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Curious Frame - Issue #14 - Memory & Photography

Curious Frame
Curious Frame - Issue #14 - Memory & Photography
By Leanne Staples • Issue #14 • View online
Transitioning out of a year that was either the longest or shortest year ever, depending on how we look back on it, it will be interesting to see how we look back at photos from the year and how we will come to understand their meanings.
I have mentioned on many occasions that photography is a language. What I didn’t mention is that a photo can hold our memories like an unbound container of sorts. This should not be considered by any means as scientific findings. This newsletter is about my curiosity and thoughts on photography.
I think of photos as bookmarks, methods of placing an image in time and within a context. However, those designations are assigned after-the-fact, as we are not able to see what they will mean to us in the future. They are open-ended.
The existence of forgetting has never been proved: we only know that some things don’t come to mind when we want them to. Friedrich Nietzsche
But I should begin this issue on Memory & Photography by saying that I have been preoccupied with memory, the lack of it and what role photography plays in how we understand memory, for a very long time now.
In part, this has become a subject of interest because my memory has never been especially good. Particularly when it comes to rote memorization and remembering the kinds of information needed to ace most tests that I had in school. But rote memorization is not the subject of this issue and there won’t be an exam at the end!
Important Note - if you use Gmail, you will need to open this newsletter in your browser as the length of this newsletter exceeds Gmails’ limit. I only just realized this. So you may want to review what you missed in previous issues. Thanks!

Readers comments:
Curious Frame exists for you the readers. It is fabulous how so many people are involved in the dialogue and with so many different opinions about what photography means to us. Let the dialogue continue!
All you need to do to join the dialogue is hit reply. You can even reply about earlier issues as well. Comments below are from Issue 13 - On Inspiration
One reader wrote:
I can’t imagine where you find the hours in a day to do all that you do. Amazing!
Here’s another title to add to your (excellent) reading list: The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer.
Thanks! I will definitely check out the Dyer book. Oh so many books to explore.
Another reader wrote:
Are artists people who are born inspired or have talent and inspiration must come at the time of creation?
Look around, look up and down, look in front of you and wherever you look you will find a photo, let your creativity and your feelings come out and that everything that touches you will become a photo, learn to observe in macro or micro cosmos, creation will appear!
Let yourself go and follow your intuition. If you do not know techniques of photographing the automatic will solve and make it easier for you to just concentrate on what you see and feel, intuitive is fundamental and more important than the technique at that moment.
Thank you for these suggestions for finding inspiration! This is akin to a meditation on creativity.
Sharing is Cool! If you’ve been forwarded this email or are reading online, consider joining the dialogue by subscribing. If you are looking for past issues you can find them all in the archive at the link below.
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Curious Frame | Revue
Memory & Photography
Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory (La persistencia de la memoria), 1931. This is a screenshot of an internet search for Dali's painting. Repetition of seeing an image has an impact on our memory and ability to remember. Again, we return to the idea of seeing is believing. Is their truth and power in numbers?
Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory (La persistencia de la memoria), 1931. This is a screenshot of an internet search for Dali's painting. Repetition of seeing an image has an impact on our memory and ability to remember. Again, we return to the idea of seeing is believing. Is their truth and power in numbers?
Everything in life is memory save for the thin edge of the present. Michel Gazzaniga
Like a dream, memories don’t necessarily have fixed meanings. Memory is fluid. Not static. And that is true of how we view photos. Each time we look at a photo it appears differently to us, it takes on new meanings. Meaning grows with our life experiences.
Photography stops action and with it, it stops time. But not our ability to imagine or recall. The second that we press the shutter, the moment is already past, is history and it’s open to interpretation.
Memory is the ability to “retain or revive impressions or of recalling or recognizing previous experiences.” Impressions are typically images, photographs. And photography has an ability to cause us to re-call something in the past. To re-collect.
Obviously, every picture tells a story. Or maybe more precisely, it is capable of telling many stories. It is easily worth a million words. Not only will a photo have a different meaning to each person who sees it, it will continually have different meanings for us throughout the passage of time.
