The Memory of Photography by David Bate

Just some brief notes on this journal article that I’ve read by David Bate. His paper addresses the “specific contribution that the invention of photography has made to the relation of memory and history” (p.243).

  • Archives – not just photo albums, but also corporate institutions, museums, libraries, estates, state-owned collections, hard drives.
  • Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever states that “an anxiety about memory always has an element of death or “destruction drive”, “of loss” at work in it” (p. 243). I wonder if this would be related to the fear of losing that particular memory?
  • Freud – we use mnemic apparatuses to supplement our memory, i.e. writing notes on paper, wearing spectacles, hearing aids, cameras.
  • The mnemic (artificial) devices we use are modelled on our sensory functions that they designed to supplement.
  • Freud draws a distinction between “Natural Memory” (normal capacity for recollecting memories) and Artificial Memory” (the technical devices are invented to support natural memory). We no longer have to remember everything – can now write it down or save to a hard drive.
  • He argues that “with every tool man is perfecting his own organs … In the photographic camera he has created an instrument which retains the fleeting visual impressions, just as a gramophone disc retains the equally fleeting auditory ones; both are at bottom materializations of the power he possessed of recollection, his memory” (p. 244).
  • If photography is regarded as one of the artificial memory devices that support human memory, what impact has it had on human memory and cultures?
  • Derrida questions whether the psychic apparatus is better represented or is it affected differently by all the technical devices available for archiving and reproduction. (I’m going to have to research Freud’s theories a bit as I really don’t know anything about his work, but from a quick search it seems that psychic apparatus is something to do with the unconscious part of the mind that handles repressed phenomenon). Derrida is of the opinion that the way something is archived affects the inside mental state.
  • Collective Memory: archives, libraries, museums, public institutions were developed for collective public memory. In the 19th century industrialization heralded in a new era of public memory – “commemoration”.  Public monuments were erected and photography was invented. Photography “multiplies and democratizes memory, gives it a precision and a truth never before attained in visual memory and makes it possible to preserve the memory of time and of chronological evolution.
  • Le Goff states that the family album expresses the truth of social remembrance. Looking at family albums is like an initiation rite for new members. The album represents moments of unity from the past that in turn confirm the present unity.
  • The point of view of the family archive is not neutral. Whether the photographs are taken by the father (patri-archive), mother (matri-archive) or children (sibling-archive) this type of photography offers the family (in a loose sense – comprising friendship groups and social networks as well) a new repository for memories. This in turns allows various social groups to find an identity with a common visualized memory.
  • Other types of photographic archives are produced by:
    • the state (e.g. police, government, ethnographic archives)
    • the media (e.g. newspapers, television, documentary archives)
    • the arts (e.g. museums, galleries, private and individual archives)
    • independent social groups (e.g. political, cultural, economic)
  • Derrida argues that an archive is not a question of the past, but rather one of the future. “It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow” (p. 248).
  • Photography is one of the most important technological inventions because it develops visual memory – a meta-archive. “It has the capacity to incorporate and absorb other existing visual memory devices within photographic re-presentation” (p 248).

