Indeed, they appear to have taken its revenant affinity with popular spiritualist efforts to decrypt the spirits of the dead as a simple given: the camera is first of all a machine of memory. The photographic artifacts associated with the dead in the 19th century are particularly compelling, but the practice of draping the image in a shroud of mnemonic matter locks of hair, fragments of clothing, a variety of textual addenda extended to all manner of still living bodies and vivid instants which the makers of these curious objects wished to remember. He spoke to Brian Dillon from New York. Two gelatin silver photographs with ink text on verso, silver tape, bullet shell frame.
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Indeed, they appear to have taken its revenant affinity with popular spiritualist efforts to decrypt the spirits of the dead as a simple given: the camera is first of all a machine of memory.
The photographic artifacts associated with the dead in the 19th century are particularly compelling, but the practice of draping the image in a shroud of mnemonic matter locks of hair, fragments of clothing, a variety of textual addenda extended to all manner of still living bodies and vivid instants which the makers of these curious objects wished to remember. He spoke to Brian Dillon from New York.
Two gelatin silver photographs with ink text on verso, silver tape, bullet shell frame. Photo courtesy Cathy Carver. Geoffrey Batchen: Those writers all had good political reasons for wanting to conjure a division between history and memory, even if this division is not, in fact, sustainable.
There are many kinds of memory and all of them involve historical reflection of one kind or another. However, a repetition of their argument allows me to privilege a type of photographic practice that is not otherwise acknowledged in standard histories of photography. The emphasis is on a personal response to photographs. This focus on memory also shifts attention from the producers of photographs to their owners.
Orsova, Gelatin silver photograph covered with ink signatures, in wood frame with glass. The objects you examine in the book and exhibition seem to assume that photography has a mnemonic function, but also to recognize that the image requires some form of supplement if it is to function properly as a reminder or memento. Photography replaces the immediate, physically embracing experience of involuntary memory with itself, with photographic images that are necessarily historical, coherent, informational.
To continue to induce the experience of personal memory, therefore, a photograph has to be transformed. Something has to be done to it to continually drag it and us out of the past and into the present. And the subject of the photograph has to be similarly transformed, from somebody merely seen into someone really felt, from an image viewed at a distance on the wall into an emotional exchange transacted in the heart.
Hence the addition of writing, paint, framing, embroidery, fabric, string, hair, flowers, butterfly wings, or other images to the photographs involved. Some examples have cut or shaped the photograph, incorporated the photograph into a larger setting, or insisted that we touch or handle the photograph.
So the sense of the intimate experience of the image is both something that these objects bring out and something they attempt to supply by the addition of other objects, media, substances?
The addition of materials such as human hair or butterfly wings adds texture and color to photographs that are otherwise flat and monochrome. But it also allows people to add the intimacy of touch to their experience of the photograph. The photograph itself could be literally touched during the making of these ensembles of materials.
But the added materials themselves also had to be worked—for example, the hair had to be braided or woven into patterns—and this involved a considerable amount of skilled handicraft. This extra labor ensured that the act of remembrance would be painstaking, extended through time, deliberated. The ensemble of which the photograph is part was made over time, and this process also means that it takes more time to look at.
And by including these extra textures, it turned looking into a form of touch. There are several photographs of people holding other photographs. What do you think is happening there? Those people who have themselves photographed looking at another photograph want to be remembered as remembering. Memory itself is something that is difficult to make visible the Surrealists tried and the images that resulted mostly look ridiculous.
But the act of remembering, the effort to remember, is something that can be staged for the camera. Sometimes they are even clutching a closed daguerreotype case, a case that could have been opened so we could see the photograph inside occasionally the daguerreotype case in the picture is actually the one now containing this same picture. They all would have known who was depicted in the invisible photograph.
Maker unknown American , Collage, ca. Cigar labels, eight gelatin silver photographs on board. Can you say something about the uses of writing in and on these images?
Sometimes this poignancy is generated in retrospect. One object features two photographs, one of a man in uniform and the other of a woman we presume to be his wife, incorporated into a symmetrical frame made from bullet shells, with two of the bullets projecting directly out into space as if aimed at the viewer.
