Wednesday, 18 August 2010

(Not) the Gallery - Memory

This isn't my Gallery entry. It can't be. There's no picture in it.

Tara set A Memory as the subject for the Gallery this week, and I can't do it.  Because how do you separate your memory of a moment from the photograph you took of it?  How do you choose a photograph that represents a memory, when the very existence of the photograph affects, and indeed, can create, the memory itself?

What's your first memory?  Mine is swimming.  I was about 2 1/2 and I was in  Haverhill Swimming Pool with my Daddy.  I was wearing a green towelling (aah, the 70s!) swimming costume with  a white trim.  That's all I remember, not the chlorine smell, or the noise, or the excitement of the splashing; just the costume and me, and my Daddy.

Only that's not my first memory at all.  I thought it was. I've told people it was.  And then about ten years ago I was looking through my parents' photo albums and there it was. My memory.  It's not a memory of the event. It's a memory of the photograph.*  

There's a book by Penelope Lively called The Photograph in which Glyn, a landscape historian, whose job is to discover the truth of the land through photographs and documents, discovers a photograph which changes utterly his view of his life, and in particular his relationship with his wife.  His memories of years of marriage are utterly undone by that snapshot, that moment in time captured on paper.

The journalist Jane Shilling wrote this in response:
A click, a flash, a whirr, and there we are, captured for ever in a moment of absolute truth: not the approximate truth of memory, which drifts and blurs in the retelling, but a palpable, glossy, 6in by 4in chunk torn from the fabric of passing time and stuck down here, in this album, to remind us, in case we should forget, of who we were, and what we were doing at a certain instant.
So where is the memory in a photograph?  Or is the photograph the memory itself?

There is one other photograph I would have, could have, perhaps should have, if it were not for the fact that it shows the faces of lots of my friends and given I don't put my own face up here, it seems unfair to put up theirs, used this week.

It was taken (not by me, so I shouldn't really use it anyway) at the wedding of my wonderful brother- and sister-in-law, T and K.  T is B's brother, K is one of my very best girlfriends from university.  They met utterly independently of B and me, but it meant that their wedding was a coming together of all of my friends as well as B's lovely family.

The only problem?  I don't really remember it. As my own wedding did, it passed in a blur.  S and A were born by c-section nine days earlier.  The wedding was four hundred miles away.  We had both, pre-scan, been asked to read.  We had said yes.  We wanted to go, we were going to go. We went.

And we were there. We read, we sang hymns, we wept just a little (well, I did).  I know all this, because I was told, and because I have seen the pictures, but really, I don't remember much of it at all except for one moment.  We had left the cathedral, we had got to the reception and a hundred of B's relations and family friends all milled around, wanting to congratulate us, to hold the scraps of humanity we had with us, to smile at L who was on top flirty 19-month-old form.  And I wasn't interested in any of them.  I remember - it's about the only thing I do remember - smiling and nodding and walking, as purposefully as I could, through the be-hatted and be-kilted guests to the far corner where my girlfriends, the friends I have known for nearly fifteen years now, were sitting, thrusting a baby into a pair of waiting arms,and plonking myself down and thinking for the first time in nine days: "relax".

And at that moment, "click".  A memory: fixed in time, like a fly in amber.

I'm sure it's not T and K's favourite picture of what was clearly an amazing day.  But it is mine.  Because I remember it.   I'm just sorry I can't show it to you.

*which clearly should have, and could have been another entry for this week, only funnily enough it's not digital, and it's at my parents and I had no way of scanning it in...


  1. A picture paints a thousand words but your words have made up for the lack of picture. Really interesting. I take thousands of photos... Sometimes I think it would be better to sit back and take in the moment. Having said that I treasure my photos as sometimes my memory cannot be relied on. The photos act as a trigger bringing back the thoughts and feelings of the time.

  2. You have summed up my feelings on memories and photographs. Sometimes I put the camera away and try to capture a memory in my mind. When I go to gigs now the people aren't really there, they're watching through their cameras. Having said that, most of the time I take thousands of photographs. My memory isn't quite as sharp as it used to be! x

  3. What a fab post. It's really easy to let photographs taint the reality of the moment as time goes by.

  4. I don't think any picture could have conveyed what you've said in that piece. Really lovely.

  5. What a fantastic post. I loved reading this and you are so right about photographs and memory. Like Sandy, however, my memory is not as reliable as I like to think it once was so I snap away furiously to try to hang on to snippets of time!