Mosaic of the wall depicting Mnemosyne, personification of memory. Mother of the nine Muses. 2nd century AD. Spain. National Archaeological Museum. Tarragona. Spain
Mosaic of the wall depicting Mnemosyne, personification of memory. Mother of the nine Muses. 2nd century AD. Spain. National Archaeological Museum. Tarragona. Spain
The Greek goddess Mnemosyne is memory personified. She gave birth to the 9 muses who provide inspiration to artists, writers and musicians and “thus allegorically, memory with divine help produces inspiration.”
How about that? A nice segue from the previous issue on inspiration. So memory contributes to our ability to be inspired! If you are still looking for your muse and some creative inspiration, you may find her in your memory.
When you remember something, you’re actually remembering the last time that you remembered it. Stephen Cognetta
To remember already suggests the idea of seeing something again but in a different light. You cannot return to the same experience anymore than you can take the same photo twice.
Je me souviens is the motto of Québec and it literally means 'I remember.' There is debate about the original meaning and it's possible that the true meaning is closer to we don't forget.
Je me souviens is the motto of Québec and it literally means 'I remember.' There is debate about the original meaning and it's possible that the true meaning is closer to we don't forget.
The word memory comes from the Old French word memorie, which actually means to be mindful. ‘Don’t forget to take out the trash.’ And memorie is also the root word for other words like memorabilia and memoir.
In French, to remember is je me souviens. I remember. The English word souvenir stems from it. So a memory is like a souvenir. Like all the postcards I collected from around the world. They sit in a box. Maybe I’ll revisit them someday.
Reminiscences make one feel so deliciously aged and sad. George Bernard Shaw, 1886.
There are different methods of taking photos and also of viewing them and storing them. Perhaps you have a physical photo album with photos in it that you sit down and look at once a year or so with friends or family and you reminisce which literally means to remember.
Governor William Woodbridge (1780-1861)
Governor William Woodbridge (1780-1861)
The oldest photo that I own is of my great great great grandfather William Woodbridge, who served as the second governor of Michigan and a state senator. But it isn’t exactly the oldest photo that I own as it is a reproduction of a reproduction.
Nevertheless, the photo must have been taken around the time that he served as governor which would date the photo at circa 1840. That would also mean that his photo was taken shortly after what is called the birth of photography and he probably had to hold still for a number of minutes for this photo to be taken which may or may not account for his dour look.
While the photo does not hold any memory for me, I can imagine that for his children and grandchildren and others, it would’ve been a photo that they looked at perhaps even in a photo album. It does provide a glimpse into my ancestors. It somehow makes him more ‘real’ to see a photo of him even if it doesn’t tell his story, and it makes me imagine about the times he lived in.
Me at about 8 years of age. I only know that it was taken by George Phillips, a photographer friend of my father for a photo exhibit on "The Moods of Children."
Me at about 8 years of age. I only know that it was taken by George Phillips, a photographer friend of my father for a photo exhibit on "The Moods of Children."
 The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do. Andy Warhol
I don’t remember when this photo was taken of me. Unlike many photos that I look at from my past of people and events that I witnessed or that were just widely known in the news, my mind is rapidly filling in the details about them. It is an effortless process, as that information is already there.
Photographs can displace or substitute for memory. Though they shouldn’t be confused with being factual or truthful. The filmmaker Chris Marker said:
I remember that month of January in Tokyo, or rather I remember the images I filmed of that month of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves for my memory, they are my memory.
It seems that the idea of being able to remember something accurately through photography has been rightly challenged. Taking a photo of something can actually impair your memory of what took place. Nevertheless, there is a passive effect that photos have on our thinking and therefore our memories.
Memory, Coney Island, June 2010. There is a long tradition of RIP street art that is typically made especially when boys, mostly of color, die at a young age. It later became popular with the death of hip-hop and rap musicians who died tragically and before their time.
Memory, Coney Island, June 2010. There is a long tradition of RIP street art that is typically made especially when boys, mostly of color, die at a young age. It later became popular with the death of hip-hop and rap musicians who died tragically and before their time.
Memory is always linked to time and mortality. Time and memory are not important for the immortal gods and goddesses as they have all the time in the universe and no need to look back.
However, we mortals are always aware at some level, that we won’t live forever and as a result our memories take on a level of importance. When we look at history in photos and images, there are gaps in what is represented. Pictures not taken or not available publicly tell us much about the incompleteness of visual histories.
