The image above is my winter garden photograph, my Ariadne, and my wound. But in no way do I believe the image captures my likeness, much less his. In fact I believe it is wholly unflattering to both of us, a horrible representation of our true selves. I feel none of our essence. Two years ago I lost my stepfather, Ralph, very suddenly to lung cancer. He had lived with us for 10 years and was my third parent, but a mentor in the way parents cannot be. Most weekday afternoon we spent on the couch together, simply watching television and talking about everything – from classic rock icons to the best strategy for solving crossword puzzles. The loss of him seemed inconceivable, and was very hard to cope with. This particular photograph speaks to me in ways I did not know were possible.
To an outsider the image above is nothing. It condenses meaningful soul shaping afternoons into an unbecoming portrait of two people sitting on a couch with dogs. But the image represents what I consider the most powerful device of photography – its ability to actually trigger memory.
Barthes describes how the photograph, by the sheer power of undeniable evidential force, can block actual memory and facilitate the creation of a counter-memory. He states: “in front of a photograph our consciousness does not necessarily take the nostalgic path of memory (how many photographs are outside of individual time), but for every photograph existing in the world the path of certainty: the Photograph’s essence is to ratify what is represents” (Barthes 85) I disagree. I believe a photograph does not at its core serve as a corroboration of the existence of objects or people. The purpose of photography is more subtle, to prove memory exists or once existed. The memory may not always exist for the subject, but it must always have existed for the photographer or the operator, who deemed some facet of the moment appropriate for capturing.
Unfortunately, the experience of memory can be mimicked by the consciousness, which so desperately hopes it has clung to a true memory that it will fabricate from details within an image. The fabricated memory cannot substitute for a true memory, and I believe anyone who analyzes their own thoughts can distinguish between the two. The process by which photographs prompt memories can be painful, why else would photographs of ex-boyfriends be eradicated completely? I do not believe certain photographs are cast aside because the likeness or evidence of an event is traumatic. The images are painful because the memories are painful, especially when cast in the lens of the future.
Photography can carry the mind from one distinct moment to others, fragile and hazily stored. The moments, unmediated memories, are distinct because they are felt as well as remembered. The photograph records just a moment, dependent on shutter speeds as brief as 1/2000 of a second. Our brains cannot store such a brief passage of time. Barthes describes the frustration a viewer may feel who does not remember the moment the photograph was taken in time and space. The experience Barthes describes can be disorienting, but careful study of a photograph can initiate other memories. Countless times I have poured through family albums, I often do not remember the moments the photograph captures in time and space. However, a detail such as a certain t shirt or old furniture will help me to recall vivid memories which otherwise may not have surfaced. The photograph serves to remind my opaque mind of events shape my personal history.
The memories themselves are stored not only by images but also with words, tastes, sounds, emotions, and scents– all fragments. Some beloved memories are wonderfully vivid fragments, but fragments nonetheless. I am lucky because my winter garden photograph does not spark memories of the illness, which ravished his body, stole him from us and caused my grief. Unlike Barthes the image does not speak to me of his death, or the certainty of his mortality. I cling to it because it only reminds me of those afternoons, which were always a time of relaxation and frank discussions. The photograph itself, the decaying object, conjures a whole world of memories.