fact simply an accolade ‘to the sharp eye of their collector/curator’ (p.g 131) that helps perpetuate the influence of art history on photography.

The National Gallery of Washington’s exhibition publication in 2007 is considered by Batchen to be ‘the best publication on the snapshot that has been produced to date’ (p.g 131) containing a written social history. Yet he feels this too falls short because the ‘exhibition and book are based on one private collection’ (p.g 131) . Owned by a trained art historian they were chosen because of their inventive and unique qualities, hardly representative of the more usual boring features associated with snapshot photography, ‘but the National Gallery of Art is not going to mount an exhibition devoted to boring pictures and is therefore constitutionally unable to present a representative history of the snapshot’ ( p.g 132) . A representative history of the visual culture of photography has to acknowledge and account for boredom and ubiquity , the medium’s most abiding visual qualities.

One such publication Close to Home : An American Album is described by Batchen as ‘not very compelling to look at ——these particular snapshots do look very much like the ones in my own shoebox;that is , they look like pictures of nothing much’ (p.g 132) . The publication by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles contains both colour and b&w images presented out of context and printed at different sizes that ‘it is argued , restores the creative exchange between viewer and photograph that has been otherwise lost in the transfer from family achieve to art book’ (p.g 132) . Batchen acknowledges that viewing snapshots out of context enables you to evaluate more minor details and consider how the images are cropped and composed ‘allowing these books to successfully turn a private act into a public art. But this process also happens to be a convenient way for each of these publications to avoid having to address itself to the specific character of the snapshot as a genre of photography’ (p.g 133) .

Two interconnecting qualities are identified by Batchen as specifically characteristic of snapshot photography.

– Snapshots are formulaic / traditional
– Despite these qualities they ‘are capable of inducing a photographic experience that can be intensely individual , sometimes even painful’

Paradoxically we ‘can’t live without ‘ our boring photographs , objects that can make us ‘both laugh and cry’ . Therefore Batchen remarks any academic research of snapshot photography means ‘ having to consider the snapshot photograph as both a complex social device and a personal talisman , rather than simply as a static art object’ ( p.g 133) .

The photographs below are included in the body of the essay , ordinary family snapshots that belong to an approximately 500 strong collection donated by art dealer and gallery owner Frank Maresca to Newark Museum.

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Batchen points out the shared characteristics.

– Taken by family or friends with the sole purpose of making a keepsake using a non-professional camera
– They contain a blend of comedy ‘and unrehearsed intimacy with a formality borrowed from a professional studio tradition’ (p.g 133)
– Subject , mainly always a person , usually looks straight into the camera and is centrally framed ‘well aware that they are posing for posterity’s sake’ (p.g 133)

Despite their anonymity and because ‘this is an experience we have all shared ‘(p.g 133) we are able to visualise the sequence of events leading to the taking of the photograph. Batchen points out earlier in the essay that despite the comparability between the conventional snapshots there are noticeable but modest differences. They are indistinguishable but at the same time distinct or as Batchen succinctly describes them they are ‘odes to conformist individualism ‘ (p.g 133)

The Maresca Collection see Here includes images that have been damaged , creased or showing signs of wear and tear , a reminder the snapshots have been ‘regularly touched by their original owners’ (p.g 134) . They could possibly be easily reproduced yet are quite individual and frequently placed in albums , which are ‘ a vehicle for storytelling, often conveying a bio-epic starring the maker of the album’ (p.g 135). Idealised narratives are told , it is rare for hostilities or sad moments to be included . Snapshots are frequently seen out of context in art publications but Batchen believes ‘the relationship of one photograph to the next is a crucial element’ (p.g 135) , one needed to compile a theoretical knowledge of vernacular photography.

