Exercise 3.6 – The Memory of Photography by David Bate 


The student is asked to read and analyse the essay “The Memory of Photography” by David Bate 


Pre photography to create a memory of something, someone had to record it in some method; written, oral, pictorial, the aide-memoire, the physical notation of thought, sometime with date and time. With the development of photography, visual memory no longer has to rely on the formally trained artist to create a scene. Visual (artificial) memory was democratised with the invention of the camera. As the costs came down, the camera was more commonly used to record more day to day events. Holiday memories no longer relied on letters home and postcards of pre-recorded scenes, instead, the holiday maker could record a personal record of their visit. 

Of course, this type of memory record relied on someone being outside the scene; the photographic practitioner, the father, the mother, and later the children as technology leapt forward. In each case the photographer is arbiter and censor of the image, deciding what is in and what is excluded. The recording of historical events moved inwards, examining more closely the effects of events. The antithesis of this, of course, is PTSD where a visual stimulus causes the remembrance of a deeply buried and traumatic memory. Certainly, as Jacques Derrida feared, the digital age has created a tsunami of visual memory recording. Everything from Facebook to Instagram is used to create a record of an event. These digital aide memoires now guide individuals’ memories as they trawl the photographs of the group, usually taken by at least one of the group at the same time, but never producing a single consistent record. These digital visual records now guide the “rememberant” through the proceedings of the social event, even though the records are selected time slices which may not document the reality of the occasion. 

Bates then posits the question, if you view photography as a one-way time machine, where you can view but not change the physical record, is it under threat by the digital age? In the digital age, the social space expands beyond the basic philosophy of making records of events. Is the artificial memory space under threat of overload by the constant uploading of digital information to the internet? I would have to disagree. While there is a large volume of what could be described as vanity publishing, this is counter-balanced by both citizen journalism and/or viral publishing where a simple valiant one on one act becomes a world wide celebration of peace and understanding. We now face the bigger question, has photography changed history, as in, the physical recording of an event, changed the perception of those who viewed it? In this case would it mean that photography has changed the cultural, communal and collective memory? 

Freud, in his opening passage of “The Mystic Writing Pad”, recalls the idea of using an object to make an aide-memoire. Thus Freud draws a distinct line between the two parts of memory; “natural memory” the consciousness of the human system and “Artificial Memory” which covers the basic recall algorithm of human consciousness since time immemorial; where an external device, whether it be a mark on the wall or an electronic notepad, causes the “natural memory” to recall the stored memory. This call and recall has allowed humans to advance forward using only the simple tools available to them. After all what is an alarm and a piece of text, it is nothing more than an electronic advance on a piece of knotted string or a loop around a finger. Therefore the pocket book, the length of string and the mobile phone inhabit the intersocial space as an “artificial memory device”. It can be seen that during stressful events the natural memory which Freud calls the “mnemonic” memory is open to suggestion and that collectively humans can interact and change mnemonic memory through nothing more than discussion. This idea of natural or mnemonic memory shows a flaw in the permanence of the Freud model for it does not take into account visual impairment nor the sensory deprived, here touch, smell or feel provide mnemonic memory recall through differing senses; touch may recall smell, feel may recall touch.  When Freud  remarks “All forms of auxiliary apparatus which we have invented for the improvement or intensification of our sensory functions are built on the same model as the sense themselves” he was correct for the time, but quickly technology advanced and through research and invention, has granted impaired individuals a chance to change their perception, for example, the creation of 3d images from photographs allowing the visually impaired person to “feel” the photograph. 


In his essay “Civilisation and its Discontents” Freud wrote that “In the photographic camera he [man] has created an instrument which retains the fleeting visual impressions”. Here Freud is referring to memory plus emotion plus gut feeling causing Arrectores Pilorum or Cutis Anserina, where a deep connection is made by brain signalling through the body an unexpressed emotion caused by the “artificial memory device” reacting with the mnemonic memory. 

Like Freud, Jacques Derrida posited that there was an ongoing impact on the human psyche and the human mind where natural memory was being influenced by artificial memory devices. Derrida posits that the technological advances have created a bank of artificial memory in archives due to the information overload created by the advances in technology itself. Now, not only do most digital camera owners have a bulk archive of images but museums and libraries are digitising glass plates and old photographs into databases of searchable and viewable images.  These databases contain images which have little or no connection to the majority of viewers but are an artificial memory store which can be browsed by interested parties who have no emotional or historical connection to the subjects within the images. 