  6. Yes, photos aid memories, but also get in the way of them. It's a complicated thing, and you sum it up well.

  7. A really interesting post. I teach History, so frequently have discussions with pupils about what photos and other pieces of evidence can really tell us.

  8. Love your profile, children are fab, but blimey!! it's tiring!

  9. This is great. I know that book by Penelope Lively and was really taken with it - I won't give away what he sees in the photograph.

    I love your descriptions. And you're right - sometimes we are so busy trying to capture the moment with a camera, we forget to experience it.
    Sometimes when I watch teenagers (sounding old - alert, alert) and they're just photographing every moment, every pose just to put it on some website or show their friends, I want to say 'Stop - and feel it instead.'

  10. You are so correct, you do have to be part of it to remember it otherwise it is nothing. Lovely descriptions xx

  11. Nine days after a c-section? Are you out of your mind woman? It's eight days after a normal birth for me, and I refused to go out of the door to go register him. Put it off 'til Monday. No wonder you don't remember a thing! (I sit in awe.)

  12. Good take on the theme - very interesting and so true too.

  13. I liked this, it is really well said and a touch poignant too. I am so protective of my photos because they're valuable as Memory Triggers but I know that the memories they trigger will change or distill or warp and all depending on time and the person seeing them.

  14. Very interesting piece and comments. I take loads of photos - but I do take the time to print the best ones and put them in albums and look at them. For me they are "memory triggers" - but I sometimes think I get a bit obsessed that if i don't take the photo I won't keep the memory; so I do wish I could at times let go and not worry about the camera. Sandy, I agree - I was at a concert recently (a rare thing for me) and noticed that everyone was watching/listening with one hand in the air holding a phone/camera.

  15. Motherfunster - you and others have made a better point than I think I did in the original post - should we record, or should we experience? Because they're not the same thing at all, are they? But then the trigger's important too...

    Sandy - The lack of memory thing is tough isn't it? as is the need to record these precious early years that aren't going to be here forever. Like you I do occasionally try to put the camera away - I regret, still, that in my urge to take pictures when we were in South Africa, I missed watching a lot of the animals we saw. I think I experienced them differently from B. I have to remind myself of that sometimes when I'm with the girls.

    Sian - do you think it's "taint"? maybe it's "enhance" or "add to", or lots of better things too. I'm just not sure that we remember things the same way that we do if we have a picture to remind us. A friend of mine once said that if anyone looked at her photo albums they'd think her husband had been heroically raising their twins single-handedly from birth... I find her absence, and what others would make of it really interesting....Because of course that's not how her girls are going to remember their childhood.

    Livi - thank you!

    Christine - me too! I don't want to make it sound like I'm virtuously, and smugly, "experiencing" while all around me are snapping....just found the idea of a picture of a memory hard.

    Iota - thank you. I tried, so very glad it worked!

    Parklover - really interesting to have a historian's take on it. How reliable a witness is my camera? Probably more than my memory, to be fair...

    Frog in the Field - thank you! Isn't it just?!

    Deer Baby - I hadn't thought about the teenage thing (sounding old too!) but it's true as well that they take many more pictures than we did, or that I take many more pictures than I used to when I had to eke out a film and I would only take a picture if I'd really thought about whether it was a picture I wanted, printed out, six by four inches of memory... now I just snap snap snap, and maybe that does stop me (and them) feeling...

    Kerry - but then if you're hiding behind a camera, are you really part of it? It's tricky isn't it? Because as others say, my memory's not what it was (actually I suspect it was never that great in the first place, but...)

    Mwa - it was a needs must and a plan, plan, plan thing... and we did it. I collapsed in a small heap the day later mind, and then we stayed for four weeks...!

    Nickie - thank you!

    Michelloui - the warping is so true as well isn't it? I read something recently that said that actually our memory of an event is actually only a memory of the last memory we had of that event.... nothing's ever true to the original. Makes me rather sad.

    Motherhood and Anarchy - delighted to meet someone else who still does the album thing - but hoping you're as far behind as I am (actually that's what I should be doing now, and not blogging. Hey ho)


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