Exercise 3.6: 'The Memory of Photography'

Brief: Read David Bate's essay 'The Memory of Photography'. Extend your research to points that he references which are of interest to you. 

David Bate begins his essay by claiming that the link between photography and memory is usually considered to be a failing of the medium. That there is a 'negative relation to memory', because there is information that is missing from a photograph. It can't be seen, so it won't help us to remember. Bates states that the "paper addresses the specific contribution that the invention of photography has made to the relation of memory and history."

The author raises the issue that there is an 'ambiguity between the memory of photography as a technology that is outmoded, past its sell-by date and photography as an "aide-memoiremachine to the human memory process of remembering. 

Bate continues by referring to how the system of digital photography operates in a different way to its predecessor. As it 'mutates into its digital double,' photography is still in the process of redefinition, a state of flux. He wonders whether this is why there is a current interest in archive memory. Or is the issue to do with the multitude of archives that exist, including commercial, corporate or state collections, museums, libraries. How can these preserve memories if they are difficult to access?  

When reading Bate's essay, it is worth remembering that it was written prior to the social media obsession of today. The Facebook era, where photos are collected, tagged and shared among 'friends'. These memories are then brought to our attention again through apps such as Timehop, which repost images that have been taken on that day, so many years ago. Whenever I am reminded of these past photographs, I don't necessarily think about that particular event, but the journey I have had since then. A recent example of this is that a photograph popped up on my timeline from 2009, when I started studying Photography with the OCA. I associated the photograph with a longer timescale than a specific snapshot of time. Due to the public nature of these memories, other people will associate these images with what they were doing or thinking when they first saw the image. Along with these images, comments provide an on-going narrative that can transcend the length of time.  

As well as third party archives, Bate refer to software programmes, such as Adobe Bridge, Lightroom and Aperture, which act as 'repositories as a type of memory bank.' With digital photography enabling the production of many gigabytes of images in one shoot, how is it possible to 'remember' so many photographs? With wifi, clouds and memory cards, photos are effortlessly backed up without ever being looked at again.  In fact the last time the image may ever be seen is at the point of capture through the viewfinder. 

In one instance Bates refers to photography as a 'time machine' which allows us to revisit a particular moment in time. However, the varying levels of accessibility and openness can impede the ease of access that this time machine can have. On the one hand digital databases can allow for duplicity of images anytime, anywhere, whilst artefact-based archives, such as museums and private collections, have a tendency to 'lock' photographs away from public remembering. 

Continuing his attempt to understand what is meant by memory, Bates refers to how Sigmund Freud makes a distinction between 'natural memory', the ability to recollect normally, and 'artificial memory', that resides in technical devices that have been created by people. Bates clarifies this situation further by stating that: 

 "...we don't need to remember in our heads, our memories have been transplanted to external boxes."

Therefore, it might be argued that the space no longer needed for remembering can be used for fresh thinking. 

Following this, Bate mentions Jacques Derrida's query about the mind's changing status under technological development. What are we taking photos for? Is it to store, to aid memory? Are we so busy taking photos that we need to be able to recall the event at a later date because we didn't fully experience it - removed from the full reality of the situation. Furthermore, if we relinquish our memories to clouds and hard drives, do we still have the same personal connection to them. 

Collective Memory

Even before the digital age, humans have endeavoured to document information so that it can be recalled with ease. At this point, Bate mentions Jacques Le Goff's book, 'History and Memory' and how it recognises the impact of writing and printing on a greater need to read rather than memorise. If you were able to read you didn't have to remember.

At this point I suppose it is worth considering whether it really does matter if photography has altered our memory. After all, there is a lot more to remember now than one hundred years ago!



Bates, D. (2010) The Memory of Photography, Photographies, 3:2, 243-257  DOI: 10.1080/17540763.2010.499609