Post Bacc: Week Three: Photos/Memories

So I got this book awhile back that is a collection of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ snapshots. Although he really wasn’t known as a photographer, he was sort of obsessed with compulsively taking photos for a majority of his career.

Anyways, as my great uncle is beginning to pack up his things to move, we have been doing a number of family events and every time he has brought some photos for my family of when my dad was young, or I/my sister were young, or even when my (paternal) grandparents were young. We’ve always sort of been family oriented, in a strange way, in my family; that is, my dad has raised us to believe that you should stop at nothing to help those you consider family, even if you think they’re idiots. Anyways, I have gotten to view a number of events I wasn’t present at, or didn’t have recollection of. I even got to read a letter one of my great uncle’s had written during Vietnam while he was stationed over there (I never met him, but he sure sounded a lot like me, which was so strange/surreal) and this has caused me to reflect on the function of photography/photographs.

For more people, photography (at least dark room photography) functions as truth. When I took dark-room photography in high school, I initially had the impression that these were going to be the “honest” photos, since we couldn’t manipulate them on photoshop or anything else. What I learned was the art of framing; the art of the photographer choosing what is to be seen and what needs to go. I was a little disturbed by that, really, because I knew for a lot of people, myself included at the time, photographers were the “honest ones”. I believed that a photographer functioned similarly to a documenter; that their presence was neutral and unbiased, because really, they could only capture what was in front of them.

This is my proof, Duane Michals, 1974
The text reads:“This photograph is my proof. There was that afternoon, when things were still good between us, and she embraced me, and we were so happy. It did happen. She did love me. Look for yourself.” 

John Hilliard –
Cause of Death, 1970
Same photo is cropped four different times, offering four different causes of death depending on what it appeared to be as a result of the cropping.

But once I realized exactly what framing really entailed in a non-drawing/non-painting context, photography really became a lot like painting and drawing. Scenes could be manipulated for aesthetic values…but did that really change anything?

Roland Barthes (which I read in my second dark room photography class in college) said: “Cameras are clocks for seeing” and I really had no idea what was meant by that, even though I was asked to do a mini-paper on it. We had spent all this time learning about some other manipulative techniques besides framing, like exposure time, and even double exposures/layering techniques. It was during this time that I really learned that formal techniques do alter things. And I sort of got mad, because I felt I had been lied to or cheated or something by every photographer in existence. But as I got more into semiotics (not again!), I began to understand that seeing, even perceiving, is not necessarily a means to truth.

Documentation methods, like photography, always hold this ideal, as if they’re better because they’re more honest. And maybe they are “more honest”, but they’re still not truth; that is, Cameras/photography really does mirror the art of seeing, but in the end, is seeing truth? No. Most people can accept that what our eyes see is truth; that is, unless we are aware that a person is having a schizophrenic break, or in a desert seeing turkey legs to eat when it’s really just a cactus. However, statistics show that we only really notice a small percentage of the things around us (Numerous tests have been done to check eyewitness identification skills, estimating that around 75% really are wrong in what they ‘remember’, even when it comes to things like skin color)

Barthes continued to state: “What the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once; it mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially”.  This led me to reflect a bit on memory and the idea of “truthfulness” in photography. A photo becomes a sort of memorabilia/bit of nostalgia, and also a surrogate for a memory. It almost operates as seeing’s simulacrum if you dwell on it too much. Torres talks about how photographs really function as a time-capsule; Looking at a photograph is really much like looking at the stars; you aren’t looking at what currently is, but what was, if you can even trust a photo in the first place. I suppose the correct terminology would really be “what was, as you perceived it”

In that way, I suppose photos really do function similarly to memory. Everyone thinks that memories are what happened; that memories, like photos, are proof and truth. And I guess I’m kind of interested in the fact that photography and memory are very similar, and also are very misunderstood. I think they both have merit, don’t get me wrong, but not as “truth tellers”.

  • Memory reconsolidation is rooted in the fact that every time we recall a memory we also remake it, subtly tweaking the neuronal details. Although we like to think of our memories as being immutable impressions, somehow separate from the act of remembering them, they aren’t. A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it. What’s disturbing is that we can’t help but borrow many of our memories from elsewhere.-Jonah Leher
  • You don’t remember what happened. What you remember becomes what happened.-John Green
  • Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.-Barbara Kingsolver


So then memories, like photographs, are very tenuous and subjective things. They can be forgotten, altered, etcetera. So this week I am examining a number of ways in which artists have manipulated photos to subvert the perception of the “truth” of photos.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres
Untitled (Ross and Harry), 1991
C-Print jigsaw puzzle in plastic bag

Christian Boltanski
Dix portraits photographiques de Christian Boltanski entre 1946 et 1964, 1979
Artists’ book featuring photographs that claim to be of Christian Boltanski at ages 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 14, 17, and 20
All the photographs were taken one afternoon by Annette Messager, near the waterfall in the Parc Montsouris in Paris. Only the last photograph really portrays Christian Boltanski, but at the age of 28, not 20.

Anyways, there’s a number of examples. I’m working through them as I work on this week’s project.


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