The RIP street art above is an example of people expressing the need for a memorial for those who have passed. Often too young and typically of the stories of people who are not represented in mainstream society. They are similar to photos kept in a photo album. They have the power to create memories.
Queen Elizabeth I, The Armada Portrait, artist unknown, 1588. the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I of England is the name of any of three surviving versions of an allegorical panel painting depicting the Tudor queen surrounded by symbols of royal majesty against a backdrop representing the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Queen Elizabeth I, The Armada Portrait, artist unknown, 1588. the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I of England is the name of any of three surviving versions of an allegorical panel painting depicting the Tudor queen surrounded by symbols of royal majesty against a backdrop representing the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Dating back to the beginning of time are examples of sculptures, cave paintings and a history of painted portraits. These were reserved for royalty, the very wealth and the church.
Great artists were commissioned to create them. This was to insure their legacy so we would remember them. This is in fact a large part of museum collections around the world. The history of the wealthy and privileged. And their images have survived centuries later. The intended purpose worked.
Memory is the making of ourselves as once and future human beings. Lewis H. Lapham.
Now with photography available to everyone and inexpensively, photos are produced at an astonishing rate. Presumably many of them are to capture memories. As if we can preserve our histories for people to view in the future after we are gone.
I put aside our photos that we take for the purpose of art here. But I know that even those photos may spark my memory and I’ll recall a photo tour or something that happened on that day.
That said, creating art is a method of preserving one’s legacy. But now, since digital images and the internet, the field has become crowded and many many images get lost in the ether.
4 of 6 images illustrating the Principles of the Art of Memory From Agostino del Riccio, Arte della memoria locale, 1595, Bibliotcca Nazionale, Florence (MS. II, 1, 13) (pp. 244-6)
4 of 6 images illustrating the Principles of the Art of Memory From Agostino del Riccio, Arte della memoria locale, 1595, Bibliotcca Nazionale, Florence (MS. II, 1, 13) (pp. 244-6)
To live is to continue thinking and to remember having done so… Thought, in fact, and memory seem inseparable; no thought, no memory; and no memory, no thought. Samuel Butler
To look at the influence that photos have on our memory, I’m taking a bit of a backwards approach here. Once upon a time before Gutenberg and the invention of moveable type, people lived in an oral culture.
Throughout ancient times as well as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance people learned how to remember large texts and many things that we would have difficulty remembering now. The digital world is at least in part responsible for a kind of cultural Attention Deficit Disorder.
Memory is bestowed on us before birth… is prior knowledge. Socrates, 399 BCE.
The images above were part of a series of images used to learn the art of memory and that is what they called it. There were many treatises on the art of memory.
Some of them have their roots in alchemy while others are rooted in Jesuit teachings and philosophy. The art of memory for them would seem to be about unearthing buried treasures and secret knowledge.
An Illustration from one of the many editions of The Odyssey, by Homer
An Illustration from one of the many editions of The Odyssey, by Homer
It wasn’t uncommon for people to be able to recite Homer’s Odyssey from memory. And people were as familiar with the story as we are now with popular music. If you’re not family with it, it is a long story with many parts and I would find difficult memorizing a single page.
It is very probable that Homer didn’t even truly write The Odyssey, rather he simply recorded what the people were reciting. Perhaps we can call him a plagiarist or maybe just a documentarian.
Even so it is likely that each person who recited The Odyssey, did so with others in attendance and that they didn’t recite it word for word. They may have used slightly different words. But the story always remained the same. It may be similar to what we now call spoken word.
future memory, mixed media, New York City, September 2020
future memory, mixed media, New York City, September 2020
Enter the computer and not only film photography but also digital photography and we now rely on photos and digital documents to remember things.
There are things I remember which may have never happened, but as I recall them so they take place. Harold Pinter
We don’t even think about it and you could say that the images have a subliminal effect on us. We absorb the meaning of images. I think that I have a memory of being at a drive-in theater with my family when I was very young and seeing a subliminal image of popcorn.
The birth of subliminal advertising as we know it dates to 1957 when a market researcher named James Vicary inserted the words "Eat Popcorn" and "Drink Coca-Cola" into a movie. Business Insider, May 26, 2011.
