Museums and memory 4. Photographs and memory

What is the relationship between photographs and memory?  It could be argued that, contrary to popular opinion, photographs and memory do not mix. One might even preclude the other, as some critics have proposed. Geoffrey Batchen for example suggests that photographs might actually block memory by generating counter-memories.[i] In his early writing, Siegfried Kracauer expressed a similar view by stating that photographic images, in contrast to memory images, falsify experience.[ii] Influenced by Proust’s stories of time and memory, he argued that the photograph freezes that which is pictured at a moment in time and thereby alienates it. The selective and highly subjective memory image by contrast restores the past, bringing it back to life. However, in his later work, Kracauer arrived at a different conclusion. He still regarded memory images as precious, because they anchor the present tense of things past so that their cultural meanings can be explored. But he also came to see such anchoring as supported rather than undermined by photographs.[iii] In a recent study Geoffrey Batchen further develops this line of thinking by looking at how photographs are transformed into personally charged material objects by ordinary people in order to induce the full, sensorial experience of involuntary memory.[iv]

But how do photographs and memory work in relation to the production of collective histories? With reference to Walter Benjamin, the Danish photography historian, Mette Sandbye has emphasised the role of memory as a narrative filter in the production of collective history.[v] According to Benjamin, in opposition to the ‘empty homogeneous time’ of traditional historiography, which accumulates events in linear and additive fashion, the writing of materialist history – specifically that of the oppressed – should be understood as a memory process in the form of a montage. This montage approach to the past involves an act of quotation wherein a historical ‘object’ is seized upon in the moment of its salience for the present. This “tiger’s leap into the past,” as Benjamin described it in his ‘Theses “On the Concept of History”’ forms a constellation with the present which illuminates sympathies and continuities that would have otherwise remained submerged beneath the ‘triumphal procession’ of history’s victors. Sandbye argues that, in a similar manner, photography transforms the world into moments that are later removed from the context in which they were created. Photography, with its inherent arresting of time and montage character, might therefore present itself as a medium well suited to attaining historical understanding in the Benjaminian sense. But if this seems to offer photographs a privileged function in the opening up of difficult histories, such as that of the colonial past, it should also be recognised that such openings are often circumscribed by the limits of official archives.

[i] Batchen, Geoffrey. Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance. Amsterdam, 2005. 15.

[ii] Kracauer, Siegfried. “Photography” (1927) in Levin, Thomas Y. (ed.). The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Cambridge1995.

[iii] Barnouw, Dagmar. Critical Realism: History, Photography, and the Work of Siegfried Kracauer. Baltimore1994. 31.

[iv] Batchen. Forget Me Not.

[v] Sandbye, Mette. Mindesmærker. Tid og erindring i fotografiet. Copenhagen, 2001.