On Memory

“Is history not simply that time when we were not born?” writes Roland Barthes in the very beginning of the second chapter of his book — Camera Lucida. In several paragraphs afterwards, Barthes describes his process “of looking for the truth of the face I had love” examining the photographs of time when he was already born and finally rediscovering his mother in a picture titled Winter Garden when she was little kid “the distinctness of her face, the naive attitude of her hands, the place she had docilely taken without either showing or hiding herself, and finally her expression, which distinguished her”. Interestingly the photograph is not shown in the book, but still makes me as reader recreate the image of my own mother as a little girl and remembering her distinctive features while being far away from home.

People usually talk about taking a photograph as an act of saving memories — special occasions, records of current changes, proof of existence, or simply sending messages to the future and thus creating a bridge in time. Contrariwise, photographing memory can be used to overcome personal or collective trauma and even to alter the memory of society for propaganda or other political reasons. 

The collection of books going under title On Memory presented on the stand at the Library of the ICP examines the concept of time and human mind through photography. Whether it is pictures of ephemeral beauty of extinct sculptures and monuments of Old Paris in Atget’s mind; cycles of life on the backdrop of the big city seen in Trent Parke’s “Dream/Life”; the massive research of aftermath war effects on German society by August Sander; or even the real postcards with, or sometimes without, sentimental notes on them, they all are part of perception of subjective sense of time.

The first practice of making a photomontage dates back to the mid-Victorian era. In 1857 Oscar Gustave Rejlander created commercial image by using a combination of printing techniques going under the name Two Ways of Life.  The most common use of the method in works of Dadaist artists as a way of political expression or even in pioneers of the surreal movement bringing together different existing realities to show the vivacious unconscious mind. 

The Commissar Vanishes by David King is an outcome of 30 of years exploration into public and personal archives of photography, posters, and paintings depicting political figures of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin’s regime. The censorship bureau had three main objectives: falsifying history; glorifying the General Secretary of the Communist Party. Stalin; and keeping the truth undiscovered due to the terror of arrest. Not only did the bureau kept political opponents of the regime from seeing images through the phenomenal use of airbrush and scalpel, but also demanded everyone as a part of personal responsibility to destroy any notion regarding the personae non gratae from books that were in Summary List. The traces of destroyed memories, or what we today call political vandalism of Stalin’s era, can still be found in libraries and homes throughout post-soviet countries. 

Founded in 1959, VIVO agency was in the roots of photography style known under reference of subjective realism. Ten photographers, among which Ikkō Narahara, Eikoh Hosoe and Shōmei Tōmatsu, were changing the course of documentary photography that was prevailing after-war society. Journalistic photography being suppressed during war-time unless serving the common effort of society had a new creation due to the rise of leftist parties bringing up the new birth of photo reportage and its “fearless objectivity”. Unlike latter which was exhibiting the condition of Japan struggling its way out of ashes (works of Ken Domon practicing photography of unstaged fragmented “truth” inspired mostly by Western photographers) photographers of VIVO born during wartime found that objective realism puts limitations on telling personal experience and understanding of countries past and contemporary. Their existential ideas were backed up by the ongoing emergence of the Japanese Neo-Dada movement, New Wave cinema and theater in the period of 1955-1970.

Being highly impacted by the work of VIVO, young Daido Moriyama headed to Tokyo eager to join the agency. Despite the news of the dissolution of latter Daido persuaded to be accepted as assistant in the group and studying contact sheets of Tōmatsu that had huge impact on his later works especially his first published series Nippon Gekijō Shashinchō / Japan: A Photo Theater (1968). Another huge influence on Moriyama’s work was Eikoh Hosoe’s project Ordeal by Roses on which he was assisting. Unlike Hosoe’s staged images aimed to shock, Moriyama found “this grotesque, scandalous and utterly accidental world of humanity” in the streets of Tokyo, its markets, commercial banners, during demonstrations and personal encounters. 

There are 2 reprints of the original Nippon Gekijō Shashinchō / Japan: A Photo Theater (1968) and a sequel Zoku Nippon Gekijō Shashinchō / Japan: A Photo Theater II (1978).

Books collected here are just some views and perceptions of what is memory. The same way brain “forgets” traumatic experiences there are tons of other projects not included in the collection. So, the main question about the memory for me is what is left out from it. 

Books and Articles Mentioned:

Roland Barthes. (1980).  Camera Lucida.

David King. (1997). The Commissar Vanishes (Preface by Stephen F. Cohen). Library of International Center of Photography

Alexandra Munroe. (1961). Postwar Japanese Photography and the Pursuit of Consciousness. Originally Published in Daido Moriyama: Stray Dog.

Other Sources:

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