On Photography and Memory

Exit Glacier, 2000
Exit Glacier, 2000

Toward a conceptual framework for the Kinogram project.

It is the rare essay on photography — at least in the general sense of photography — that doesn’t touch on, at some turn or another, the unique relationship photography has with memory. Invariably, when one takes a step back and begins to clutch this image or that from the daily stream, perhaps stumbling across some stashed snapshots from years past, a memory is triggered, clear as a bell. So vivid is the recollection, in fact, that the photo can easily shrink to become a sort of footnote, a pointer seizing just one instant in the rush, from which one’s narrative blooms. Those that have shared the represented experience — perhaps they are sitting there beside you, grinning in the sterile wash of the strobe — also share in this reminiscing. And history reigns for a moment. That’s not to say there’s anything at all accurate or exhaustive about the nod back, but it does possess a stubborn pleasure and purpose. That is certain.

There is nothing particularly remarkable about the image above. A glacier — unmoving yet not, witness to and storehouse of millennia — strikes an all too recorded pose. Moments before perhaps someone stood between the photographer and his soon-to-be-subject, then background. Indifferent ice, as it still must be today, almost 4 years later. If you too have made the short trek past the signs indicating Exit Glacier’s relatively brisk retreat (each wooden post driven into the ground marks where the glacier reached at periodic years so that your walk up is also a walk through time), perhaps the image reminds you of your own Kenai adventure. Or, if you’ve never seen a glacier, perhaps it offers a more abstract delight, the sooty meringues reminding you of a frothy pint of beer or sea foam slapping at the shoreline. Maybe you see (remember) both, or neither.

For me, it is an anchor. Through the lens, a chain pulled taut, snagged on the craggy ocean floor of lived experience. The typically produced photograph, the third sign, points to its referent in a most emphatic way, as if conceding that its very existence depended on it. Despite the dozens of rational reasons why one shouldn’t trust a photograph to do anything but mislead, misrepresent, or mis-take the world, our first comments are often: “Where was this taken?”, “Who is that standing there? Cousin Billy? He looks so young!”, “What is that bit in the corner?” I share this digitally scanned image here as both a specimen of my work and as a personal memento of time spent in Alaska on holiday. Nothing very remarkable about that — cameras are among a traveler’s essential accessories — except to say that my reading of the photograph, my pleasure in its nondescript sky and pinched shoulders of ice, cannot escape memory. In fact, it is the anticipation of remembering that likely raised my right index finger to the shutter release in the first place.

Kinogram, a follow-up project to Photomoment that has been in the works for the past four years, off and on, is happening soon. Among other things, the project attempts to reverse (or at least disrupt) the circuitry between memory and photography discussed above. Kinogram sketches the possibility to both reshape memory and shape experience (on the cusp of memory). I promise I’ll have more information soon.