The mnemonic technology of photographs

Samantha Heydt

Junior Seminar Proposal



This body of work is concerned with how subjectivity is shaped by memory and how the act of remembering is manipulated by the mnemonic medium of photography. Identity formation is hinged on one’s narrative of the past just as memory is inseparable from our perception of the present. A fugitive testimony to a moment lost, a photograph has the visceral and haunting ability to resurrect the past into the present.  Although no object is counted on more for it mnemonic technology, a photograph is not inhabited by memory, but rather produces it.  The image painted by light counterfeits an instance, it constructs a narrative of the past. The mutability of memories unveil the role the imagination plays in remembering. Thus, the capacity to reframe the past is precarious insofar as one’s identities becomes a construct of the memories you’ve chose to keep and those you’ve chosen to forget. Enveloped with nostalgia, this imagery is done in mimesis of memories, deteriorating the positivist discourse of photography’s relationship with truth.  Captivated by the rituals of remembrance, these (post)memories  aim to undermine and visually articulate the mnemonic mechanism of the mind and medium.

The emotive technology of photography is triggered by the realization: “that-has been”, even when one’s recollection reconstructs the experience. Resurrecting the forgotten from temporal decay,  photographs are  “modern relics of nostalgia”. Memories of the past are dictated by the present. Sally Mann’s black & white depictions of the American South tap into this discourse. Exhibited now at the Guggenheim’s Group show “Haunted”,  three photographs taken from Sally Mann’s ‘MOTHER LAND’ are on display.  For all intents and purposes, I will focus solely on the image “Untitled” (Virginia #6, Nuclear Tree), 1993- a gelatin silver print measuring 32.5 x 40.5 inches.


Sally Mann’s initial inspiration for the series stemmed from a bizarre discovery that she had rummaging through dusty boxes in her attic.  Although her search through the cobwebbed storage was geared towards something completely different, her accidental finding proved far more valuable.  A cache of thousands of negatives taken by a Civil War veteran was stored away beneath piles of other things left to be forgotten.  After dusting off the negatives, Mann was astounded by how little her native town in Lexington, Virginia had changed.  Yet, despite being geographically the same, the socio-cultural shift of the present was unparalleled to the past.  Mann inspiration drew from the fact that so much had changed since the Civil War, yet the landscape had remained untouched.

With that said, Mann’s body of work is concerned with the notion of resurrecting memories.  Ripe with elements of alienation, tension and insight- Sally Mann’s exposures hijack moments that unveil the inscription of human experience and history on the landscape.  The faculty of the mind is such that the act of remembering is hinged on the need to forget.  History is a fabricated narrative- it  is a construct of the collective consciousness.  Photographs are relics of the past, a frail testimony of fleeting moments lost in the folds of time.  Yet, photography’s problematic relation with truth renders it’s portrayal riddled with the potentiality to distort our perception.


In a multitude of ways, Sally Mann’s approach rifts on the “Re-photographic Survey Project” in the nineteen-seventies.  Headed by Mark Klett, this series was concerned with revisiting the great landscapes of the American West that were captured a century before by the masters in the medium- like Ansel Adams and Muybridge.   In a similar vein, the medium in that Sally Mann shoot this body of work has a unique relationship with the subject matter.   In the same tradition of Nadar, Mann shot with a glass-plated large format camera and a diverse selection of antique lenses. The aesthetic achieve by this approach is one of nostalgia and loss.  The grainy quality imparts sensibility of faded memories. Halos of light bleed in from the border, the stark scapes are consumed with air of uneasiness.   These images of the South transform terrain into portraits of another time and place.


I’m drawn to the notion that the past can be reconfigured, especially in light of the photographic medium’s intervention. Ultimately, what a photograph offers is a departure point from which on can construct a narrative around. How I’ve decided to interpret Sally Mann’s series is through a conceptual framework executed through the use of a pin-hole camera. The antique photographic method captures remnants of a moment in a lightless box.  This parallels the soft imprint on the emulsion with the impression an experience leaves in the folds of one’s memory.  The vague trace of light cast onto the interior gives an abstract sense of an instance, it’s multiplicity of semiotic meaning can be read in countless way- just as the past can be.

History is told by the victor, our narratives are conflicting. Although the conceptual framework of my project is largely abstract, the content is tied close to home.  Given that our memories and imagination determine our identities, the imagery I’ve produced employing pin hole cameras mirrors the mechanisms of the mind to forget.  As in the case of the Rorschach cards, each photograph provides the room for interpretation, offering contradictory and complicit narratives stemming from the same image.


Constructed with household paraphernalia, the pin hole camera’s nothing more  than a mere light-proof can pierced with a pin prick in lieu of a lens.The technology is simplistic insofar as the shutter is manual, the exposure is lengthy and the size of the aperture determines the image’s sharpness.  I experimented with exposures on black & white photographic paper.  Furthermore, I built the pin hole with a coffee tin so  the images I captured would have a cylindrical perspective.  Despite its technological simplicity, (the pin hole has been around since the tenth century), I encountered great difficultly and many weeks of trial and error before finally perfecting the process.  My greatest challenge was determining the f-stop ratio in relation to the exposure time  to avoid reciprocity failure.  The concept underpinning my decision to work with this practically obsolete technique is rooted in the how the process emerges as a praxis of memory function.  When light flows through the tiny hole and falls onto the paper within a vague impression of the moment is left.  The images that emerge are remnants of an instance lost.  The complete story of the moment is absent, so one must build a narrative around it.


The lighting, casting, location and palette differed greatly according to the photographic process utilized.  With the pin-hole series, I was temporally and spatially confined to spending evenings in my apartment downtown.  Covering all the windows of my tiny bathroom with duck-taped vinyl records, I converted the space into a lightless hole where I could handle the photographic paper.  I experimented with different exposures, as well as the intensity of light.  The palette varies with black & white to gray-tones.  I tried to work with objects rather than people as the lengthy exposures necessitated a motionless subject.


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