Memory-Embalming No More: Vernacular Photography
and the Reframing of Remembrance
Kris Belden-Adams, PhD; Presentation at the
University of Paris – Denis Diderot, Feb. 24, 2017
Photography, George Eastman wrote, “enables the fortunate professor to go back by the light of his own fireside to scenes which would otherwise fade from memory and be lost” (Eastman, in Newhall, 1982, 129). Eastman, Kodak’s founder, thus marketed vernacular photography as a means to supplement memory. However, other commentators, including Siegfried Kracauer and Roland Barthes, have suggested that photography operates in opposition to memory. Kracauer makes a distinction between the photograph and a “memory image,” in which the viewer selects only the things they wish to retain, while the image indiscriminately keeps everything (Kracauer, 1995). To Barthes, the photograph offers a “counter memory” which cannot convey the sensation of experiencing the moment itself (Barthes, 1981, 91). More recently, Mette Sandbye suggested that digital social-media photographs embody a very different approach to documenting memories: “[t]oday photography is predominantly a social, everyday activity rather than a memory-embalming one, creating presence, relational situations, and communication” (Sandbye, 2016, p. 97).
All of these commentators prompt historians and theorists of the medium to wonder: just what is photography’s relationship to memory?
This presentation explored the way in which taking and sharing of digital social-media photographs might relate to memory differently from vernacular analog practices. To these ends, it offered a brief case study for addressing memory-building in an analog family snapshot kept by one of its subjects in an album (Fig. 1). This photograph of children eating birthday cake conforms to Richard Chalfen’s parameters for the conventions of snapshots that prevailed in pre-1990s American popular culture, whose views of photography were shaped by Kodak’s advertising campaigns (Chalfen, 1987). It represented a milestone in a child’s life cycle, a birthday party, to document change, rather than to celebrate the mundane everyday routines. Moreover, it delivers tales/myths about ourselves to ourselves, while providing affirmation of common culture and providing a vehicle for family folklore that is shared among a small circle of viewers.
This image was contrasted with digital vernacular social-media photographs, which are a means of networked socializing and celebrating everyday moments, as Sandbye suggested. Within the context of social-media sites, such images most often convey a desired (innately part-fictional) persona, or avatar, of the self to a vast and expanded online audience (Belden-Adams, 2017).
Both analog and digital vernacular practices, function rhetorically to weave a calculated personal narrative, rather than acting as an “objective” document that preserves memory as a “memory image.” As such, they each prompt for an examination of memory’s “objectivity” – which is itself, according to John Paul Eakin, “one more source of fiction” (Eakin, 2000, p. 290). These practices of vernacular photography also provided an opportunity for reflection upon many differences (of audience, social intimacy, the formation of personal identity, oral and written narratives, and the preservation of personal history), across the analog/digital divide.
Fig. 1. Glenn Belden, Untitled Snapshot, 1971.
Dr. Kris Belden-Adams is an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Mississippi, and specializes in the history of photography. She received her PhD from the City University of New York – Graduate Center in 2010. In addition to researching social-media photographs, she also studies the temporal dimensions of the medium. Dr. Belden-Adams’s recent scholarship also examines the selfie, and on the intersections of sewage and photography in the decades following the medium’s birth. Her work has been published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in Photographies, Afterimage, Southern Studies, The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society, and Cabinet.