Photographs are not only physical objects they also trigger speech, ‘the subjects of these snapshots were once named aloud , talked over , jokes about , libelled and ridiculed , reinterpreted and contested in oral exchange. Snapshots were rarely contemplated in respectful silence and nor should they be now’ (p.g 135).However time passes and Batchen ponders ‘what is a snapshot when it has been rendered mute…..we are left with only its husk , with just the prompt itself ?’ (p.g 135) , what can be revealed and what do they tell us? Personal and family photographs are amongst our most treasured possessions , ‘often said to be the thing we would rescue from a burning building’ (p.g 136 ) . Yet as Batchen rightly comments they are seldom glanced at and ‘almost always framed by inventive reminiscence and mixed emotions’ (p.g 136) . Paradoxically although we have a need to posses them it is not imperative that they be looked at. I very rarely get my boxes of family photographs out of the cupboards where they spend most of the time , out of sight but not forgotten , I would be devastated if they were destroyed.

Batchen discusses Pierre Bordeau’s sociological research into family photography.
Bourdieu notes the following

– Family snapshots are taken with a variety of cameras
– The images taken by each individual camera can be diverse

Bourdieu picks out the fundamental trait of our affinity with snapshots , which he likens to ‘fetish objects’ (p.g 136). ‘What makes a snapshot a snapshot is its function , not its pictorial qualities’, its purpose ‘is determined by the network of social relationships of which it is part’ (p.g 135). They have the ability to reincarnate our ancestors.

Nb. From some earlier notes/reading:David Bate :The Memory of Photography
Bourdieu considered ‘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 ” ( Bate p.g 246-8).

‘The irony is that we take photographs in order to deny the possibility of death , to stop time in its tracks and us with it. But that very same photograph , by placing us indisputably in the past , is ;itself a kind of mini-death sentence , a prediction of our ultimate demise at some future time. It certifies times past and time’s inevitable passing ‘ (p.g 136) . Roland Barthes explores his emotional response to his mother’s death in the book Camera Lucida and Batchen points out that ‘this influential essay -part autobiographical novel , part philosophical rumination -is also an account of photography in which the snapshot experience is , for once , given a central role. The book which Batchen describes as containing prudently chosen pictures and a non-chronoligcal complex format ‘ offers an historical view of photography that is deliberately structured like a photograph. In short , the book seeks to tell us certain things about photography by itself becoming photographic , by giving us a specifically photographic experience ‘ (p.g 136).

But it’s how Barthes chooses to talk about this experience that is worth noting, because as Batchen points out ’emphasising with the grief stricken author , we find ourselves crying over a photograph that isn’t even there’ ( Batchen , 2013, p.g 43) . The empty space allows the reader to substitute the missing image with ‘their own snapshot of a loved one’ (p.g 137) . Barthes , unlike the alternative snapshot histories Batchen discusses , requires ‘that we do that work for him in our mind’s eye’ (p.g 137) .

Batchen concludes that successful study of the snapshot is not attainable using conventional art history research techniques. He considers the use of Camera Lucida to be a plausible alternative model to follow , one that uses ‘ a back and forth between whatever orphaned examples of snapshot culture we encounter in the world and our own prized photographic reliquaries , between cliche and sublimity , sameness and difference , truth and fiction , public and private , infinity and zero , without letting either term ever rest on its laurels’ (p.g 137) . The variable and inconsistent qualities of snapshots need to be considered in order to write a rational history about them as a genre of photography.

References / Bibliography

Geoffrey Batchen
Published online 18 Sept 2008.
Geoffrey Batchen (2008) SNAPSHOTS, Photographies, 1:2, 121-142, DOI:10.1080/17540760802284398
Batchen , G.  (2013)  “The Great Unknown” . In Burbridge , B & Davies , C (eds.) Issue 20  Family Politics , Photoworks Annual . Brighton England , pp. 42-47.
David Bate (2010) The Memory of Photography, Photographies, 3:2, 243-257, DOI:10.1080/17540763.2010.499609


My tutor suggested I might find some useful ideas if I read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

Chapter 11 : Memes the new replicators discusses Dawkins thoughts on cultural transmission.

Memes: an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.

