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Mirrors of Memory

by Petra Kubisova about a year ago in art

2 Photography/Memory/Language/Projection

In this chapter we will look at several questions. What is the relationship between photography and memory? How can a still image/photograph produce or recall memories? What information do we get through photographs and through memories? How do memories transform through language and what does naming/defining memories do in terms of remembering and forgetting? How do the images/memories exist through projection?

With the technology available to us today we can take as many photographs as we want in order to recall everything, in fear that all that is connected to us and our precious lives will be erased or forgotten. Nowadays we seem to live our lives more through cameras. The images seem like a preservation of life for the human race. But what do images really represent?


I would agree with Roland Barthes that “not only is the photograph never in essence, a memory… but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory”. The challenge for me is to produce work on memory that departs from Barthes’ quote: “Memory is not so much image as sensation”.

What information has the image of my mother and sister provided me with apart from lost memories? Firstly it offered me new details: the look of both of them (as I didn’t experience my sister at that age and my mother would give birth to me three years after this image was taken). Also their expressions, their physicality and their relationship to one another. These are details I would not experience without the image, but of course I can experience it only partially.

My sister and I would always ask our mother which one of us she loved more. She loved us equally. However, we both had very different stories in relation to our mother. When I was growing up, my sister would be quite rebellious and independent. I never saw them close or in an intimate situation. That raises another question in my mind:

Is this image the only artefact of THEIR closeness? Or is it the image I’d like to have myself with my beloved mother to postpone the fearful forgetting?

The information that a photograph provides us with is on the one hand factual and very detailed. On the other hand, without the sensual it is only an index.

Geoffrey Batchen, in his book Forget me not, opens up a discussion on whether photography is “indeed a good way to remember things”. The question demands that we define what we mean by ‘memory’, for there are many types of memory and many ways to remember. How do we remember? What do we actually remember from a photograph? Under what circumstances do we remember?

Can we know somebody from a photograph?

Mary Bergstein states: “a photograph records details which we don’t even see while taking the image. So in real life our brain protects us from overwhelming details and photograph records it as it’s a tool machine not human mind”. That overwhelming detail does not get us any closer to the truth. You cannot really know someone from a photograph.

“Photographs might prompt recall of an absent loved one, but we have all at some time searched our family albums and not recognized those we see within. Perhaps we know who they are and can identify them from a photograph or its caption – we might recognize them in this limited sense. But the photograph does not really prompt you to remember people the way you might otherwise remember them – the way they moved, the manner of their speech, the sound of their voice, that lift of the eyebrow when they make a joke, their smell, the rasps of their skin on yours, the emotions they stirred.”

When I recall memories of my mum, I remember the curve of her nose, her body movements, the twist of her smile, the sound of her laugh, the way she uses her hands when she gestures. I remember all this in fragments – in fragmented images. When we think of somebody we never get the entire image. There is no whole picture, just close ups/fragments of the bigger picture where we find some essence in the features that we have captured in our memory.

Fragments play a huge role in our perception, vision, dreams and memories, especially while taking picture. Our eyes don’t see the image as a whole but they focus and re-focus on elements and details to get the desired image, the rest is blurred and not ‘important’ to our mind.

The German critic Siegfried Kracauer, in his book Photography, presents us with a perfect example of what information we get from a photograph and from our memory:

“an individual retains memories because they are personally significant. Thus, they are organized according to a principle, which is essentially different from the organizing principle of photography. Photography grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum; memory images retain what is given only insofar as it has significance. Photography captures too much information to function as memory. It is too coherent and too linear in its articulation of time and space. IT OBEYS THE RULES OF NONFICTION. Memory, in contrast, is selective, fuzzy in outline, intensively subjective, often incoherent, and invariably changes over time – a conveniently malleable form of fiction”.

To apply Kraucer’s observation I would like to draw on the film Pictures of the Old World (1972), directed by Dusan Hanak. He combines photography with history, memories and time. Hanak inspired by Martin Martincek’s photographs of a small village in Slovakia (taken a decade earlier than the film was made), revisits this village and tells its story through the people who were in those original photographs. If any of the people were no longer alive Hanak asks others to talk about them. Those still alive had changed, grown older, their memory weakened so much, that those stories they tell are retold in a different manner. It is as if these people re-lived the moments from the photographs again and in a new way, as if they have never happened before.

There is a scene in which Hanak uses a still image of a funeral, which happened years earlier, and he accompanies this image with the sound of people throwing soil onto the coffin. It seems the same as every funeral image but he is creating this real and ALIVE moment of throwing soil by people who are still alive (see figure 6). This film combines image and memory to an extent that it reveals the flaws in each and through this process creates another reality or version of events out of dead moments. It is like a re-enactment of funeral instigating a feeling of a ‘double death’. Hanak plays on the validity of photography in the case of memory, which Kraucer explicates above.

Her Voice, which I know so well is so strikingly similar to Pictures of the Old World in that it tries to reinforce my attempts to gain access to a moment in time that I missed.

Petra Kubisova
Petra Kubisova
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Petra Kubisova
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