Wednesday, May 29, 2019
The Deception of Visual Memory :: Photography Essays
The Deception of Visual MemoryWhat is ocular memory? And what does it mean to remember by dint of images? Unlike verbal memory, visual memory functions primarily through a dependence on its materiality, on the texture and avail office of the paintings, icons, photographs, films, and video clips that give it shape.We remember whole events through condensed images that reduce complex and multidimensional phenomena into memorable scenes. The meanings of wars, political conflicts, tragic romances, and cataclysmic disasters can all be found within a painters brush or a cameras lens, as in Emanuel Leutzes 1851 rendition of George Washington crossing the Delaware River or Joe Rosenthals photographic capture of the flag-raising atop Iwo Jima during World War II. The materiality of visual memory is deceptive, in that it overstates elements of the visual that cater peculiarly well to memory work. Visual memory depends on images that are simplified, conventional, schematic, and often composi te. These images tend to arbitrarily marry with the event or object being remembered, rarely making explicit how they construct what we see and remember. Collectively held images thus act as signposts, directing mickle who remember to preferred meaning by the fastest route. These signposts are deceptive, favoring certain strategies for making, collecting, retaining, storing, recycling, and forgetting images that privilege certain ways of remembering over others. With photographs, visual memorys deception is particularly acute.We need only think of the photo of a dazed Jackie Kennedy gazing upon the swearing-in of Lyndon Baines Johnson as the next U.S. President or of the image of a small boy, his hands stretched supra his head, being herded out of the Warsaw Ghetto by German soldiers, to recognize how well photographs work as vehicles of memory. But their strength is offset by the fact that in memory, one function of photography - its ability to tell it like it is, commonly called its verisimilitude - is understated in order to privilege a second function - the ability of the photo to act as a symbol. In memory, then, contingent details matter less than the way in which contingent details are do part of a larger interpretive scheme. Holocaust photography bears this out with troubling implications for our understanding of contemporary atrocity. Photos of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in 1945 were preserve with inaccurate or incomplete captions, with few credits, and with an uneven relationship to the words at their side.