Meme’s are cultural not genetic , ideas , songs , stories etc invariably alter in each re-telling (rather like Chinese whispers). Each snippet of information is a meme and, however slightly , each eventually become a modified version of the previous meme, which in turn has implications for the use of photography as an aide-mémoire.

Keith’s own visual exploration of Victorian Memes can be seen here

The images of significant spaces /places commemorate the lives of Victorian benefactors who lived in Southport whom ( obviously) are no longer living. Keith’s images re-create and represent the stories left behind.

Dawkins, R. (1989) The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.

All Accessed 28/12/15
Accessed 6/12/15
Accessed 6/12/15

Reading / Research : Memory , Photography , Ireland by Timothy O’Grady

Some brief notes about Memory , Photography , Ireland by Timothy O’Grady , suggested by my tutor.

O’Grady compares photography to a conjuring trick : it allows us to see things we cannot usually see and halts time.

‘Both memory and photography in their way defy how we usually experience time and space–time as inexorable , space as irreducible ‘ (O’Grady, p.g 255 )

A photograph can evoke a range of responses , feelings and impressions:

An image and the intuitions one gets looking at it are linked to memory.

The combination of photograph and impression form a memory but even though memory is capable of merging past and present , it can re-enact these impressions , because of the nature of memory and how it functions , these reconstructions may be flawed.

(NB : See Bate’s essay The Memory of Photography –memory traces / screen memory / photographs as artificial memories + Freud -memory -although we have the ability to recollect what is remembered may not be totally accurate )

Photographs are objects , mementos , tokens , memorials , testimonies.

Photographs are believed to verify events but ‘they can instantaneously upend long-held certainties ‘ O’Grady describes three photographs of his father and realises he knowns nothing about the man in the images ‘ they suggest a life I cannot know’ (O’Grady , 2006 , p.g 255) . I have many photographs of my dad , I too realise I know so little about his earlier life this is something I might investigate in my final assignment.

The essay continues to discuss Irish culture and politics , how ideas are passed on , the formation of national identity and memory .

O’Grady considers the use of words and images , how it is ‘generally intended that one will provide what the other is lacking’ . Words are meant to make an image transparent , a photograph embellish and enrich the text , but as O’Grady comments ‘the result can be a lie’ (O’Grady , 2006 , p.g 260) .

He proceeds with a description of his book , made in collaboration with photographer Steven Pyke , I Could Reach the Sky . A novel about migration and memory ( personal and national ) , a life remembered in words and pictures both of which are unique yet work together , like ‘memory and forgetting’ (O’Grady , 2006 , p.g 261) . I have ordered a copy of the book tonight to add to my ever growing pile of books to read ! It will interesting to see the connotations of the images and how they relate to the prose. I shall do a write up when I have read the book , it’s only a slim volume so hopefully won’t take me too long.

References / Bibliography

Timothy O’Grady (2006) Memory, Photography, Ireland, Irish Studies Review, 14:2, 255-262, DOI: 10.1080/09670880600603729
Accessed 10/12/15

Accessed 12/12/15

Reading / Research : Barthes , Camera Lucida & The missing photograph

Despite having read Camera Lucida a couple of times it was only whilst reading an article by Geoffrey Batchen in Photoworks that I began to think more about the significance of the missing ‘Winter Garden Photograph’ : an image described so eloquently by Barthes but not printed in the book. Reading Camera Lucida moved me to tears and as Batchen points out ’emphasising with the grief stricken author , we find ourselves crying over a photograph that isn’t even there’ ( Batchen , 2013, p.g 43) .

Interestingly Margaret Olin conjectures ‘ the famous Winter Garden Photograph of Barthes’s mother never even existed ‘ (Batchen , 2013 p.g 43) In his book A Short History of Photography Walter Benjamin describes a photograph of Frank Kafka also standing in a winter garden , a book ‘which Barthes would have read’ (Batchen, 2013 p.g 43) . Olin proposes Barthes’s ‘Winter Garden’ image of his mother is derived from Benjamin’s description of Kafka ‘ a writers creative invention’ and ‘is ,by means of mental slippage , a stand-in’ (Batchen, 2013 p.g 43) . In Bate’s essay The Memory of Photography he considers the function of a photograph as an “empty shell” and how ‘the image is used as a space , a location for memory-traces’ (Bate , p.g 254) . Did Barthes replace the image of Kafka with a (? non-existent) photograph of his mother?

