Sunday, August 27, 2006


Mary Newsom, a columnist for the Charlotte Observer, had a column yesterday - Capturing the Elusive Milestone Moments - that got me to thinking about photography (and other types of recording of events) and memories. I enjoyed her article and her subtexts of children growing older and the passage of time surely resonate with me. But the whole photography thing has been on my mind anyway, what with there being over 1500 photos up on the web from the recent wedding, and stacks of photo albums behind me on the floor of the office waiting to have something done with them... For this reason, one thing that Mary Newsom said in her article especially struck me:
That's the thing about taking pictures. They fool us into thinking we're capturing the moment with a freeze-frame. But the real moment is 3-D. It's round. It has background noise and air currents and hearts beating and you can smell the sun on baked dirt, or maybe the cat's dusty fur or last night's fried chicken.
The photos in the albums are splotches of color on flat paper. You haven't saved the moment at all. They're like those insects that get trapped in blocks of amber. They're interesting to look at, but they're relics, not living insects.
In a sense, especially with really old photos, and ones that were taken by someone else at an event that I wasn't present for, that is true. But when I looked at the photos of the wedding, it all came back to me: the smells of flowers and food and the sounds of people and music and the heat and the flavors -- Yum! -- and especially the many and intense feelings of that day, that week... In fact, when I first started looking at photos of the wedding, the experience was almost too intense. A photo can spark so many memories.

When my children were little, I took lots of photos of them and of the places and people and events in their lives and mine. I kept albums with these pictures in chronological order so we could look back at the photos and talk about our experiences, in the hopes that this would enhance our memories of their childhood. We did spend many happy hours looking at these picture books as they were growing up. (I can remember times when I would come upon the children sitting quietly, slowly turning over the leaves of the albums and poring over the photos. I always wondered what they were thinking, and what meaning the photos had for them.) I was not very good about writing things down in those days, so I figured this, at least, would give us a record of some sort, someplace to start our remembering at. Now I wish I had written more down, but I am glad I at least have these photos.

I am in great admiration of Lorian and Brenda, who spend time and effort in making scrapbooks with the photos and write about the times they had -- in years to come, this will be a wonderful record of the past that they can enjoy and share with their children and grandchildren and other family members. My brother Dan also has been making a scrapbook over the years with the help of various family members on his visits. (This scrapbook floats around to various members of the family -- I don't know where it is at the moment!)

All this holds for other kinds of recordings, too -- audio, and even the "recording" that our other senses do. Chris Stewart, in his book The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society, talks about memory and the sense of smell (w.r.t a trip to Morocco):
The sense of smell is one of the most immediate and tactile we have -- and surely to perceive the smell of a thing we must actually ingest microscopic particles of it, whether it's the heady smell of camellias or that of a long-dead dog n a ditch. A smell revives the memory and transports you to a time and a place more powerfully than even music. If I ever need to return to Arzou, all I would have to do is mix together some mint, cedar, diesel, and a hint of drains, and take a good long sniff.

Our society currently places such a strong emphasis on the visual that we tend to minimize the importance of the other senses. Jerry Mander writes about this with respect to TV in his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. He talks about the inherent biases of the medium, especially in a section titled, The Bias away from the Sensory, noting that "Television cannot transmit information that comes in the form of smell, touch or taste...." He has a lot more to say on the topic, but I don't have room or time to quote more here, and it's a little off-topic anyhow. But I maintain that it is the same with photos, and I think this is what Mary Newsom was getting at in her commentary about our propenstiy to try to capture a very emotion-laden moment on film: there is no way we can really have a photo that is as rich as our memories of that moment. But I look at a photo as a jumping off place into the world of memory, an aid or accessory to memory, rather than as an end in itself, and there is where its worth lies.

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