Photographic memory

Brian Dillon

Brian Dillon


Thinking about Photography, worrying about photographs, and wondering what might develop in the space between the Object and the Art, it occurs to me that I have never owned a photograph album. Faced with the oddity of that fact, and the singular absence of any such volume from my childhood home, where there were certainly stacks of yellowing Kodak envelopes containing haphazardly crammed snapshots and neatly pocketed negatives, perhaps it makes sense to say that when it comes to curating our own personal photographic museums, there are two kinds of collector, two distinct attitudes to the mass of images that a life attracts. There are the people of the book: those for whom the album is essential, a means not just of preserving but of fixing, cataloguing, dating and filing their intimate archives. Once embarked on, this path is interminable; more photographs will require more albums, further opportunities for careful mounting and annotation. The album also demands a degree of ruthless pruning which some of us, less transfixed by the fantasy of the collection as orderly constellation, can find intolerable.

Because there are also the others: the hoarders, envelope-stuffers, elastic-band merchants, squirrelers-away of shoeboxes and ancient suitcases made of odd, obsolete materials. In the anthropology of the private photograph, these are the people of the dust: they behave like displaced persons, bundling their memories into dusky nooks as if some day somebody (they themselves?) will come looking for their collections. Their photographs are arranged not according to the sequence of accumulation but in obedience to some enigmatic principle of affinity: certain images simply belong together. I’ve sometimes – gloomily mesmerized, say, by a photograph of my grandparents in their Sunday best, blinking by a broken farmyard window some time in the early 1930s, and the image of their urbanized descendants half a century later – canvassed the oddest variation of this thought: I imagine the pictures obscurely communing, comparing familial fortunes across the decades.

Our relationship with our own photographs (what Roland Barthes, meditating on his own familial photographic inheritance, called ‘the stock’) is perhaps always suspended somewhere between the two poles: forever casting about, even in the perfect chronology of a well-kept collection, for that fugitive moment, mis-dated occasion or half-recalled face that sets the entire photographic frieze in confusing motion. Our attitude to private photographs never settles into a straightforward encounter with ‘the photograph’, the individual image as object of extended rumination or reflection: we’re always off on other tacks, sounding out other tremors, looking for secret correspondences and contrasts between times and places, faces and festivals.

A hopelessly disorganized hoarder, I am intrigued to find that I share my home with an album-keeper: our joint stock of images is regularly slipped between the constantly renewed plastic sleeves of more crackling faux-leather volumes than I have ever seen in one place. My own private collection nests dustily in a crippled box file in the corner of my study messily reserved for more prestigious photographic anthologies. Hefty hardbacks accommodating the complete works of Julia Margaret Cameron, the landscapes of Henri Cartier Bresson, the lavishly slip-covered portraits of Richard Avedon, compete with this paltry selection of photographs inherited since the deaths of my parents: a scattering of fifty or so relics of the familial horde. Is it only sentimental impulse that sends me scuttling for the file every few months, in search of an image darkly recalled which will somehow complete a train of reminiscence or set it back on track when infuriatingly derailed by a lapse in recollection (who was in the garden that summer afternoon? When was the last time I saw X before Y died?). Or does this shuttling back and forth, this frenzied point-changing of the rails of photographic memory, actually tell us something about the nature of the medium itself, about photography as an Art, albeit a ‘middle-brow art’, as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote? Are we ever really fully in the presence of a single photograph as unique and authentic work of art? Can we ever look at a photograph without wanting to expand its horizons, set it scurrying in the labyrinth of a collection, an album, a series?


I thought these thoughts again this summer at Tate Modern’s first major exhibition of photography. ‘Cruel and Tender’ was dedicated to ‘the real in twentieth-century photography’, and I began to wonder, pausing in one of the gallery’s cafés, how both curatorial language and curious public had arrived at a point where it was necessary to suggest that photography had something to do with ‘the real’. Wasn’t this beyond doubt? A few more or less banal thoughts about the exhausted abdication of the real in contemporary visual culture – thoughts which seemed (an even more banal thought, if a popular one these days) somehow no longer adequate to a world still blinded by the hypnagogic afterglow of a very real war – swam half-evolved in my mind, until I remembered that in the days before my visit to the Tate I had used my new, sleek and tiny digital camera to photograph, from the exhibition’s catalogue and a pile of reference books, some of the key works of the major photographers on show.