Indexicality is especially important in photography because a photograph is believed to contain ‘notions of truth and reality that arise simply because of the chosen medium itself , regardless of its function and intention’ (Short, 2011, pg. 124). Olin comments ‘to the reader of Camera Lucida it should matter little whether it existed or not. The fictional truth of the unseen Winter Garden Photograph is powerful enough to survive its possible non-existence’. However she continues ‘ but the fact that it does matter has consequences for any theory of photographic indexicality. To raise the possibility that these images do not exist and to realise how little their existence matters is to cast this concept into question. The fact that something is in front of the camera matters; what that something was does not . What matters is displaced’ (Olin , 2002 ,p.g 112)

Bate’s essay rather than speculating “what is missing or what cannot be seen in a photograph” considers the nature of photography as a mnemonic referring to Camera Lucida and the contrast between voluntary and what Proust described as “involuntary memory”. As the grieving Barthes’s searched through pictures of his mother ‘looking for the truth of the face I had loved’ (Barthes , 2000 ,p.g 67 ) he describes how a single image evoked an unconscious and private response. The ‘Winter Garden Photograph‘ Barthes comments ‘for once gave me a sentiment as certain as remembrance , just as Proust experienced it one day when , leaning to take his boots off , there suddenly came to him his grandmother’s true face , “whose living reality I was experiencing for the first time , in an involuntary and complete memory” ‘ (Bathes , 2000 , p.g 7 ) .

Bate discusses the function of a photograph as a screen memory but what can an unseen image reveal to the reader of Camera Lucida ? Barthes acknowledges his reaction to the photograph is unique ‘ it exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture …….at most it would interest your studium ; period, clothes , photogeny ; but in it, for you no , wound’ ( Barthes , 2000,p.g 73).
Batchen believes ‘ it’s a brilliant rhetorical manoeuvre , inviting every reader to project their own image of a lost loved one into the void at the heart of his text’ (Batchen , 2013 ,p.g 43) .

Whether the ‘Winter Garden Photograph’ existed or not is irrelevant to me. Camera Lucida was a huge influence when I was working towards my 2nd assignment ( see here ) and reading Batchen’s hypothesis agree with his theory. I was able to ‘read’ an unseen image’, use it as an aide-mémoire , empathised with Barthes’s pain , and used this as a platform from which to continue my own exploration of loss , time and memory.

References / Bibliography
Barthes , R (2000) Camera Lucida . London: Vintage

Batchen , G. (2013) “The Great Unknown” . In Burbridge , B & Davies , C (eds.) Issue 20 Family Politics , Photoworks Annual . Brighton England , pp. 42-47.

David Bate (2010) The Memory of Photography, Photographies, 3:2, 243-257, DOI: 10.1080/17540763.2010.499609

Margaret Olin (2002) Touching Photographs: Roland Barthes’s “Mistaken” Identification : Representations, No. 80 (Autumn, 2002), pp. 99-118 Published by: University of California Press

Short , M. (2011) Creative Photography:Context and Narrative. Lausanne : Ava Publishing.
Accessed 9/7/15 & 26/11/15
Accessed 26/11/15

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

Old abandoned photo’s #2 : Billy the Kid

I read an interesting article about a photograph that has been authenticated to be an original tintype of Billy the Kid dated to 1878. A junk shop find costing $2 it has been valued at up to $5million ! What a fantastic find , and I think demonstrates just how precious ( not in the monetary sense) prints such as this are and more importantly provide a physical link/reminder to the past.

I cannot imagine the abandoned photographs I rescued from a shop (see previous post) are worth such a monetary fortune but that does not reduce their value to me .

Link here

Accessed 13/10/15