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A Special Gravity: Photos as Objects of Memory
As Elizabeth Edwards argues in “Photographs as Objects of Memory,” “Photographs express a desire for memory and the act of keeping a photograph is, like other souvenirs, an act of faith in the future. They are made to hold the fleeting, to still time, to create memory” (332). Indeed, a photograph “projects the past into the present,” and even ushers “the dead among the living through the inscribed image” (332).
Our relationship to photography has certainly changed with the proliferation of smart phones and social media, where digital photos can be snapped and archived in cyberspace almost instantly. And yet the idea that even digital photographs haunt the present with mementos of the past is demonstrated through the pervasiveness of Facebook memorial pages (see the article “Facebook introduces 'memorial' pages to prevent alerts about dead members” in The Telegraph). While such pages offer a way for friends and family to honour the memories of passed loved ones, the departed linger in the ether of the web, absent but still hauntingly present. Such memorials, bolstered by the powerful specter of photographs that comprise an ethereal body, are the ghosts of our modern times.
Most families possess as treasured objects the ubiquitous family photo album. Many of these albums contain images of celebratory moments: graduations, weddings, birthdays and holidays. They also archive the past and, thereby, bring the dead among the living—deceased grandparents and relatives, treasured pets, and so on—to express a family narrative, a familiar story, or perhaps an enigma. As Edwards argues, physical photographs, the kind processed in darkrooms and developing trays, have a specific kind of impact through their materiality. They are physical, externalized objects of memory that have a “specific gravity” that can even make “the recently dead more precious than that of the living” (332). In a sense, photographs reify the past through the invocation of memory.
A few favorite photos I took while snooping through my grandparents’ house like a relic hunter are what you might classify as readymade ephemera. They are photos of advertisements for local businesses, back in a time when one could be a “Photographer,” “Druggist,” “Stationer,” and “Issuer of Marriage Licenses.” Such photos were never meant to be preserved—they are akin to the flyers that we frequently throw into the recycle bin as soon as we receive them—but they nevertheless offer a ghostly vignette of a very different past, and I’m glad they survived long enough for me to steal a shot. Ironically, these are photos of photos, and I gave them very uninspired names: “Gentlemen with Bikes” and “Distinguished Man Standing Next to Chair.”
The haunting nature of such photos is not necessarily their existence as ephemera haphazardly encountered among heaps of disposable items—although such jarring encounters play a part in their ghostly nature. It’s the trace of human agency, of intentionality, of being present in a particular moment. These individuals stood to be photographed at a particular time in a particular place—there was travel involved, objects to be staged, poses to be manufactured, families to return to, the day’s business to be completed. These men are long dead. What’s left stares out at us with somewhat apathetic and dead eyes as if to say “Life is ephemeral.” Like the store flyer we relegate to the recycle bin, everything eventually experiences an analogous fate.
Think about the objectness of photographs for a moment. What is it about their physical presence that invokes this “specific gravity”? What is it about their physical objectness, or perhaps their enigmatic nature, that haunts the present with mementos of times passed? These photographs could be family photos, photos in a gallery or museum, or even abandoned photos you might find at a junk shop or flea market. The point is that they are physical, artifactual. They express the past to the present with tier haunting aura. Even seeing an image of myself as a child makes me think of the many manifestations we adopt as life progresses. We are constantly leaving ghosts of ourselves behind. I imagine that my child ghost, captured in those photos, lives at the county dump alongside my childhood objects: discarded clothes, toys, forgotten stories I wrote. One can only hope that those objects burned easily, or live far below the surface, away from the vermin and larvae that burrow holes in such tapestries.
Below you will see photos of two dogs. One is of my current dog (a golden retriever); the other is of my father’s first dog, named Shadow—a fitting name for a ghost dog (the photo is circa 1958). I included these photos because of how much animals, both living and deceased, impact our daily lives and greatly influence the people we become. In some ways, people live their lives in chunks based on their pets. When I was a boy, my first dog was also a golden retriever, named Buffy, who met a tragic end (farm accident). This period is referred to as my Buffynean Period. After that there was Bandit, who also met a tragic end (car accident). This is my Banditean Period. Then there was Tucker (cancer)—my Tuckerean Period. And now there is Stella (ongoing)—the Stellean Period.
These photos have a very specific gravity for me. It's not necessarily the emotion tied up in having animals. These images speak loudly to the paradox inherent in the operations of a farm and the care we give to domesticated pets. Shadow, along with most of our farm dogs, met a tragic end typical to farm living (animal attacks, farm equipment accidents, etc.). Losing these dogs impacted me as a child and is a part of my evolution into adulthood. These photos have a specific gravity that represents the counterforces within farm life and the contradictions we must reconcile in our daily existence.