Bleeping the camera to life, I tracked through the images that I had imagined, in one of those reliably illusory moments of archival fever or annotative delirium, would neatly obviate the need to write any notes before seeing the show. I had my own svelte archive to hand, little glowing reminders stored in the camera’s memory as pointers to my prior obsessions, the images I simply had to see. Some, I had already come across: the lurid Southern ordinariness of William Eggleston, the first truly great colour photographer; the equally saturated colours of Martin Parr’s decidedly less engaging photographs of the British middle class at play (nothing there, really, as I had suspected, beyond Parr’s irritatingly insistent judgment of the fried breakfast, the slurped ice cream, the sunburned skin: you can almost hear him, out of frame, snidely and redundantly informing you just how tacky-but-touching it all is); the simply perfect eye of Robert Frank: the passengers of a New Orleans trolley bus framed in attitudes of joy, annoyance, exhaustion, while the serried panels above their windows reflect a warped, hall-of-mirrors streetscape.

I swiftly deleted the photographs I had seen or thought I no longer needed to see (notebook and pencil had anyway taken over by now), and stopped, briefly fuddled, at an image that surely had no place in the Tate’s cruelly tender, tenderly cruel, array: a photograph, captured in close-up a few weeks earlier, of a snapshot of my parents crossing O’Connell Bridge some time in the late fifties or early sixties. Now, this picture is the oddest object in my tattered file: I’ve puzzled over it for years, trying to determine just when it was taken, and how I managed never to imagine, let alone bring up in conversation, my parents’ life in the years before their marriage in the late sixties. Here they are, snapped no doubt by a professional photographer who subsequently persuaded them to buy it (I imagine he had no trouble: they must have known how glamorous they looked, a sober, church-going Burton and Taylor, suited and gowned and heading north across the river at night).

At one point in my life it had become an obsession: reproduced, framed, photocopied and endlessly speculated upon; I had finally photographed it one afternoon with the curious notion that if I could capture that scene once more, myself, it might give up on the computer screen the secret it had kept in all its material incarnations. But it hadn’t worked: the image seemed to need to be bundled with all the other family photographs, to ply them with its own soft, secret, nocturnal language made up of the tenderest brush of fabric and limbs that brings the couple into frame by the bridge’s balustrade, as if to say: all that family stuff, all those markers of the generations’ fractured movement, all those stiff groupings of bored siblings, all of that is all very well, but really, you never guessed, did you, about this luminous photographic romance?

I started back into the gallery space a little dazed, frankly embarrassed to have found myself mistaking the camera’s tiny screen for the grille of a photographic confessional, when really my mind ought to have been on the rigorous job at hand: figuring out what the Tate meant by ‘the real’ and how that might relate to the history of a medium defined, if not exhausted, by such concerns as lighting techniques, exposure times, compositions both classic and radically broken, and the whole complex scenography of an art form’s attitude to its social sphere. Surely this ‘real’ had little or nothing to do with my solipsistic harping on family albums, some crudely fantasized flirtation between a single enigmatic snapshot (actually not that enigmatic; if only I’d ask the right aunts, its provenance would be cleared up in an instant) and a tattered collection I was too lazy or sentimental to stick in an album and forget?


There is another history of the photographic album. It begins in the nineteenth century, with those variously sinister efforts to capture and classify the endless variety of the human face. The Victorian photographic atlases of physiognomy (Darwin’s work on the expression of emotions in humans or animals, the physician Charcot’s distinctly unsettling studies of his ‘hysterical’ patients) are the pseudo-scientific precursors of the great photographic projects of the early twentieth century: Eugène Atget’s record of a vanishing Paris, August Sander’s attempt to map the topography of the century’s social types, and – most famously – Walker Evans’s gargantuan collection of images of the stark lives of the American poor in the 1930s. Evans’s two-year journey through a landscape ravaged by the Depression was well represented at the Tate, but a single image seemed to suggest how close the effort at encyclopedic objectivity can come to the seclusion of the private collection. This photograph is the thinnest of frontiers that separates the project of the historical atlas from the domestic album.

On a dark ground – the wall of the house of the Tengle family in Alabama – it depicts, mounted at a slight diagonal, two photographs nailed to the wooden surface. The image on the left, one of its corners neatly scissored off, is actually barely there at all. It shows an old woman, dressed in the crudest of garments, her hair scraped down on her head and her hands resting on the grubby front of her dress. The photograph is either overexposed or faded to the point where little persists but these twisted hands and her extraordinary face: eyes sunk, her mouth a long slant at precisely the angle of the belt around her waist. The second photograph shows four children – a baby, two toddlers and an indeterminately older child – sitting on a patch of scrub, dark foliage behind them partly shadowing their faces. They squint into the sun, bare feet on the dusty earth, and the youngest struggles to escape to the right of the frame. The photograph is entitled ‘Family Snapshots in the Tengle Home’. One’s first thought is that these are the only family snapshots, these two tattered remnants that nonetheless, out of the barest evidence, conjure up a sort of grimly attenuated album, the most fragile reminders of two instants in the family’s history.

