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August 11, 2003

Photography as Memory

I really like Miles Hochstein's "Doucmented Life," a year by year autodocumentary in photos. It will hopefully fit nicely into my planned discussions of documentary, archive, and narrative in my English 1101 course. His reflection on photography and memory in his 1999 entry is particularly striking:

1999? It is far too recent for me to remember anything. [...]

But actual memories? I'm afraid I don't have any... just photos.

Hochstein's autodocumentary brings me back to two related film thoughts. As usual, I can't avoid thinking about Chris Marker's Sans Soleil in which the fictional filmmaker, Sandor Krasna (a stand-in for Marker), reflects that the images he captures with his camera are his memory.

The other is the 1995 Paul Auster and Wayne Wang film, Smoke, in which the film's central character (it wouldn't make sense to call him a protagonist in this amazingly decentred film), Auggie takes pictures from the front of his Brooklyn cigar store at 7 AM every day. Beautifully preserved in several volumes of photo albums, Auggie has an autodocumentary of his little street corner. At one point, Auggie shares his hobby with Paul, a novelist (played by William Hurt) impatiently flips through the albums insisting that they are "all the same." At Auggie's insistence, Paul slows down and looks closely at each photo, at which point differences begin to emerge (some of which I'd rather not reveal to people who haven't seen the film). It's a powerful meditation on the relationship between photography and memory, between photography and cinema. I have to see it again soon.

Perhaps the fact that 1999 is too recent to "remember" is what is at stake for Hochstein. It hasn't fallen into a clear narrative yet, still caught up in the anticipation of the future, of narratives that are, as yet, unresolved (thanks to Jill Walker for the link to "Documented Life").

Posted by chuck at August 11, 2003 1:42 PM

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Yes, I have often thought about photography as a destroyer of memory.

If you watch people running around at weddings and happy events trying to capture the moment, you can't help being impressed by the possibility that what they are really doing is destroying, or reducing, the possibility that they will actually remember the moment. Instead, they will end up remembering the photos, which they will see again and again. It's a little like the process by which reality on TV becomes more real than the events "as they really happened".

We end up with memories... but our memories are really no longer memories of the event, but of the articifical processes by which we recorded and experienced the event, and of the screen that we placed between ourselves and full human experience of reality.

Obviously there is much more that might be said about this subject.

Thanks for the link, and thanks to Jill also... I won't post this twice.


Posted by: miles hochstein at August 16, 2003 1:57 AM

The wedding pictures are a great example of that sort of mediation of memory. As someone who writes about film, I have some ambivalence here, especially when thinking about documentary filmmaking. I think that's why I made the reference to Chris Marker because there is a little "play" in his reworking of cinematic memory.

"Smoke" seems a little more optimistic about the possibility of an auto-documentary through Auggie's photos of his little corner, "his project," as he puts it. Auggie can look at those photos and he might or might not remember that day, instead he'll remember photographing that day. It's still memory, but the act of photographing it (or filming it) changes it.

Posted by: chuck at August 16, 2003 1:07 PM

I have a site bookmarked on my computer. This might be totally random, but I never had that much appreciation for photography until i stumbled upon this site. http://www.mabot.com/
It just has wonderful pictures and they sort of tell a story on their own... :-)

Posted by: Kathryn at October 1, 2003 4:30 PM

Thanks for the link, Kathryn. I think there's a connection here, especialy in the "photograph of the week" project. I was also struck by the photographs of old construction sites that have now been transformed into ofice parks. I'm becoming more interested in people's photoblogs in general, in part because the photographers sometimes see the world in a way that I'd never really considered before.

Posted by: chuck at October 1, 2003 5:01 PM

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