The birth of subliminal advertising as we know it dates to 1957 when a market researcher named James Vicary inserted the words "Eat Popcorn" and "Drink Coca-Cola" into a movie. Business Insider, May 26, 2011.
Of course, I can’t verify that and it is probable that it isn’t even a memory at all and it’s merely something I imagined well after-the-fact. But then subliminal images are not easily captured on the initial viewing. 
I digress and of course the masses of photos that we see on a daily basis without seeking them, can certainly influence our memories and what we believe to be true. 
So yes, photography creates a kind of memory for us. We rely on understanding more than we realize through photography. And it’s possible that there’s also information on the internet that we don’t want there for whatever reason.
Rolling Alpha, May 2014
Rolling Alpha, May 2014
Without forgetting we would have no memory at all. Forgetting serves as a filter. It filters out the stuff that the brain deems unimportant. Oliver Hardt
There is no memory without forgetfulness. Well, that was once true. Memory exists beyond what we remember or don’t. Sometimes memory is buried and we only need something like a photo to prompt our memory.
Enter The Right To Be Forgotten (TRTBF). While I’m not going to dive in to the legality and particular issues here, the internet does pose some problems about what you might end up being remembered for. So we now have the concept of intentionally erasing memory.
There are of course, many valid reasons to want this to exist. It is another interesting aspect of memory in the digital age. And the erasure is most important when it comes to data as well as photos.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, film by Charlie Kaufman, 2004.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, film by Charlie Kaufman, 2004.
We may search out methods to erase memories. In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there is a sci-fi method of erasing memories. The film is rather entertaining.
Under the surface, it made me wonder what would happen if you could or did have the ability to erase memories? But there’s nothing new about that concept.
Helen of Troy is a painting by Dante Charles Gabriel Rossetti, 1863.
Helen of Troy is a painting by Dante Charles Gabriel Rossetti, 1863.
Then Helen daughter of Zeus took other counsel. Straightway she cast into the wine of which they were drinking a drug to quiet all pain and strife, and bring forgetfulness of every ill. Homer’s Odyssey, book 4.
Centuries before (TRTBF), something called nepenthe existed. It is said that this is the drug that Helen put in the wine that she served to Odysseus and the crew upon their homecoming. We could say that they were like soldiers returning from war with PTSD.
Nepenthe was used to induce forgetfulness of sorrow and bad memories. Some say that it is opium. But the Greeks already had a word for opium and so it seems unlikely.
So this has been a journey about memory and how photography can influence our memories. But before finishing this issue, though the topic is not really exhausted, just one more thing.
Amnesia. I had this idea that as amnesia could be considered the opposite of memory, that perhaps a person who is an amnesiac is unable to recall images. In the past, I might not have thought closely enough about what it means to have amnesia. It is of course, a very sad condition. Perhaps a photo will always look new to them. That is an interesting thought in itself.
Dreamer, East Harlem, June 2017
Dreamer, East Harlem, June 2017
So I leave you with this thought a few days after the day of remembrance for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr:
The time is always right to do what is right. MLK
Comments are welcome and suggestions too. Just hit reply!
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Photography Is - Part Eight
Heart NY, Hell's Kitchen, December 2019
Heart NY, Hell's Kitchen, December 2019
I am my photographs and my photographs are me.
You can’t really separate the two.
So obviously there’s no objectivity!
The idea that photography can represent truth, also means it can represent lies. And everything in between.
Reading list:
  • Foster, Jonathan K. Memory: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Lapham, Louis, Editor. Lapham’s Quarterly: Memory, Winter 2020.
Further viewing:
Does photographing a moment steal the experience from you? | Erin Sullivan
You can also find me at:
Artist, Photographer & Writer - Leanne Staples
Walking Photo Tours & Street Photography Workshops in New York City
That Other Space Shop – Art, Etcetera
Shop for Art, Zines & Publications - Leanne Staples
Did you enjoy this issue?
Leanne Staples

In a world that is overpopulated with images, Curious Frame is where I share my thoughts on photography. It is always about ‘seeing with new eyes’.

I’m Leanne Staples, a photographer, artist, and writer living in New York City. Street photography and lens-based art are my passions, and Curious Frame is where I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these passions.

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