    Nelson’s Column under Construction, Trafalgar Square, 1844 by William Henry Fox Talbot
  • Bate then uses a photograph taken by Fox Talbot in his book Pencil of Nature to illustrate a meta-archive. The photo he refers to is “Nelson’s Column under Construction, Trafalgar Square, London, April 1844”. The photograph denotes the construction of the memorial to Nelson in Trafalgar Square. Nelson perished in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar. According to Jacques Le Goff this photograph reveals a double phenomena. On the one hand there is the construction of the memorial in a public space which serves as a literal memory and on the other there is the photograph which is a memory device in and of itself. “The photograph is a means to register the monument space. The memory of Nelson is .. being constructed and re-presented as a subject matter of Talbot’s camera” (p. 249).
  • Prosthetic memory: Michel Foucault postulated that popular memory was obstructed by these “apparatuses” in such a way that “people are shown not what they were, but what they must remember having been” (p. 250). The truth value of archival images is never totally accurate – they are more like “partial truths“. These notions emerge as a public ideology of memory.
  • Not everyone remembers visually (visuel). Some people’s memory is auditory based (auditifs), others remember by gestures and actions (moteurs). However Freud maintains that our childhood memories are mainly visual.
  • Mnemic-traces: our own mental apparatus has an unlimited capacity for new data and “lays down permanent – even though no unalterable – memory-traces of them” (p. 251), while the devices we created to aid our memory are rather imperfect.
  • According to Freud’s book, The Interpretation of Dreams, our “unlimited receptive capacity” is divided into two systems. The perception-consciousness which receives receives sensory perceptions, and sorts them out according to our instinctive impulses. Some of the data is not retained as a permanent record – more like a temporary repository which is wiped clean after each use, while the other permanent traces are “preserved in “mnemic” systems lying behind the perceptual system” (p. 252).
  • No memories are retained in the unconscious (there is no concept of time or reality there) only these mnemic-traces.
  • Memory is located in the preconscious – this is memory we can recall at will. Because it is in the preconscious we can also randomly forget the memory, albeit on a temporary basis, in order to make way for new memories.
  • The memories located in this preconscious-conscious space contain what Freud calls “screen memories”. These are fixed images that we remember from childhood. Freud goes on to say that such memories cannot necessarily be taken as accurate, but should be subjected to an “analytical enquiry” (p. 253).
  • Memories can also be subject to the same process as Freudian slips. I had to refresh my knowledge on Freudian slips, which is explained most eloquently in this BBC Future article so I’m posting the link directly to the article instead of paraphrasing it. Slips of memory have commonly been depicted in art e.g. in surrealism.
  • “Temporarily, the childhood memory can be retroactive … used to represent the thoughts and impressions of a later date (connected in someway to that original memory scene); or else the content of the screen memory has been “pushed ahead”, appears as later and is used to contain an earlier preceding experience” (p.253).
  • A third type of screen memory is also evident where the memory is directly connected with what it screens.
  • These permanent memories are based on a sense of “forgetting” or the substitution of one memory over another (overlaid or embedded inside it). “The work of screen memory has the purpose of having one memory within another one, which functions through repression (resistance to remembering) and displacement” (p. 253).
  • Bate then goes into a lengthy explanation about an image used as a space or location for memory-traces.  Important in this is the distinction between “voluntary” and “involuntary” memory (terms used by Marcel Proust in his work In Search of Lost Time. Roland Barthes’ concept of the punctum corresponds to Proust’s “involuntary memory”. Bate states that the studium is comparable to voluntary memory where cultural and public associations can be made. A punctum is an involuntary response to an image. It makes us react and if we try and find an association by using our memory, this may lead us down a path where we find repressed memories or memory-traces.  “Voluntary memory is like the work of history, but involuntary memory belongs to personal affect” (p. 254).
  • Bate then demonstrates this process by using Fox Talbot’s photograph of Nelson’s Column as an example. Briefly he found that there was something involuntary that was affecting him when viewing this image. Looking back he realised that he was very familiar with Nelson’s history, having grown up in Portsmouth literally in the shadow of Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory. He states that he had a screen memory stored away from his childhood years. However he later realised that what activated his involuntary reaction to the photo was in fact a novel by Susan Sontag in which Nelson was featured. “This book has triggered retroactively a personal memory via a photographic image” (p. 255).
  • I have to wonder if this punctum/involuntary memory is always triggered by a repressed memory or can it be applied to a surprised reaction (i.e. one where no memory can be discerned) as well?
  • Memory is both fluid and fixed. It is also social and personal.
  • “In terms of history and memory, photographs demand analysis rather than hypnotic reverie” (p. 256).
Reference List

Bate, David (2010). The Memory of Photography. Photographies, 3:2, p 243-257, DOI: 10.1080/17540763.2010.499609

Gorvett, Zaria  (2016). What Freudian Slips really reveal about your mind [online]. Available at: [Accessed 25 March, 2017]

Time (2012) Sigmund Freud’s Theories [online]. Available at: [Accessed 22 March, 2017]


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