When we turn this object over, we find text written, in different hands, on the backs of each photograph. Signatures are quite common, which is unsurprising in itself; but they seem to proliferate in odd ways sometimes. In other cases they function in slightly different ways.
A photograph of a ship, the R. Orsova, comes to us totally festooned with signatures, representing the direct touch of many of those on board. This object parodies that tradition, claiming a collective authorship of both the photograph and the cruise it symbolizes. These signatures excessively cover the entire exposed surface of the object, both mat and photograph, turning it into the equivalent of a Chinese painting with accompanying colophons. Verse, whether spoken or sung, was a part of everyday life in the 19th century, a form of common knowledge which to some degree we have lost today.
As a result, these were photographs you heard as well as saw. Do you think these photographs respond to a historical crisis in memory itself? Does the photo re-enchant the thing, and vice versa? I think Rilke is being a little too nostalgic.
But it may be true that the proliferation of material possessions has reduced their individual significance. For the people who made or owned them, the unadulterated photograph was obviously not sufficient. But then neither was a lock of hair or a scrap of hand-writing; both photograph and that extra something must be present for an involuntary memory experience to occur, as if the abstract indexicality of one reinforces and amplifies the more physical indexicality of the other. In my book, I quote historian Richard Terdiman, who has argued that the 19th century was a period in which personal memory was put into crisis by the often bewildering changes wrought by political revolution and industrial modernity.
One might regard the invention and proliferation of photography as both a response to this memory crisis but also as its embodiment and reproduction. Gelatin silver photographs, printed images, pencil and ink on paper, wood frame with glass. Roland Barthes argued that every photograph, no matter how seemingly innocuous, is about death. This is the irony of photography. We photograph a loved one to celebrate and record his or her life, but, by that same act, condemn them to certain death.
Memory obeys a similarly perverse logic. The passing of time that makes memory possible and necessary is also what makes memory fade and die. These hybrid photo-objects are time machines designed to deny the fact of death and put in its place a perpetual present, a kind of eternal half-life—in short, they aim to induce the haunting, comforting presence of a ghost-figure. One of the things missing from the book—and I was surprised by this—is much evidence of photographs of the dead as dead.
Are these, in the 19th century, not subject to the same framing and decoration? Photographing the dead was a major part of commercial practice in the 19th century, a period when seven out of ten children died before they reached the age of two. What would a mother think when viewing an image of her dead child? The photograph shows that child as dead often they are shriveled, distorted, pallid , even when, as in some examples, the child has been posed as if asleep or even had its eyes painted to look as if they are open.
But the mother knows that the child is dead. So what can this photograph signify for her? Perhaps it merely certifies that the child did exist in some prior moment in space and time. What I did include, however, were examples of memento mori that incorporated a photograph of the departed subject taken when he or she was still alive.
Such objects seek to remember a loved one, not as someone now dead, but as someone who was once alive, young and vital, with a future before them. In this kind of object, they will always have that future, a comforting thought, perhaps, for those who have been left behind. You suggest, intriguingly, that these are in some sense works of art. I could have chosen thousands of other, very similar objects and made the same general arguments. There are no masterpieces here. Makers unknown American , Trophy lamp with deer forelegs as base, ca.
Photographic transparencies, four deer forelegs, electric lamp with globe. His first book, In the Dark Room, will be published in
Words and Photos: Geoffrey Batchen’s Writing About Vernacular Photography
A leading figure in the field of photographic studies, Batchen has written numerous books, including Each Wild Idea and Forget Me Not, as well as curated many exhibits. Currently a professor at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand, and graciously took time to answer a few questions about his interactions and thoughts concerning vernacular photography. Geoffrey Batchen shares his passion of photography through words: he reflects on and writes about photographs. Photographer unknown United States , Portrait of a seated woman in a checked dress holding a reversed open daguerreotype of a man, c.
Forget Me Not: An Interview with Geoffrey Batchen
Professor Geoffrey Batchen