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Photography and memory

July 19, 2012

Here’s an interesting and even light-hearted story from a bridal magazine that gives us an insight into photography’s relationship with memory.  In short, couples who lost their wedding photos during Hurricane Katrina are now starting to recreate them.  Kids in Converse.  Lovely.

There is an interesting connection between the physicality of the photograph as an object, human motivations, the object as carrier of emotion, and the indexical properties of the photograph (what is photographed) here.  Clearly, wedding photos are emotional markers, symbols of love and commitment, and they’re put on display in the family home to celebrate this.  At the same time, how that photograph looks – what is actually being photographed – is also important as presumably the couples taking part in this exercise could have commissioned any portrait rather than dress up in their wedding gear again.  There are two levels of authenticity working here, a visual authenticity, the need to be dressed up in the right attire, but the fact that this is a mock-up (though an official mock-up) doesn’t seem to affect the couples too much.  On an emotional level the couples feel that their commitment cannot be officially recognise without a physical memento of the wedding, and this speaks to us on a societal level.

Photographs rarely tell the truth, and although it’s acknowledged the sentiment behind this exercise is absolutely genuine in this case, there is a steady history of the doctoring of photographs that fundamentally alter the history of a story being told.  Cecil Beaton, for example, made his reputation by altering the size and shape of society women in the dark room so they were more flattering to their subjects, a shrewd commercial move I’m sure.  There are more sinister examples, however.  This rather odd fragment found on Flickr hides a deeply complicated emotional story that caused one person to be scratched from the photograph.  The physicality of the photograph has been fundamentally altered, as has its indexicality, and there is an emotional intensity added to the image as a result of the intervention.

However, the most noted example of such severe photographing doctoring occurred during the Stalinist era when victims of the purge were removed from photographs very cleverly given the technological limitations of the day.  These carry quite the message when you see the original and doctored photographs together, but at some point the victims were no longer removed, just painted over in black ink.  In both cases the absence has a presence in and of itself.

When I see examples like this I always think of Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 whose job it was to eradicate history by systematically removing evidence from public records and destroying it.  Of course, visual images are such a part of our daily life that controlling them is now impossible and after decades of control the state itself can now find itself on the defensive as a result of the quick and easy distribution of images.  Not sure what the police were thinking here but it didn’t end well.

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