Deborah Orloff’s work Elusive Memory is a series of images of photographs that she found in the basement of her parent’s house. They are severely degraded, water damaged and stained, often stuck together in piles. She has taken these photographs and re-photographed them and printed them large scale so you can see all the details of the damage and the underlying surface. In her work statement on them she says, ‘these banal objects become simulacra of loss and speak eloquently to the ephemeral nature of memory’ (Orloff, s.d.)
My favourite on her website is simply labelled as MAR 65. I also love Madonna and Child. Third favourite is Guarded Smile. From this list you can gather that I am struggling to pick out individual ones that I really like more than any others. The most poignant is probably either Extended Pause or Lost Bridesmaid.
In an interview with Ain’t Bad’s Kyra Schmidt (Schmidt and Orloff, 2019) Orloff discusses her feelings about memory. They discuss whether our memories are our own and the fact that her mysterious images meditate on this question. Certainly, the images allow you to make up narratives, they are memories, but they are partially destroyed memories and therefore you can imagine whatever you like from them.
Orloff and Schmidt discuss the oft posed question of what is the connection between memory and photographs? Do we remember the past or is it because we have seen a picture so often that that becomes the memory? Orloff notes that she had been thinking about the connection between photography and memory since her father’s death when she realised just about every memory she had of him was connected to a photograph. When she salvaged the partially destroyed prints found in her father’s basement, she saw them as metaphors for loss and the ephemeral nature of memory.
This understanding of photographs contradicts the more usual reading of photographs when you see what you expect to see. In this case what you expect is not always what you actually get.
Orloff goes on to discuss the use of digital photography (especially phone digital photography) ‘ However, with the pervasiveness of digital technology, instead of trying to commit things to memory, we tend to pull out our phone and snap a picture, hardly paying attention to what we’re shooting. The visual reference is stored for potential use. We even use our cameras to take “notes” now. It’s certainly efficient, but I think it gives us license to forget as we’re not fully present in the moment. Instead of experiencing places and events we take photos, that we may never look at, often without really stopping. How can we expect to remember anything beyond the superficial? We process an overwhelming quantity of visual material daily, but we really don’t see most of it.’ The other problem is that everybody is so aware that the photographic image can be manipulated but often everybody assumes it is rather than thinking that it might not be.
The images in Elusive Memory are both beautiful and mysterious. They turn the usual meaning of archival images upside down. They are an archive in that they are a group of items that are found, stored and go together, but they do not give an easy explanation of the events they show. Rather they encourage multiple readings, and the use of one’s own imagination and memories to interpret them.
Orloff, D. (s.d.) Deborah Orloff. At: http://deborahorloff.com/ (Accessed 10/08/2020).
Schmidt, K. and Orloff, D. (2019) In Conversation: Deborah Orloff on Memory, Representation and Objecthood. At: https://www.aint-bad.com/interview/2019/05/07/in-conversation-deborah-orloff-on-memory-representation-and-objecthood/ (Accessed 10/08/2020).