"I remember when... "
Most nostalgia stories start out in a similar vein. More often than not, they tread on familiar well-worn paths for a few hundred syllables but upon each retelling, machete off into increasingly unfamiliar and exotic jungles teeming with colorful adjectives and modifying adverbs. The cheekiest storytellers regale their spellbound audiences with heart-stopping tales of spelunking into a dark cave only to stumble across the mythical Thesaurus, escaping with their very lives into the canyons of Hollywood where dreams of hustling their audacious chronicles into best selling novels and screenplays await.
But sometimes a fish story is just a fish story.
What is memory anyway? Does it have a footing in reality? Should it? How does photography play in?
Based on recorded history, there's scant evidence that memory walks hand in hand with "realness." We conveniently chop time up into past, present, and future, out of apparent necessity. By definition, the future does not exist as it hasn't happened yet. The present is all we know because we're in it right now, for however long now is. It's not difficult to wrap one's head around that.
But the past is more odd than odd. It shares some code with the future in that it does not exist. It's gone, poof. And yet... somehow, we are able to call on our powers of imagination to reanimate it. We can breathe some sort of life into the past and make it walk around and speak, not unlike Dr. Frankenstein's Creature. We have a whole class of wizards called historians who excel at this sort of alchemy. But compare a modern American History textbook with one written 50 years ago. You'd think they were written on different planets. Which is more "true"?
We don't normally think about whether the past exists or not because it makes the brain hurt. Anyway, there are more important things to think about like how to pay next month's mortgage or how to keep the dog from rolling in stinky stuff every time he goes outside.
But it's worth thinking about in terms of photography. Is memory fixed or fluid? Does memory leak and how do you get the stains out? Is a photograph like a can of Castrol Leak Stop, making our culture run cooler and further between tune-ups?
Take an event, like a car wreck. Let's say there are four witnesses. Chances are close to 100% that each witness will "remember" the accident somewhat differently. Although the core event may not be in dispute, it's not uncommon for some irreconcilable contradictions to emerge; yet each witness swears their version is true. Let's also say that each witness had a dashcam, or a GoPro strapped to their head. Video doesn't lie; as it turns out, the first car DID enter the intersection on a red light, and the second car was blue, not silver, in spite of Witness #2's adamant insistence otherwise.
Let's relate this - somehow - to our MEMORY LEAK Photo Assignment.
The stock in trade of photographers is memory. Without it, we'd have zero business. We arguably possess the best tool ever made for freezing memories from their fluid state. Film processing chemicals included "stop bath" for a reason; the paper was slipped from developer into acetic acid, halting the emerging image into its perpetual final form. A photograph stops time and records everything as it once was - the people in the photo, the clothes they wore, the watch on the wrist, the young oak tree in the background (that is now 70 feet tall), and so on. A good photograph can in effect throw a hard foul on rampant storytellers, while possibly creating an even better story itself. It may be slipped into a family album or used as forensic evidence. One might sell a house, another be glued into a passport. The prom picture captures fleeting youth and a war photo chronicles ageless brutality. The common thread for each is fixed memory, and image of what once was.
Photographs are immensely powerful merely because they exist. We often take that for granted. But a printed photo can live on to affect each person who views it whether they acknowledge it or not. A printed photo has the potential to rearrange a person's present, erasing false assumptions. The present doesn't stand on its own; it's constantly buffeted by future and past - neither of which exist. How weird is that? Hail the power of imagination.
Our MEMORY LEAK assignment will explore the relationship of actual present to fluid past. We'll approach this in a couple ways. First is to look back through old photographs, especially your own. Pick a photo and really study it. Pay attention to your reaction. Does it "take you back?" How does it make you feel? Does it cause you to remember something besides the photo itself? Is your appraisal honest or merely sentimental? How direct is the memory? Is it the honest photograph you wanted to take or did you keep your distance, not wanting to get too involved? Were you engaged, part of the soul of the photograph, or just a spectator?
Second, as you photograph new material, work at being conscious of the present moment and what you're really seeing and feeling. Practice full awareness. Think into the future and ask it how you want your subject to be remembered in 1, 5, 50, or 200 years? Mysteriously, the moment you press the shutter release, the image belongs to the past; it's no longer yours to choose, so choose carefully. A shutter click thus entwines future with past in their imaginary realms, and leaves the present to fend with the stinky dog by itself.
Be aware of your own state of mind, as well. There is a photographer in every photograph, even though he or she is usually invisible on the surface. But the photographer's presence haunts each image; it wouldn't exist otherwise. The more your soul inhabits a photograph, the longer it will live, the more it will speak to someone in another time and place.
On a personal level, you will be someone else's memory one day. You have a lot of say in forming how that memory will play out over time. Be cognizant, pay attention, shoot with heart and truth and beauty. Leave behind something of lasting value.
Of course, photography can not only accurately record what is, it can also manipulate what isn't. Photography isn't just for documentation; it's also an art form. But the same principle applies - is your idea, concept, feeling, etc. coming across to the viewer in such a way that it won't be easily misinterpreted later? Stop memory leaks by creating the best work you possibly can now.
And finally, prevent "fake memories" by putting the camera down. Shoot when appropriate. Otherwise, watch, listen, converse, and engage before and after taking your shots. Being here now is what creates the stickiest memory, and for all its fluidity, is what draws us together and bridges entire cultures. Sometimes an "accurate" photograph isn't the whole truth. Ask anyone who is stalked by paparazzi.
Stop MEMORY LEAKS. Shoot with your heart wide open.
TIPS FOR MEMORY LEAKS:
- Look online through some old photographs. Do they transport you to another place and time? Are they honest? Do you think they represent what the photographer intended? Why or why not?
- Look through your own early photographs and ask the same questions. Do you see a progression through time? Do your most recent photographs contain more "present" than the old ones? Are some of your photos "universal" - would someone from a different culture understand what you're saying?
- Look through your photos for "fake memories," that may not be fully honest or engaged, perhaps misrepresenting some thing or someone. How would you feel if someone took a photo like that of you?
- Prevent memory impairment by putting the camera down to watch, listen, talk, engage.
- Curate and archive. Go through your photos and get rid of the dross. Keep the ones that speak to you - they are the honest ones. They don't have to be technically perfect at all - pay most attention to your emotional response.
- Print some of your photos. Chances are you'll react differently than looking at a monitor or phone screen.
- Practice discretion. Don't post every picture you take. Share the ones that will create meaningful memories.
MEMORY LEAK will run for two weeks, from June 15 through June 28. Happy shooting!