Of course, these stores of pictorial, text and audio recordings can be considered “Collective Memory” as detailed by Jacques Le Goff where human memory can be disconnected from the event and by curation of the data stored in whatever format audit or censor popular history by what it displays publicly. These data stores also allow for the publication of these records, and again by curating what is publicised it creates selected collectives, editions for everyday browsing, editions for collectors, the creation of collections for collections’ sake. Le Goff confirms this within his book “History and Memory” where he writes that the public view curated by the museums has driven collective memory in a number of directions. In creating its own form of collective memory in the public monument and the collection of memory through photography. Photographing one’s own children means that you are now the curator of their childhood memory and editor of your own; through the collectivisation of these images into albums, they become the official record which can be displayed or passed onto relatives to create a social bond through records of artificial memory. Again these records will create a feeling within the viewer as it stirs and recalls mnemonic memory of the event recorded. As Le Goff suggests these records are not always the point of view of a singular individual, the creator of the image is not always the father, but instead may be the mother or another sibling, repeating Le Goffs idea that photography democratises memory and that photography provides a level of truth which is plainly unattainable when relying solely on memory itself. These family albums not only record the family but are created, curated and edited by the family itself. The collective memory undergoes change as actual memories fail and time passes creating a disconnect between the memory and the viewer, as well as a disconnect for the oral history as confusion and miscommunication break the link of “bottom-up” history.  

Not all albums and records are of course dedicated solely to the recording and recollection of family history. Over time data stores of photographs with no familial memory have been created, such as media picture libraries, magazines, police records in mugshot form and crime scene photographs, public or private collections of art, and loose social groups. Some of these records will be made public and although it is a democratisation of information, the information presented will not be a full social record nor the full truth. They will be a collective memory store to guide and form memory and history which in itself will then be recorded through photography and gathered, collected, edited and presented some time in the future. This ability of photography, to record itself and then present itself again ties in with the one of the founding arguments about photography as art and photography as a record, as it is able to record and reproduce other objects visually again and again. Bate describes in the essay this function of photography recording itself and its ability to objectively, coldly and mechanically record as a “Meta-Archive” and points the reader to examine the very first book of photographs “Pencil of Nature” by Henry Fox-Talbot. Fox-Talbot himself curated his own archive tp present his choice selection of images which he had recorded himself. He uses photography to create an almost taxonomic record of items, whether they be books from his personal library, or glassware. Fox-Talbot uses photography as a record of senses, items arranged and then copied, allowing Fox-Talbot, who according to records was not a great drawer, to create still lifes of items. This first book of artificial memory was the starting point for the now inestimable images sitting in archives and storage.  Bate refers to Fox-Talbot’s image ‘Nelsons Column under construction’ as a sample of photography as meta-archive. Fox-Talbot’s image records the early stages of construction of the now famous ‘Nelson’s Column’ built long after the death of Nelson as a form of artificial and collective memory. The column is being built to the memory of a man many would never have encountered who is presented by history as a great man. It is within the image itself that both the social memory and the personal memory is recorded. Talbots view down over the construction work details advertising signs as well as showing the change of a public space into a literal memory, a physical work to memorialise the dead. As Michael Foucault states, monuments like this were created to reprogram popular collective memory, by changing history through memorialising and curating the memory of the person, presenting a cultural image rather than a personal record.  

This changing of the collective memory creates an issue as it conflicts with the validity of truth presented within art and photography. Are the records and images being presented the entire truth or is it a partial truth, something which is undergoing a great deal of discussion at the moment within the media as it interacts with the public records and the manipulation of facts and the ideology of what memories are to be recorded.  

Bate returns to Freud to examine the issue of truth and the artificial memory. What uncertainty is held within the record, was it a personal experience or was it a presented record with no personal interaction by the viewer? What other memories will the image stir, will it recall sound, smell, a different interrelated memory? What images is the viewer paying attention to, and what are they skipping over? 

This stirring of other memories can be viewed as a mnemonic link between an initial thought and greater memory. The human psyche does not hold all memories available for instant point of recall. There is a trigger within the psyche which then pulls the memory deep from within the mind. Freud called this initial link preconscious memory; a space where former memories are linked allowing the psyche to create new memories. This preconscious space within the mind according to Freud’s topography of memory is subject, Freud claims ,to what he called “screen memories” deep links within the psyche between differing memories or creating a link in error; more commonly called Freudian slip and/or false memories. These screen memories can be built upon by the human psyche, unconsciously linking a childhood memory with a later seen photograph both of which are triggered when a subject is being called upon either by mnemonic memory or artificial memory. Bate closes his essay by describing how an artificial memory  of Fox-Talbots image of the Nelson monument had tied together his own personal experience and memory of the location, childhood memories of Nelsons Flagship and a book recently read on holiday. This unconscious link all contained within the mnemonic memory unpacked itself when Bate started to define the essay, due to his interest in Nelson but more importantly in Fox-Talbots image. 


In summary, when considering the composition of a scene, I should take into account nor only my own feelings and emotions regarding the scene but the potential reactions of those who do not have my experiences. Any scene photographed may contribute not only to my own memory or my familial memories but may contribute into a wider communal memory. Bate demonstrates the valid point that not only do photographs capture historical, emotional, sublime and beautify scenes but they can have many more potential meanings than we first initially give them. The essay also helps in the discussion about why particular pieces of art can create such a wide range of responses in differing viewers. 

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