Written by Valerio Loi (2005)
Memory has been and always will be associated with images. As early as 1896, leading psychologists were arguing that memory was nothing more than a continuous exchange of images. (Bergson) Later models of memory describe it as more of an image text; a combination of space and time, and image and word. (Yates) Although image certainly is not the only component of memory, it is undoubtedly an integral and essential part of memory's composition.
Photography was first utilized over 100 years ago in an attempt to preserve life as it existed before the industrial revolution. Over time photography has gradually corrupted memory in a variety of ways, despite its original intention to preserve it. From there, photography has evolved to become a pressing threat not only to memory, but also to consciousness.
As seen in paintings of battle scenes and portraits of wealthy Renaissance aristocracy, people have always strived to preserve and document their existence. The creation of photography was merely the logical continuum of human nature's innate desire to preserve the past, as well as a necessary reaction to a world in a stage of dramatic and irreversible change. It is not a coincidence that photography arose in major industrial cities towards the end of the nineteenth century.
The industrial revolution created the societal circumstances necessary for photography to be born. The first and most obvious condition is that of technological advancement. Industry was advancing and expanding so rapidly that history appeared to be distancing itself from the present with unusual speed. Up until this time period life had not changed much from decade to decade or even from century to century. Photography's popularity during the industrial revolution was, in large part, a result of people's desire to slow down the perceived acceleration of history (McQuire). It has been argued that the acceleration of historical time is "leading to the possible industrialization of forgetting" and that "we will not only miss history
we will also long to go back to space and times past." (Virilio)
The desire to stop time and preserve the way things were are the primary reasons why the majority of photography in the late nineteenth century focused on documenting dying traditions, practices, and ways of life. In 1874, the Society for Photographing the Relics of Old London was founded. In 1897 the National Photographic Record Association was founded by Sir Benjamin Stone with the aim of "documenting dying rural ceremonies and traditional festivals in England."(McQuire 125) Even as early as 1855, Sir Fredrick Pollock, in a speech to the Photographic Society of London stressed the importance of the camera in its role to forever preserve history:
It is not too much to say that no individual not merely
individual man, but no individual substance, no individual matter, nothing that is extraordinary in art, that is celebrated in architecture, that is calculated to excite the admiration of those who behold it, need now perish, but may be rendered immortal by the assistance of Photography. (Harwath-Booth 9)
Walter Benjamin argues that the industrial boom of the nineteenth century was also the death of oral tradition. According to Benjamin, oral tradition was dependent on a "community of listeners," people who listened to the stories and retold them in the future. These people were the image and the printed text of history before the printing press and the instant photo even existed. The noisy factory and long hours of tedious labor forced upon society by the industrial revolution effectively killed oral tradition and created a void that would be filled by photography. (McQuire) With the death of oral tradition, photography became a widely used means of passing history through the generations. Anthropology has been one major way in which photography has assisted in the telling of life and...
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Miller, Denise., et al. Photograpy 's Multiple Roles. New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 1998.
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