Essay about The Relationship of Photographs, History, and Memory

Essay about The Relationship of Photographs, History, and Memory

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The Relationship of Photographs, History, and Memory


Abstract: This essay reflects on the relationship of photographs, history, and memory based on a found and mutilated photo album. Photographs provide opportunities for disrupting and restructuring history with their attraction to memory; they privilege the subjective, creative power of the personal explanation and provide an emotional and even ideological grounding for memory. Photographs as manifestations of memory assist in the process of understanding the present.

As this century fades into the past it is worth remembering that its course--in contrast to earlier times--has been chronicled by a visual narrative that relies on the attraction of photographs as means of storing and disseminating information. Photographs emerge as documents of a lived experience, and their presence in the cultural milieu of technologically enhanced contemporary communication practices remains virtually unchallenged at the threshold to the twenty-first century.

Photographs are the story-telling companions of time, they direct the gaze of the spectator to ponder the past. Reflecting on our own lives we often refer to photographs whose presence conditions our recollection of people and events and keeps them alive. Recently I came across a small family album--a generation after the end of the Second World War--that had been left by an aunt who had saved it through times of expulsion, flight, and resettlement in West Germany. It had been severely cut--pierced but not destroyed by the thrust of a bayonet in 1945--when the invading Soviet army overran refugees and ransacked their belongings. Its sudden appearance in my life is a reminder of the power of photographs, the seductive specificity...


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Mitchell, W. J. T. 1994. Picture Theory. Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rugg, Linda Haverty. 1997. Picturing Ourselves. Photography and Autobiography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Samuel, Raphael. 1994. Theatres of Memory. Vol. 1. Past and Present in Contemporary Society. London: Verso.

Sekula, Allan. 1982. "On the Invention of Photographic Meaning," in Victor Burgin, ed. Thinking Photography. London: Macmillan, 84-109.

Sontag, Susan. 1973. On Photography. New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux.

Tagg, John. 1988. The Burden of Representation. Essays on Photographies and Histories. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Virilio, Paul. 1995. The Art of the Motor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Yates, Frances. 1966. The Art of Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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