Leaves of Memory
Why is a photograph such a complex thing? By a photograph I mean a physical print of some kind, something tangible that you hold in your hands. A snapshot taken by a person in order to remember, is really capturing a very thin and personal slice of the time/space continuum. A physical entity, light, bouncing off real objects, strikes film (or sensor) and creates a change in the medium in such a way as to record an appearance of the world. In a way it is a physical manifestation of memory. It is testimony that someone was here and interacted in such and such a way with certain people or an environment. It is a way of stopping and denying nature its power to wreak chaos on our bodies and our property. But it can also be a testament to Time’s passing, road signs on our magnificent journeys (if we are lucky) to the inevitable.
The physical photograph also has a life of it’s own, separate from the photographer. That is part of it’s appeal. That a picture will live on and testify long after it’s creator is gone. That is why I am now printing many of the family photos taking up space on my hard drive. I printed the first family photograph last night and as I stood looking at the piece of paper I realized that a part of me (and the people depicted) will always live on as long as these pictures exist.
Yesterday’s New York Times had a lovely photoessay and article about storm battered photographs recovered from Hurricane Sandy ravaged Staten Island. This reminded me of the Lost and Found Project in Japan which recovered photographs swept away by the earthquake and tsunami in March of 2011 and returned to their owners. The photographer Munemasa Takahashi, who conceived of the project, observed that, “…the first thing the people who lost their loved ones and houses came to look for was their photographs.” They came back to try to reclaim those small pieces of frozen time taken from the past and brought forward into the now as keepsakes.
Many of the photographs were never able to be returned to their former owners and now are objects in a gallery display. Like an archeological artifact they now not only depict what the original photographers intended, but also what time and nature have done. The earthquake and tsunami and hurricane and flood have left their mark on the paper, on the emulsion and transformed these lost memories into a new kind of memento mori; an image of a certain time redefined by another.