The subject I chose for Assignment 5 is “Disappearing Britain” and is in part an exploration of photography as a tool for cataloguing, and as a proxy (or aide) for memory. My intention is to record some specific objects that are at risk of becoming obsolete by the march of progress. The whole exercise made me think about who I was making the images for: contemporary viewers, future viewers, or both?
I revisited some of the core theoretical texts – Sontag , Barthes , Benjamin  and Berger  – for their analysis of the nature of memory in relation to photography, but by and large they look at it from the other end of the telescope – photographs from the past being viewed in the present, and the associations with memory, e.g. from Sontag:
“A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, photographs—especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past—are incitements to reverie.”
Barthes’ Camera Lucida in particular discusses the essential ‘past-ness’ of photographs and the melancholy that can accompany this:
“Photography is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead.”
Capturing now, for future viewers
What I was interested in doing was kind of the other way around; photographing things in order to remember them later. It’s a form of cataloging these items, quite deliberately, before they are gone. I kept coming back to the premise that what I’m trying to do here is capture things before they become extinct. I can think of a number of projects that did this successfully for people-centric subjects (communities, tribes, enthusiasts, war veterans etc) and for places (towns and villages, city neighbourhoods), but not many for objects.
One of the contemporary bodies of work that I was pointed towards by my tutor was Julian Germain’s “Useful Photography” project , which catalogues specific categories of contemporary objects for future viewing. The description of the work is as follows:
“Useful Photography is a magazine which gives a platform to imagery that is part of our everyday lives but which is rarely studied or appreciated; for example pictures from catalogues, instruction manuals, text books, medical and scientific journals, packaging, CCTV, etc. Images that have been made for a practical purpose, whose makers remain completely anonymous.”
However, this is different again from my intent with this series; those images are collected and curated after the event, not taken for the specific purpose of cataloguing.
I went back to some reading I did last year in the early years of photography, specifically the ‘Photography and the Nineteenth Century” chapter in Clarke’s The Photograph , when one of the trends was for photography as cataloguing. Practitioners of what Clarke calls ‘mechanical photography’ would methodically record images of objects:
“The drive to collect and classify the world of objects and structures […] is reflected in such images as Daguerre’s famous Shells and Fossils of 1839, suggestive of an entire tradition and placing photographs in the context of this larger process of classification. It reflects both the developing museum culture, and the way in which the photograph was seen as an analogue of the real”
One interpretation of this is that it was the novelty of the medium that spurred this type of work, rather than the objective being the recording of the items themselves. Giving them the historical benefit of the doubt – that they were recording objects for posterity not novelty – I can see that this may be closest precedent to what I’m trying to achieve with my project.
Such ‘classification’ at the heart of photography is no longer an identifiable trend. Now that photography is not novel but ubiquitous, for what reason might one deliberately record an image of, say, a phone box? Aren’t there enough accidental (or incidental) images of such objects already in existence?
What I think is distinctive (and I’m not claiming “unique”) about this set of images is that I chose to photograph the specific objects; they are not incidental, they are the main attraction. Their impending obsolescence (and accompanying rarity) is reason enough to want to stop and capture them. I am curating – in advance – what I believe will be of interest to future generations.
Triggering memories of the past in contemporary viewers
Though this ‘future retrospection’ is my intention, I can see that there is simultaneously the nostalgic pull that reflects the theories of photography and memory outlined by Sontag, Barthes et al. Put simply, though my intention is to capture objects in 2014 for future viewers to see facsimiles of things that they can no longer see in real life, at the same time the reaction of seeing these images in 2014 will be, to some viewers, to take them back to a past time. So even though I may show a photo of a milk bottle in 2014, the image is – to the viewer of a certain generation – an incitement to reverie, an invitation to reminisce about the 1970s or 1980s. It is, in this sense, both contemporary record and ‘fake nostalgia’.
- Viewers looking at these images now will experience memories of the past
- Viewers in the future will be experiencing “now” as a (different) past, one which they may or may not remember
I found the whole thought process and research around this area fascinating. Considering the ‘lifespan’ of a photograph – how it can encapsulate both past and present, and how it may be viewed in the future looking back on both ‘pasts’ – was something that slightly made my brain hurt, but in a good way!
Forgive me the pretentious interlude, but a line from a 2014 Damon Albarn song “Photographs”  kept coming back to me:
“When the photographs you’re taking now / Are taken down again”.
To me this implies a potentially huge span of time: you take a photo now; you print and hang it; at some indeterminate point in the future you take the photo down, as it no longer holds enough meaning for you to keep it on display.
When you press the shutter, how far ahead are you thinking?
- Sontag, S. (1979) On photography. London: Penguin
- Barthes, R. (1980) Camera lucida: reflections on photography. London: Random House Vintage
- Benjamin, W. (1931) A short history of photography. 1972 English translation. Oxford: Oxford Journals
- Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. London: Penguin Classics
- http://www.usefulphotography.com (accessed 19/12/2014)
- Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press
- Albarn, D. (2014) Photographs (you’re taking now). London: Chrysalis Music