But Evans’s photograph is a more devious emanation of his archival imagination than it seems at first. The evidence is elsewhere, in a photograph of an interior wall in the Tengle home, showing a haphazard display of calendars, magazine covers (‘The Progressive Farmer’), collaged and unidentifiable scraps which could be children’s pictures, and there, stranded on a patch of flaking woodwork, the photograph of the old woman: barely recognizable but for its telltale missing corner. It turns out that Evans has removed the image from its place as part of this ragged bedroom shrine to the passage of time and placed it, alongside the photograph of the children, on an external wall: a vision of the family album curtailed and condensed.

In an essay entitled ‘The Cruel Radiance of What Is’,* Jeff L. Rosenheim writes of this strange intrusion into the family’s intimate collection – ‘as if by removing the snapshots from their secure places inside the home he had violated a sacred tomb and unearthed a long-deceased body’ – but also suggests that Evans might have acted at the instigation of the Tengles themselves. Apart from the starkly resonant beauty of the resulting image, you can imagine Evans’s collector’s mind latching onto this tiny relic of the family album as a sort of allegory of his whole project: the terrible modesty of his subjects’ efforts to retain a record of the succession of the generations. But what impulse might have driven the Tengles to have their ‘album’ memorialized like this? Did they perhaps have a sense that this sort of record was an opportunity to set their family history adrift in time, to give it a frail permanence? Whatever the motivations underlying the construction of the image, ‘Family Snapshots in the Tengle Home’ is among Evans’s most affecting photographs: it binds together the drive towards an encyclopedic archive and the fragile secrets of the family album. Its strangeness is a clue to the real link between the photograph as personal talisman and its status as documentary evidence, to the medium’s confusion of cruelty and tenderness.


The ‘real’ of photography, then, or the reality of a certain strand in photography’s relation to the real as object of mere implacable record, is perhaps this conjunction of the magical object and its austere insertion into the series or atlas. In fact, the two are inseparable: the regular syntax of the series becomes suffused with a certain mystery; it circulates in eerie complicity with the individual image, which in turn is oddly emptied of specific significance. The great systematizers and taxonomists in the history of photography have always known this: whatever the guiding framework, for example, of August Sander’s prodigious project to record the ‘People of the Twentieth Century’, the notion of a humanity corresponding to clearly delineated categories sits uneasily with the specifics of an individual image.

In the section of Sander’s work devoted to the family, his subjects are for the most part designated according to profession or class (mostly bourgeois). But a single image stands out first by virtue of its title: ‘Widower with Sons’. The squat widower is a mass of round forms, bald and shaven head atop a portly frame and the shining curves of his boots. He looks perhaps modestly prosperous, gazing somberly away from the camera, his arms loosely around his two sons. It is the sons whose gaze holds you: the elder one openly, quizzically; the younger more tentatively, slightly blurred. Their heads are shaved too, and they are dressed identically in rumpled shirts with large round collars (you can sense the proximity of these garments to earlier sailor-style attire) and shorts that come just below their knees. They are aged, maybe, fourteen and twelve; the first striking thing about their appearance is that they are too old for these clothes. Not only are their shirt sleeves too short, but their clothes seem old, too scuffed to be quite suitable for this curtailed portrait, this stranded trio for whom the family snapshot can only bring to mind the absent mother.

From the top button of the father’s waistcoat, a watch chain curves towards the lapels of his coat: or, rather, four slim chains, radiating towards his sons, who also sport watches, their weight visibly stretching the pockets of their shirts, the chains hanging awkwardly from the shirt buttons. It is as if the father has armoured his grief with an awkward replication of his own appearance: three bald heads, three timepieces reminding us of the family’s precarious place in time. Unlike Sander’s other depictions of the family, this one is less interested in the markers of social status than it is in the chasms of memory. Here, his subjects grasp their own images as desperately as Evans’s Alabama farmers clung to the photographic relics of their family history: in the full knowledge that the photograph marks only the absence at its centre, the pure void of time itself. The Widower is defined only by his loss, a loss that spreads itself wanly over the surface of a photograph which says: there will be no more family portraits except as images of that loss.

