Photography and Memory

Vernacular photography and the interaction between photography and memory.

I have always been fascinated by photography and it has had an important role in my entire life. In our family, like in many others, it was common practice to take photos of special moments on special days, like Christmas and birthdays. Recently I found a box full of pictures from my childhood. Let's take a look at the picture above.

Technically, it is not great quality. The photo is blurry and scratched. Yet, there are different layers to discover. For the sociologist it reveals what Christmas looked like in the 70’s: the meager Christmas tree, the three girls (my sisters and me) in the same dresses.

Another layer of information on this picture triggers a lot of my personal memories and emotions. Like the brooch my grandmother is wearing; many years later it will be stolen from the same house the picture is taken in. Or the family painting on the wall I looked upon so often and which is only recognizable for insiders because it is flashed away. The feast when we set out to find the best tree, the decorating ritual, the small candles and chocolates. It is not important that the photo is blurred and blemished. For the memory it works just fine.

A few years ago I wrote my thesis for History of Art on the subject; "Photography and Memory". This rather complex relationship is a fascinating topic. One can argue that when you are busy taking pictures, you actually do not live the moment. Some people say that photography inhibits the memory. Still others believe that photography helps the memory. For example Dutch writer Gerrit Krol suggests that photo’s are the "tent poles of our memory". One issue with taking pictures for memory-purposes is that you do not know what you want or need to remember. So typically the highlights are documented. The moments that are more or less interchangeable. However, I would love to see my old room again with the posters on the wall, the bathroom with the beautiful blue and white tiling, the bike I used to go to school with, the road to school. I wish I had images of the small things of all periods of my life. Sometimes you can find these things in a corner of a picture, yet never as the main subject. That is why I love to take photos of the houses we live in, the dashboard of the car and other everyday and ordinary elements of daily life.

This so called vernacular photography is getting more and more attention worldwide. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art had an exhibition as early as 1998 on Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life.  The British Journal of Photography writes regularly about the Vernacular photography. Symposia are being organised, and photo's are being collected. In Eye magazine there is an interesting essay on the subject by Val Williams and Eric Kessels