3.6: ‘The Memory of Photography’


Read David Bate’s essay ‘The Memory of Photography’. This is a challenging essay, which introduces some complex theoretical ideas and influential thinkers. Read the text closely, noting Bate’s key points in your learning log, and extending your research to points that he references which are of interest to you.

This exercise is an ongoing one in relation to my investigation of identity and memory for my OCA Book Design course. More to be added later.My questions are in purple.

Bate’s key points:

Bate’s main question (together with people like Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes) is:

“What did photography do for memory and what contribution has photography made to the practice of memory in human culture? Has photography affected or changed the constitution of individual or collective memory, in what way, what are its effects, on whose memories, how and why?”

He (like Sontag, Enwezor and others) questions the relationship between these artifacts, memory and actual events. (what are facts anyway???what is reality???whose facts? whose reality? who decides what is real??for what purpose??) He points to the myriad and expanding photographic archives of the state, media, arts, social groups and also individuals in the attempt to record and freeze memories – lest we forget what happened.

He draws on:

Freud‘s discussion of the nature of memory, particularly childhood memory and distinctions between:

  • natural (mnemic) memory – the normal human capacity
  • artificial memory – technical devices (including photography) invented by humans to support their mnemic ability to inscribe things in memory.’ “In the photographic camera he [sic] has created an instrument which retains the fleeting visual impressions”

All the forms of auxiliary apparatus which we have invented for the improvement or intensification of our sensory functions are built on the same model as the sense organs themselves or portions of them: for instance, spectacles, photographic cameras, trumpets. .. these devices to aid our memory seem particularly imperfect, since our mental apparatus accomplishes precisely what they cannot: it has an unlimited receptive capacity for new perceptions and nevertheless lays down permanent – even though not unalterable – memory-traces of them.(“The ‘Mystic Writing-pad’” 430)

Foucault: “reprogramming popular memory, which existed but had no way of expressing itself. So people are shown not what they were, but what they must remember having been” 


Bate’s main conclusion:

“As sites of memory, photographic images (whether digital or analogue) offer not a view on history but, as mnemonic devices, are perceptual phenomena upon which a historical representation may be constructed. Social memory is interfered with by photography precisely because of its affective and subjective status…in terms of history and memory, photographs demand analysis rather than hypnotic reverie’

My additional conclusions (as I agree broadly with Bate):

we have to think carefully about:

  • why did the photographer frame this particular image? (photographer’s aims? aims of the commissioning agency? what preconceptions about history and society do each bring to this?)
  • whose perspective does the image represent? what other perspectives are possible? is one more valid than others? by what criteria? who decides?
  • how reliable are our understanding and reactions to photographs? how is this influenced by the techniques used by the photographer to guide our interpretation? by our own preconceptions, memories, recent experiences and current mood? does this matter? or do we accept multiple interpretations all of which we can learn from?

These questions could hold equally for any media. With photography, because they portray one specific slice in time, this slice has to be either very carefully thought through in its taking, selection and/or editing or one image has to be carefully contextualised in a narrative together with other photographs or media.

Sources for further consideration:

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill, 1981.
———. La Chamber claire: note sur la photographie. Paris: Gallimard Seuil, 1980.

Foucault, Michel.

“Film and Popular Memory.” 1974. Reprinted in Michel Foucault, Foucault Live. New York: Semiotext(e), 1989.

Freud, Sigmund.

“Childhood Memories and Screen Memories.” 1901. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1980, 83–93.
“Civilization and its Discontents.” 1930. Civilization, Society and Religion. Pelican Freud, vol. 12. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989. 243–340.
“The ‘Mystic Writing-pad.’” 1925. On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis. Pelican Freud, vol. 11. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984. 427–433.

Whitehead, Anne. Memory. Oxford: Routledge, 2009.
Yates, Frances A. The Art of Memory. London: Pimlico, 2001.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

I accept that my given data and my IP address is sent to a server in the USA only for the purpose of spam prevention through the Akismet program.More information on Akismet and GDPR.