In contrast to – but also in secret collusion with – Sander’s grand project, the more modest undertaking of Nicholas Nixon takes up this mournful aspect of the family photograph in a darkly alluring register. Since 1975, Nixon has photographed annually his wife and her three sisters, in the same three-quarter-length line-up. ‘The Brown Sisters’ is a record of ravishing decay. At the Tate, the photographs circled a small room. It had been impossible to get a sense of the real force of this work from the exhibition’s catalogue, which includes only a handful of the photographs. Seeing images extracted from the series, it is the mere fact of ageing that strikes the viewer; faced with the entire work, something else intervenes, something like an impossibly subtle taxonomy of character, of the slightest nuances of expression and demeanour transformed into a slowly revolving diorama of personality.

‘The Brown Sisters’ ought to sound a single, slightly sentimental note, but its oddest effect is that of causing the viewer to imagine that the sisters, arranged around the room, are looking back at themselves with surprise, regret, amusement, holding their own gazes in a vertiginous sense of their own fragility. It is the kind of work that it is too easy to dismiss with some such cliché as ‘deeply personal’, but it has a taxonomic chill that recalls the physiognomic albums of the nineteenth century or Muybridge’s motion studies. It combines the guilt attached to looking at a selection of family snapshots and watching a relative age before your eyes with the clinical exactitude of some imagined Victorian medical project: ‘The Ageing of the Human Female’. More than anything, it suggests that the collection of family photographs is a kind of primitive domestic cinema: you want to run the film of these beautiful faces back and forth forever, restoring youthful passiveness or middle-aged vigour at will. Of all the serial works on show at ‘Cruel and Tender’, this one caused the most stalling and stumbling among the slowly circulating crowd, as viewers, having reached the final image, turned back to give the Brown sisters a miraculous reverse plunge into time past.


At the Tate, it seemed as if the album was everywhere. If the history of twentieth-century photography was for so long dominated by the instant, by the effort to capture those moments when the real is frozen for a fraction of a second as surprise, as monochrome novelty (the photograph as utterly, astonishingly singular), it seems that contemporary photographers have reverted (if that is the word for a process that has given us so many hauntingly multiplied serial projects) to a fascination with the private and public status of the album. The patron saints of this tendency are the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose territory is not the minutely unfolding temporality of the intimate image but a no less haunted determination to capture the poetry of the most ostensibly inhuman structures. Since the late 1950s, the Bechers have recorded the blankly repetitive yet subtly differentiated forms of industrial architecture. In the first of many books devoted to this tireless and strangely gripping romance with the lineaments of water towers, gas tanks, coal bunkers and grain silos, they christened their forms ‘accidental sculptures’, in obvious homage to an earlier avant-garde practice of the found object, the detritus of modern technology reborn as unintended artwork. But in truth, the real value of these glum structures lies elsewhere. These are the architectural equivalents of the visibly ageing faces (to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase) of the ‘loved ones, absent or dead’ who loom like familiar spectres from our private albums.

The Bechers’ photographs are among the most melancholic in the history of photography: they trace, with an astonishing level of detail and formal sensitivity, a gloomy history of architectural abandonment. Even the structures which are still in use have taken on a broodingly archaic appearance, as if spalling ironwork and stained concrete were in fact the modern world’s version of a romantically ruined, marmoreal picturesque. Their status as relics of a century’s technological dreams is, however, only really apparent when you see the images in series, when a whole wall, for example, of antique and modern gasometers reveals the minutest, therefore most moving, variations. The great documentary project becomes a homage both to the uniform alliance of form and function and to the startling disparity of its implementation. In short, we are in the presence of something so close to the private album’s museum of family resemblances that every photographic effort to inhabit the space between the simple record of a human face and the unadorned treatment of a discrete object starts to look merely melodramatic, caught up in the petty dramas of composition and surprise. Suddenly, you want nothing more from photography than this: the most straightforward image of a face or facade, replicated to infinity in all its tiny and tragic variations, a melancholy anatomy of time’s tortuous movement. Every photograph, once set into the laconic rhythm of the series, starts to look like a face: long lost or loved, and moving, almost imperceptibly, along the corridors of chronology.

It is the fate of family albums to be lost, dispersed, fractured into wandering mementos that no longer recall the faces, objects and events depicted, but the fact of photography itself. Time passes, generations pass on, and without warning the image ceases to adhere to a cherished moment and instead reminds us of what it must have meant to those who once caressed it. The album, witness to a still unfolding time, becomes instead the archive, testament to a time long gone. The greatest photographers have always understood that whatever the aesthetic, political or personal frameworks that inform their burgeoning series, they can never quite control the advent of that instant when the anthology to be interpreted, read like a lesson, becomes a chaplet of mysteries, fragments to be ‘told’ like the beads of a rosary.

Cruel and Tender: the real in twentieth-century photography was at Tate Modern, London, from 5 June to 7 September.


* In Maria Morris Hambourg, et al, Walker Evans (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000).

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 12 Autumn 2003