Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Makin' Memories

People say that photographs preserve memories. It's a trite marketing pitch. It reminds me of the curious little exchanges that occur when someone dies, let's say, skydiving. Someone will say "at least he died doing something he loved" and then some wag, usually me, will express surprise that he loved slamming into the ground at 120 miles per hour.

When you go get your photograph taken, you're not actually there to preserve a memory. The memory would be of being photographed, after all which is generally not what is depicted, and generally not the memory we're looking for. At least not with formal portraiture.

Here's a picture from John, who lives in Sooke, BC (which isn't quite as remote as it sounds, it's just around the corner from the provincial capital, which I must admit, is kind of remote).

Picture removed per DMCA takedown notice filed by John Penner, the photographer in question. I have filed a counterclaim on the grounds that my usage here is clearly Fair Use as a transformative commentary, in the meantime you may admire John's pictures at John's Photography. At any rate, I think it's John Penner based on evidence I have in hand.

Now, John is a professional with 30 years of experience, and he helps out on one of the more dysfunctional internet forums I know of, but he can stick lights into places, and achieve accurate focus. This picture makes my teeth itch. I hate this sort of crap so very very hard. Not only it is wildly dated and weirdly framed, the guy in the picture is just doing his Camera Face, with his mouth hanging dopily open. There's no precious memory here, there's just a horrible picture, and probably a sort of tedious afternoon. I dare say the customer is perfectly happy, basically because it's "clear" and it looks like him.

The picture surely pleases him, he's got all his stuff in the frame there and whatnot. The specific memory it evokes is tedious, but the general associations are probably pretty positive.

Here's another photo, probably some engagement session:

It occurred to me a little later that the takedown notice is in fact unclear what the notice was about. It is possible that the other photographer, whose photograph I used under the same fair use criteria here, was in fact the filer. In order to comply with google's ToS to the best of my ability, I am removing all material to which I am making the fair use claim from this post, pending the results of my counter-claims. These photos can be found at James Tang Photography.

Again, we have the artifice of a "photo session" in play here. Most likely the couple has dressed up specially for this photo shoot, most likely the photographer is directing/posing (you can take courses on how to pose Happy Couples so that they Look Happy). Still, it is at least taken at that time of life, when the whole relationship genuinely does have that flavor, the freshness and excitement of the recent engagement. While the couple is in truth playacting for the camera, they're at least playacting a scene they believe in.

Again, the customers are without a doubt delighted. They've got, probably, exactly the pictures they had in mind.

They went out that day to help make these pictures, they worked at it, and here they are. The salient memory is of work, of standing in a field trying to hear the photographer's instructions while also trying to look beautiful and feeling a little weird and itchy wearing these clothes out in the middle of a field. The work, however, was successful. Why in God's name you'd want these pictures is a bit of a mystery, but they are a thing people seem to genuinely want.

Anyways, it is much the same deal. The specific memories evoked are likely tedious and not very comfortable, but the general sensation, the idea behind the pictures, is pleasing. At least for the moment.

I do these things with kids from time to time, with some moderate success, and never for money. So, I, too, am guilty here. The pictures made are quite nice, and record the appearance of the child, and even a flash of personality on good days. The process is awkward, not fully pleasant. The specific memories associated with the pictures, probably not wonderful, but the general era evoked is, well, it is whatever it is, no?

Twenty years from now, I dare say the memories of the "photo session" will be vague, but perhaps the memories of that time in the relevant lives will pop back in to focus when the subjects gaze upon the pictures? That's certainly how it works for me. Pictures of me as a kid evoke no recollection at all of being photographed, but to be fair often very little to no recollection of that time of my life either. A few later pictures evoke the time, without evoking the photographer.

Anything resembling a formal portrait, though, evokes memories of itchiness, discomfort, a generally weird sensation. We didn't do much formal portraiture.

What about a successful proper portrait session, as opposed to some low rent retail shop?

Ideally, this is going to land someplace a little further in the territory of an actual pleasant memory. Here's a guy I know, a stained glass artist I did a little fluffy interview with for our neighborhood "newspaper":

What's Erin's memory of this experience? I don't know, but I will hazard that it was a little sensation of being "on the spot" a little "arg, there's a guy taking pictures" but also a memory of a mildly pleasant conversation about his work. Erin was working as I shot, I have a bunch of pictures of his hands, his work, and so on. This is just a moment when he felt the camera come up, and so "posed" for just an instant, gave me a bit of a camera-ready-grin, and then went back to work.

We didn't go to a place where photography is done, I went to his place where stained glass is done. And then I made him a bit uncomfortable, certainly. But surely not as awkward as the fellow in the uniform up at the top. And it certainly wasn't as big or intrusive a production. The result, I am biased enough to say, is about a billion times better even though the lighting is a bit iffy and, to be honest, the focus is not in the right spot at all. Kirk Tuck would have hit the technicals much better, and most likely done at least as well on the "moment of genuine personality."

Next up we have candids, or near-candids. These girls are just hanging about enjoying a sunny day. Only one of them even sees me, she said to her friends "he's taking a picture!" immediately after this, to get them to look up and smile. I took that picture too, but it wasn't as good.

The memory here would probably be of waiting around with girlfriends on a glorious sunny day for, well, whatever they were waiting for. I hope they were having a good time, and I like to imagine that the guy with the camera was a bare ripple on their day.

Anyways, the point is, assuming I have one, that the "memories" associated with a photo are kind of all over the place. There's memories associated with the actual taking of the picture, but also then memories of that era of life, of whatever the picture was intended to capture and preserve. It's complicated.


