Memory Lifts Her Smoky Mirror by Antoine Veling

Memory Lifts Her Smoky Mirror

Sunday, 6 January 2019 by Antoine Veling

“How old would you say our lawnmower is? Did we get it before the kids (now approaching their thirties)?”

“No way. I can get out the receipt if you really want to know”, Sue replied.


That simple breakfast conversation got me thinking. How underwhelming is our memory. Humankind seems to have an ceaseless yearning to invent and perfect recording devices or memory strategies.


Sue demonstrated both: Cai Lun’s invention and Einstein’s strategy. While acknowledged as a great theoretical physicist, Einstein had a dreadful memory. Why should he waste brain power on trivial information like his telephone number - he knew where to find it when needed. Einstein had much more important matters to ponder. Bored as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland, Einstein discovered the Law of the Photoelectric Effect while at work. Einstein received the Nobel Prize in 1921 for its discovery. Why? It seems the Law was a stepping stone in the development of quantum theory but more importantly, because of our love for better recording devices, pivotal in the development of the digital camera.


Before Cai Lun invented paper we relied upon verse to help our flagging memory. Sarah Holland-Batt’s introduction to her anthology of “The Best Australian Poems 2017” spoke of Exeter University’s unsurprising discovery, using fMRI technology, that participants who read their favourite poems showed “the brain’s memory centres were activated more strongly than the areas associated with reading.” Rereading poems is an act of remembering.


Imagine if Einstein only had verse as a memory strategy to recall his Swiss phone number in Bern:


Ode to a Telephone Number

Thou still unravish'd zero of quietness,

       Thou third child of silence in slow single time,

Seventh historian, who canst thus express

       A flowery eight more sweetly than our rhyme:

What leaf-fring'd legend haunts thee three

       Of deities or mortals, yes, you two

               In Tempe or the dales of Quantum?

       What men or gods are these two? What six maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape eight?

               What numbers online? What wild relativity ecstasy?


No wonder Aristotle omitted memory from his Five Wits - what we call our senses today. It seems Aristotle considered our poor track record at recollection not worthy enough for his wits. Not so for Buddha who included ‘the mind’ as a sense organ in addition to Aristotle’s Famous Five. Is not the mind the memory’s residence when at home?


Gary Winogrand chose an unorthodox memory strategy. He actively set out to forget the photo taking process. In Mason Resnick’s insightful web blog “Coffee and Workprints: My Street Photography Workshop with Gary Winogrand”, Resnick comments on Winogrand’s strange but  orderly working method:


“...He never developed film right after shooting it. He deliberately waited a year or two, so he would have virtually no memory of the act of taking an individual photograph. This, he claimed made it easier for him to approach his contact sheets more critically. ‘If I was in a good mood when I was shooting one day, then developed the film right away,’ he told us, ‘I might choose a picture because I remember how good I felt when I took it, not necessarily because it was a great shot. You make better choices if you approach your contact sheets cold, separating the editing from the picture taking as much as possible’..."


Winogrand suffered the ultimate memory loss by dying at the early age of 56, leaving behind an estimated 432,000 unseen photos that he had been busy trying to forget how he took them.


Until learning of Winogrand’s modus operandi, I had a belief that perhaps photographs were the ultimate device we had invented for recalling the forgotten past. The ease of taking a photo brought about by, firstly, the digital camera then its inclusion in the smartphone has seen the rise of photos taken for personal documentation - a visual diary of our lives. Really, when was the last time you reached for your smartphone to capture a sound bite of food before taking your first bite? A photo record is much more tasteful.


As we move into 2019 it is traditional to pause and look back over the past year to reminisce over the good times and perhaps learn from the not so good. Our prolific photo tally helps our recollection with that annual review. However, video is catching up fast, principally on the back of the ease of capture and the development of faster, larger machine memories to process and store video. Though it seems the short duration video is the fashion - so short, it really emulates a moving photograph.


Winogrand has us believe that our poor memory is an asset for editing our millions of snaps. I put this to the test and hunted down the very first photo I took with my first camera - the impressive Nikkormat FTn that I purchased in May 1974. My findings? I cannot recall anything about taking the photo at all. Not surprising after 45 years. It only took 1 or 2 years for Winogrand’s memory lapse to kick in. As for the editing process? Easy. Although the photo is worthy of selection for its emotive “first photo status” it really serves no purpose and is equally worthy of forgetting. Winogrand wins.


Or does he?


The joy I felt in discovering this photo and looking back at the boy that became the man was wonderful. A teenage time when “we know what we are but know not what we may be.” It was wonderful for no one else but me of course. Photos can bring more than memories. They are bearers of emotions. This is why photos are by far the most important servant for our forgetful memory.


As life continues its butchering of my memory, by blunt scythe than sharp scalpel, I hunger for a time to revisit, mull over and ponder my library of 300,000 photos and still growing. To be with my “eternity of transparencies” as Clive James once said.


In fact, I posit there is a functional relationship between memory’s decline and the growth of photographs. A memory-image equivalence that can be expressed in this simple algebraic expression:

P = mc2

with P the number of photographs, m the memory at rest and c the Einstein Constant (yet to be discovered).