Noted photographer Sally Mann has often commented on her observation that photography destroys memory. In conversation with Charlie Rose at the 92nd Str Y, Mann reflected on the photographic image’s tendency toward “subverting,” “displacing,” “undercutting,” and “stealing from memory.” All too quickly, reminiscence of the photograph supplants memory of the originating event.
Perhaps it is the ubiquitous proliferation of the image over the past century and a half, that has posed a greater and more observable threat. Increasing since the invention of chemically recording light as static image, the petrified depictions of fractions of seconds are now everywhere. The photographic image solidifies a moment or an approximation thereof. Accurate or misleading, that moment is then mythologized as truth. The image, reified, open to industrial replication and endless reproduction, occludes memory.
Memory itself is mutable enough on its own, and this may be precisely the intersection where memory and photography find their mutual transfection. In her book The Twenty-four Hour Mind, Rosalind Cartwright argues that “memory is never a precise duplicate of the original; instead, it is a continuing act of creation.” I would add ‘re-creation.’ Memory becomes saga. Saga becomes legend. Legend becomes myth. The gilt Icon eventually replaces the saint it represents.
In the almost 200 years since Nicéphore Niépce made the first light-fast camera photo (1824) and Henry Fox Talbot produced the first silver chloride negative (1835), the photographic image (analog then digital) has been on a head-spinning ascendency. We now live in an unprecedented world of images. The gilt icon of ages past, the altar triptych with its eternal dramatis personae, was a singular awe-inducing experience. Modernity—as encapsulated in the endless reproducibility of images and words—has given rise to a new magical landscape, personal and pagan in its fetishism.
Susan Sontag writes in On Photography, “All photographs are memento mori.”
They evidence the subject’s mutability and mortality, she observes. They capture an instance in time that will never occur again. Living or dead, the faces that look back at us from family snapshots are no more. Time has moved on, that fractional moment is past. Every photograph is an evidentiary exhibit of impermanence, itself impermanent as light slowly fades that which light and chemistry created.
In truth a photograph is only the approximation of the single moment. Even this is a treachery. In fact a photograph captures some fraction of a second. The image and technology approaches the single moment in halflife steps but will never attain the dimensionless point.
In the Heart Sutra Avalokiteśvara tells Śariputra, “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.”
Of photography Sontag tells us, “Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision.” What color is the mind? What are we taking a picture of when we depress the shutter? Is it capturing the scene in front of the lens, or the mental vision behind my eyes? Photographic truth or my idiosyncratic mental editing of what is seen?
The world we inhabit is an edited montage of stimuli. William Burroughs described it as a “cut-up”. We make choices. Sontag described the act of photography as inherently violent. Meanwhile, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche extolls us to be nonaggressive in our art. How does one reconcile these seemingly incompatible positions? When we frame our vision, constraining the infinite into the finite dimensions of the ground glass, what mind is behind the vision?
Reportage is seen as embodying photographic truth, but it is often an aggressive act toward the subject, the viewer, or both. The war photographer has brought incredibly important evidence of atrocities. It’s hard to cover up when a picture speaks a thousand words. How is the photographer exempted from the damnation of the observer who did not act?
How does one frame a still image with no mind? Or maybe more appropriately, how do we make an image of no mind. Trungpa describes this as realization of ‘unconditional symbolism,’ where we appreciate “the empty gap of our state of mind” and begin “to project ourselves into that non-reference point.”
Is a photograph the past, the now, or something yet to be? What are these catalogs of images and words? reference points in a personal cosmology? a rotating exhibition of impermanence in a mental museum?
In my own ancestral mythology, there is in the land of Asgard, home of the gods, Yggdrasil, the World Tree. At its roots, is the well of Urd around which gather the three sisters, the norns. Urd is the past. Skuld is that which is to come. Between them the present, Verdandi. Most telling, her name translates to “becoming”. The present moment is not stasis but potency.
New Orleans, 2017
From The Desire Line: Memory & Impermanence from Rebel Satori Press (2017)