  1. There is no end to speculation. For instance, what is one to make of Victorian memento mori photos?

    1. You know, I've been nothingn further and the first picture here, the military gentleman, is actually part of an ancient tradition of sitting around bring itchy while someone paints you. More to come, I think. What is a Medici thinking when some bloke paints him, what function does that painting serve?

    2. I wonder how far one can draw a parallel between the processes of painting and photography. The time element alone distinguishes them. We've all heard about 'important people' granting photographers 10 mins to get the shot. Painters do, I suppose, have a better opportunity to build up some sort of rapport with their sitters.

  2. Photos in which I am the subject rarely trigger any memories of the photo being taken or the circumstances around it.

    On the other hand, photos for which I was the photographer usually trigger many memories of the photo being taken and the circumstances around it.

    I guess this means I am far more invested in the process of taking photos than I am the process of being photographed ... interesting, yes?

  3. All of these photos that you've stolen from other photographers look good to me. This is just petty.

    1. As I said, I'm sure the customers liked them. I don't. Neither of which is really here or there, the point I'm driving at here is how these things work.

    2. Ok. Please have something of substance to say if you elect to make further remarks. Thanks.

  4. You sound like a sad lonely person who think here's only one way to create photos. I'm so sorry for your lost.

    1. Very kind of you, but I assure you I'm doing OK.

  5. Like most social media today it is/was a form of advertising. We are creating an image of what we want the world to think about us. We are happy/in love/competent/etc. And of course a part of it has always been motivated by envy/fomo/fake it till you make it

    1. Related to the advertising aspect but different, I would submit...a combination of idealization, integration (in the mathematical sense), and... summarization? that's not quite it, but it's approaching the ball park.
      A specific example from my recent reading - Thomas Moran, when he met the Grand Canyon, was BLOWN AWAY by this very charismatic subject and generated a canvas that was about 7x10 feet (sic) that was promptly snapped up by the Department of the Interior and is on display in...the Smithsonian? (google "Chasm of the Colorado" - "Moran Grand Canyon" will prob.s take you to Yellowstone.) This image is NOT a photographic replica, it's an emotional amalgam representing an integration of Moran's impressions and of what he wanted to convey about the MASSIVE subject, and you can see this when you look at the painting. He apparently used phrases like "I have to be full of my subject" and "my personal scope is not realistic" and "an expression of the emotion".
      My next point brings me back around to portraiture - painters of portraits, back in "the day", were also not entirely factual or realistic - the image they produced was a summary (not of their, but) of the customer's collection of personal stuff they FELT was important, presumably often the power, rank, accomplishments, religious affiliations, and so on that amolitor mentions, but sometimes children, dogs, art, gardens, scientific discoveries, etc., etc..
      So I would submit that modern portrait photographers, as itchy and dopey as the experience may be, are producing something along the same lines as Moran and ye olde portrait-painters - a representation of The Important Stuff All Dragged Together In A Slightly Weird Awkward Way (which amolitor certainly acknowledges.) Go look at the Chasm, you'll see what I mean in that instance, whooooa.
      And that's a product, and that's OK.... A lively image that reveals the person's personality is a different product, and you apparently need to go to go to Kirk Tuck and hang out for a bit with pastries and so on, which sounds like a very fun deal :)
      (Postscript - yes, my analogy is not exact in that the Grand Canyon did NOT hire Thomas Moran to paint its portrait and depict its important bits, but I like to imagine it would be flattered, and after a period of reflection, pleased as well.)

  6. Hmm. Some strange comments here. However... "The salient memory is of work, of standing in a field trying to hear the photographer's instructions while also trying to look beautiful and feeling a little weird and itchy wearing these clothes out in the middle of a field."

    I think, Andrew, you are being reductionist here, and really missing the point. I don't think the memory of making the photo is what counts, it is the memory the photo stimulates. If you re-wrote your first sentence a bit, something like "People think that photos evoke memories", I think it would be way more accurate.

    An example. I have digitised all my slides from the 70s, and most of my negatives from the very first one with my first "serious" camera (a Werra 1), aged 21. Oddly, that photo was of me, holding the box, rather than taken by me! I have no memory of who took it.

    Anyway, some way into this lengthy task (carried out over a couple of years), I found a photo of a friend of mine, standing braced in the wind, long hair streaming out behind in the strong wind, taking a photo on top of the Quantock Hills in Somerset, England. I met this friend (Chris) in Australia, and he had been my Best Man there, but I had no memory of meeting him back in England. Gradually, as I stared at that picture, and later in email discussion with Chris, we worked out how and when it happened. That photo re-ignited a memory I had almost completely lost. It is a photo I now have fond memories of! (There are layers and layers, her...)

    We also have a standard family shoot from the 80s, It's awful. I cannot look at it or remember the occasion with any pleasure. The process intruded, and for the purposes of memory, the photo failed, except for showing us what we looked like back then when really embarrassed and uncertain!

    Anyway, please keep noodling, but as I say I think some of this post was missing the point. It's not the process of getting the picture that matters. It's what stimulated you to want your picture taken that you want to remember, and the photo (if successful) can help that.

    1. Those are some really sharp observations. Thanks, and thanks for sharing your memory of your friend. Will ponder.

  7. I've got a truly terrible wedding photo, the only one I have really, taken by my sister in law at the registry office. My wife's head is perfectly surrounded by a square picture frame, giving her a weird cubist ikon look.