On Photography and Memory

Exit Glacier, 2000

Exit Glacier, 2000

Toward a conceptual framework for the Kinogram project.

It is the rare essay on photography that doesn’t touch on, at some turn or another, the unique relationship between photography and memory. Invariably, when one steps back to clutch this image or that from the daily stream, perhaps stumbling across a snapshot from years ago, a memory is triggered. The recollection can be so vivid the photo shrinks to become a kind of footnote, referencing just one instant among many. Those that may have shared the experience — perhaps they are sitting there beside you, smiling expectantly in the sterile wash of the strobe — also share in the remembering. And history reigns for a moment. That’s not to say there’s anything at all accurate or exhaustive about this imagined nod back, but it does command a stubborn pleasure and purpose. That is certain.

There is nothing particularly remarkable about the image above. A glacier — unmoving yet not, witness to and reposit of millennia — strikes an all too recorded pose. Moments before perhaps someone stood between the photographer and his soon-to-be-subject, then background. Indifferent ice, as it still must be today, almost 4 years later. If you too have made the short trek past the signs indicating Exit Glacier’s relatively brisk retreat (each wooden post driven into the ground marks where the glacier reached at periodic years so that your walk up is also a walk through time), perhaps the image reminds you of your own Kenai adventure. Or, if you’ve never seen a glacier, perhaps it offers a more abstract delight, the sooty meringues reminding you of a frothy pint of beer or sea foam slapping at the shoreline. Maybe you see (remember) both, or neither.

For me, it is an anchor. Through the lens, a chain pulled taut, snagged on the craggy ocean floor of lived experience. The typically produced photograph, the third sign, points to its referent in a most emphatic way, as if conceding that its very existence depended on it. Despite the dozens of rational reasons why one shouldn’t trust a photograph to do anything but mislead, misrepresent, or mis-take the world, our first comments are often: “Where was this taken?”, “Who is that standing there? Cousin Billy? He looks so young!”, “What is that bit in the corner?” I share this digitally scanned image here as both a specimen of my work and as a personal memento of time spent in Alaska on holiday. Nothing very remarkable about that — cameras are among a traveler’s essential accessories — except to say that my reading of the photograph, my pleasure in its nondescript sky and pinched shoulders of ice, cannot escape memory. In fact, it is the anticipation of remembering that likely raised my right index finger to the shutter release in the first place.

Kinogram, a follow-up project to Photomoment that has been in the works for the past four years, off and on, is happening soon. Among other things, the project attempts to reverse (or at least disrupt) the circuitry between memory and photography discussed above. Kinogram sketches the possibility to both reshape memory and shape experience (on the cusp of memory). I promise I’ll have more information soon.