Memory and Temporality in Photographs

Barthes talks about photographs in terms of the moment that was captured and how that single frozen moment can block memory. However, as sneibart and johannahi discuss in their posts, photographs can represent so much more in terms of temporality and memories. Photographs – especially family photographs – are much more complicated than Barthes describes in Camera Lucida.

In my post “Poses,” I discussed how Barthes defines a photograph through the pose: “that instant, however brief, in which a real thing happened to be motionless in front of the eye” (Barthes 78). Whatever the context of a photograph, there was always a real moment, what Barthes calls the “that-has-been” (Barthes 77), that really happened and is now captured as an image. According to Barthes, it is because of this captured fragment that photography “actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory” (Barthes 91). Rather than remembering an event as it was, Barthes remembers an event through the lens of the photograph and the precise moment that it shows. The only sense of time that Barthes gives to a photograph other than the moment it portrays is a sense of a ticking “clock [or] watch” (Barthes 15), counting down to the death of the people in the photograph: “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe” (Barthes 96).

Sneibart’s post “More Photographs” shows that the temporality of a photograph can be more complicated than this. Sneibart tells of a picture that she and her cousins take at the beach every summer. They take the same picture every year, with all of the girls lined up in a row wearing watching outfits, arms interlinked behind each other’s backs. For sneibart, this photograph is much more than simply a single moment frozen in time, or a reminder of the death waiting in the future for these girls. For her, this photograph is a living and growing thing that documents the changes of the past and promises more beach-time fun in the future. She uses a great analogy here to illustrate the difference between what Barthes says about the temporality of a photograph and what she sees instead: “Photography is not subtraction but addition; it is not a countdown but a stopwatch” (“More Photographs”). Because of the progression sneibart gets to see as the photograph is retaken every year, this annual photograph shows a much more positive and dynamic view of the temporality of a photograph than Barthes gives.

Johannahi’s post “An Imaginary Line Into the Past” shows yet another way that photographs can play with the perception of time and memory. Johannahi shows us a photograph of four generations of women in her family gathered together for the sake of her brother’s baptism. Whereas sneibart’s photograph spoke to her as a point on a timeline that was heading into the future, johannahi looks at this picture of her family and sees “an almost tangible…line that connects us” to the past” (“An Imaginary Line”). Johannahi follows the line further into the past than even her great-grandmother (the oldest woman in the photograph) and tries to “leave the frame of the photograph” to make a connection with ever more distant relatives. The line fades as johannahi goes farther into the past, but the line is still there, “invisible to our eyes [but] in our memory.” This is a very interesting view on the temporality of the photograph, as it transcends the moment that it was taken to include people who existed before the image was ever taken.

Clearly, Barthes’s generalization of the photograph as a single moment in time evoking counter-memories is an oversimplification that is not always true. Depending on the photograph and the person looking at the photograph, photography can give promises of a future, or even foray deep into the past. Photographs are more than just the moment that is captured in the image, because of the memories and subjectivity that come with different viewers.


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