Bates – The Memory of Photography

Today I attended the Photography Reading Group at which we discussed The Memory of Photography by David Bate which is available on line (link is in the group forum)

My Initial thoughts:

I found the paper fascinating. Thoughts I had (on second reading) were:

  • The presence of multiple archives effects one’s own feelings about your own archival material. What do they tell us? And who actually ‘owns’ them?
  • The concept of photography as a ‘time machine’ – I have recently been reading H.G.Wells Time Machine (published 1895) in which he refers to photography and pictures taken at different ages of a person forming a time line, and also the vividness that can come form recalling a specific instant in the past.
  • Freud talks about ‘artificial memory’, differentiating it from ‘natural memory’ and notes that the forms of producing it are modelled on human sensory functions – this has been occurring for millennia, probably starting with the earliest cave drawings in the Upper Palaeolithic , 40000 years ago, well before the invention of any form of writing. I find it interesting that the first aide memoire was visual.
  • Freud also comments on the ability of the camera to retain the fleeting visual impression. This reminded me that only some impressions are ever recorded, and they will only every show a partial truth and therefore must be carefully interpreted bearing in mind the adage that history belongs to the victor (a quote that itself is variably attributed to Winston Churchill or Péter Esterházy).
  • What is the effect of photography on memory? Is memory altered by looking at photographs of an event? Do you remember the event, the photograph or a hazy mixture of both? Is the truth altered? Memory is a combination of vision, sound, smell and touch – producing the mnemic trace – therefore a photograph is limited.
  • Archives were initially produced on behalf of governments. So – what is chosen to be archived will not be everything, and not be neutral. The role of the librarian is vital. Information can also be lost, or deliberately destroyed. Other forms on public memory are formed though building memorials (victors, soldiers, events) other the simpler and more poignant placing of written tiles on the street in Prague.
  • Family archives in the form of albums have mainly been replaced by photos published on social media – does this fulfil the same role? Will they last as long? Are they seen by the same groups of people? These images allow people to make links with others they may never meet, to form pseudo-families, to form identities and relationships. Are the images shown in this a context truthful? They may be or may be entirely artificial.
  • Derrida says, paraphrased, an archive is about the future not the past. So, do we have a duty to the future to keep truthful records, and does truth = neutrality? Information = power.
  • Photographs are an important source of visual memory because they can record anything the meta-archive. But they also record things that you were not expecting – the ‘bits around the edges’, the backgrounds, often the unwanted bits that change the meaning of an image.
  • The sheer number of images taken nowadays by any person, within a day, a week or year, multiplied by the number of people taking images, in your town, country, the world is impossible to comprehend. No-one cam look at them all. But can a machine – and what information can the machine draw from them?
  • Do photographs show what actually happened – or what some people think is important out of what happened and, somewhat scarily, if an image is shown over and over does it become true?
  • Memories are not always ‘live’ in the brain. They need a trigger. What is the role of what Freud calls ‘screen memories’? Memories can be manipulated and falsified. Do photographs help produce real memories? Do your memories make up your life? And what happens when they collide with someone else’s memories that are different?
  • Involuntary memory = An involuntary response to an image. An unexpected response to something in the past. Voluntary memory = studium – information that comes externally. Memories are a combination of a complex interaction between artificial memories, from a photograph, a book, or other external information with an ‘natural’ , internal memory.
  • Public memorial buildings and archives are often produced retroactively which leads to a question about accuracy.
  • Photographs demand analysis not just an emotional response – this applies to looking at others’ images and considering ones own.

 Thoughts following the discussion:

 Having read the paper, I was interested in other people thoughts on it. Unfortunately, my system was playing up and I found that I was missing the thread of the conversation at times. I did eventually find a ‘button’ that automatically transcribed the speech, with some hilarious obvious errors.

 I did take some notes, shown below, not attributed to the author, and in no particular order:

  • The overall text is useful and is relevant to everything we are studying at all levels
  • There is an idea that is someone is leaving something, a home, a school etc archival images of yourself and the others involved are need for maintaining the memory
  • Caroline Wright? – did some work on things that are no longer in use and how do we value these (not sure about this -may have been in context of archives)
  • How are things curated and archived? The role of missing memories, for instance those that were deliberately destroyed in Cambodia. How can people find these memories – either personal or ethnographical?
  • What is so important about the idea of not being in an image, either that you were deliberately left out of the photos, or you were not at an event? Should you photoshop someone in (or out)? And – my thought now – is this different from the practice of cutting people out of a printed photo post a relationship break up? But – more importantly – if you are not in a photo what does it say about you and how other people feel?
  • Everybody assumes that digital archives are everlasting – but how long do they really last. You delete images as the phone memory is full. What happens in an apocalyptic scenario with no electricity? What is the role of the cloud?
  • Photographs act as a container/trace of our own memories – but so does music, art, plays and books.
  • The role of ‘fire hosing’ – so much information is put out online that it becomes impossible to tell what is true and what isn’t. The role of ‘fake news’ – you tend to look at and agree with things that back up your own viewpoint of the world. It is easier to source this now because of the internet.
  • Why do we take photographs? Is it for the memory? Is it to show someone else? And when am I going to look at all these memories?
  • How many photographs of our lives are taken and shown now? The constraint between private images and those taken of other people and their children – leading to the need for adequate formal agreements about the use of them

 Suggested further reading:

  • Sophie Calle – Parcue Que – seems to be in French, but I think there is a very recent version called Because in English
  • Okwui Enwezor – Archive Fever: available on line at:

With thanks to Emma for organising this interesting group.



2 thoughts on “Bates – The Memory of Photography”

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