Exercise 3.6: The Memory of Photography

This was a challenging essay to get into and to understand just what the main points of Bate’s argument was. He refers, amongst others, to the works of Freud, Derrida, Foucault and Barthes in his examination of quite how photographs preserve, influence or even suppress memories. He starts by drawing on the distinction drawn by Freud between the ‘Natural Memory’ our normal capacity to remember things; and ‘Artificial Memory’ which is the range of devices used by humans to aid their recall of memories. Photographs are one of the devices used in Artificial Memory.

The article considers a photograph taken by Henry Fox Talbot of the erection of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square. Bate considers that this one photograph exhibits “the double phenomena proposed by Jacques Le Goff as transforming modern memory: the development of public space as literal memory sites the nineteenth – century craze for erecting monuments to the dead and the photograph itself as a memory device”.

Using this image Bate states that he wants “to argue that a favourite photograph might also be an ’empty shell’ for the favourite story about childhood”. He links the distinction between voluntary and involuntary memory with the work of Barthes. He thinks that Barthes’ punctum is like involuntary memory whereas voluntary memory is more like the studium. The punctum “has an effect on us involuntarily. If we follow an associative path for the image to our memory it can lead to other memories, even a suppressed memory and, with critical work, an essential repressed memory-trace”. He believes that “the image provides a scene in which we may bring voluntary (studium) or involuntary (punctum) memories to bear upon it”.

Bate describes how reading a novel by Susan Sontag about Lady Hamilton triggered a personal memory of childhood, via the photograph of the erection of Nelson’s column, which involved visits to HMS Victory.

He considers that at the heart of Fox Talbot’s image “is not only a record of the retroactive remembering of Nelson, whose historical purpose is forming a national identity but also an interpretation of it”.

Having read Camera Lucida I was interested to read of Bate’s linking of voluntary and involuntary memory with studium and punctum. It widened my concept of how studium and punctum may work within an image. It is also interesting to consider how this can affect an individual’s view of a photograph. As Bate concludes his essay “in terms of history and memory, photographs demand analysis rather than hypnotic reverie”. It is always useful to understand what may be influencing your view of an image.