Keith Eastwell Fine Art Photography

Resemblance and Echoes ‘The photograph and sensory memory’ (Part 4)

Blog > Resemblance and Echoes ‘The photograph and sensory memory’ (Part 4)
05/03/2015 - 10:49


The Evidence


To look at a photograph is to look at the past, regardless of the technological advancement seen in photography during the last twenty years, even the best 21st century digital marvel lacks a button marked: preview – future. To quote Susan Sontag, “Photographs promote nostalgia”. (Sontag 1979, p. 5). Our sensory memory is offered a signifier, a mental keystone that unlocks a distant memory of past times. In terms of my rephotography and a thirty five year old archive, the affection of childhood is an ever-present emotion steeped in Nostalgia.

A photograph is time stilled. Of time, photographs and memory, Sontag writes: “A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened”. (Sontag 1979, p. 5).  Regardless of its quality, there is the understanding within the viewer that something is or did exist. Regardless of an events importance, the photograph can survive long after the event has ended. Over the course of time, and through social, economic and political change, an event can assume an immortality of its own, while the photograph as an object is raised to the “level of art”. (Sontag 1979, p. 21).

We go on holiday to Paris, stand proudly in front of the Eiffel Tower and are photographed, the picture is paraded as proof it really did happen.

Photography and the photograph is for many of us a rite of passage, photographs mark the success and milestones along a journey from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. A conformation of intent: babies first tooth, the first day at school, the graduation photograph. The passage of time renders the photograph a purely aesthetic object and with little or no providence, open to a multitude of readings. However, if the first day at school photograph happens to be Elvis Presley aged 6, the iconic properties of the photograph replace any other details that were present when the image was taken.8 For Sontag the photograph represented many things: a postcard, a family snap. A forgotten picture in a forgotten album; or something collectable that can be bought and sold. Ultimately, time and the photographs ability to out last, play a large part in shaping our perception of a photograph.


8. For Sontag the amateur photograph can reach the level of art over time. The understanding of a photograph can change through our modern obsession with the celebrity as an example. Despite the reason for its existence being lost, the photographs meaning and our reading of it, is overshadowed by a young Elvis on his way to school.


Importantly and in relation to this research, unlike Roland Barthes, Sontag’s approach lacked close, emotional investment in relation to any specific image.

Roland Barthes Camera Lucida is a book of two halves, the first divides Barthes attention between the photograph as object with examples of himself as subject or, as he invites, the photographs target. Barthes highlights specific aspects, the question of the targets own investment in the image, consciously aware in the process of posing.9 The resulting gesture, not always the classical canvas, but an invisible smugness embalmed for all time, a fractional moment occurring only once, but a moment that can be infinitely reproduced.10 The second part of his book has more relevance here in that he writes of the loss of his mother and his attempt to find her amongst his many photographs of her. (An emotional attachment closer to my own familiarity to similar but less fractious snapshots.) Barthes was speaking of the memory of his mother and reconciling this memory with the many photographs that he felt, did not accurately depict her. As Barthes had already written of his own photographs: “Myself never coincides with my image” (Barthes 2000, p. 12).

Barthes never reveals to the reader, a photograph of his mother. Even after he rediscovers her as a little girl.11 Of the many images, recognition of her came only in fragments, in almost willing the photographs to recall a complete memory. Barthes (2000) The memories inability to recall his mother’s face; now fragmented since her passing compelled him to search his archive of images. Barthes later recalls receiving a photo of himself from a photographer, a photography of which the venue and circumstance of his attendance, he had no recollection. Barthes (2000). 

The emphasis on his mother’s memory and the grieving process seems to support the notion of comfort drawn from the discovery of his mothers “complete memory”. (Barthes 2000, p. 70). However, later he contradicts some of his findings when he writes of the photograph being without future: A photography fills the sight by force: “but it actually blocks memory and quickly becomes a counter memory”. (Barthes 2000, p. 91).


9. Barthes writes of the subject as a target and speaks of consciously preparing to be photographed, as if the experience is somehow unpleasant.

10. Barthes also writes of the resulting image similar to a final death mask, both the photographer and sitter aware of how awkward a bad portrait can be.

11. In searching for a complete image of his mother, despite all the many photographs he has of her, he finds the best likeness for his sensory, emotional psyche in an image of her as a child.


In Time Frames: the meaning of family pictures, Michael Lesy explores the hidden meaning and messages that underpin the family album. In an original approach and after many voice recordings, he captures autobiographical monologues that describe the life dramas of a chosen number of individuals. The key for unlocking these revelatory confessions, are the individuals own family snapshots. Michael Lesy attempts to give meaning to ‘frozen Dreams’ by analyzing the images, in light of an individual’s spontaneous monologue. Lesy also writes of the photographs ability to act as a catalyst for the memory, and indeed goes even further in describing the ordinary snapshots “goad to memory, the first integer in a sequence of recollections”. (Lesy 1980, p. xv).

Lesy would sit with his subjects and go through the family album; they’d go through them quickly at first one after the other, often in silence.

Then, his subject may look at one photograph, and with that one picture they would be back there, their eyes looking straight through him. Wave after wave: recapitulation, conjunction, and revelation. Memories, again and again, it could last for three hours sometimes much longer. Lesy (1980)

Lesy spoke of a photograph, were four rivers of time converged:

(Lesy 1980, p. xvi).

Sontag (1979) wrote that certain images might deepen ones understanding of the past. Bringing together and utilising photographs unique ability to capture interesting events worth photographing. Offering indisputable evidence that “a given thing happened” the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had. (Sontag 1979, p. 5).

Barthes (2000) wrote about the photograph changing the subject into object, this object has an evidential force, but bears not on the object, but on time. Lesy wrote of pictures as lessons of the heart to deny a fear and indulge a hope. But what of the picture takers; how have photographers tackled the issue of time and memory?


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