Photographic Anamnesia: The Past in the Present


“Photographic Anamnesia: The Past in the Present”

Mette Sandbye

in Symbolic Imprints: Essays on Photography and Visual Culture, edited by Lars Kiel Bertelson, Rune Gade, and Mette Sandbye, Aaphus University, Oxford, 1999.


[Sandbye disagrees with Sontag’s view that ‘To possess the world in the form of images is, precisely,  to re-experience the unreality and remoteness of the real’. Sandbye contends that] precisely photography is eminently suitable for representation of the traumatic past, but only if the medium is not allowed to close itself on its own tautological referentiality, but is placed in an open, unfinished narrative.

[Sandbye asserts that] photography […] is an exemplarily dialectical type of image, with the ability to unfold a latent memory and incorporate it in an interpetation of history, which can tell us just as much about the concrete present as about the picture’s absent past.

Like the trauma, the photograph does not really tell us anything other than that something took place in the past, but if placed in what I will call an anamnetic micro-narrative in artistic form, it can unfold a much bigger story.


The decisive element is photography’s power to ascertain or point, which has to do, not with the object but with time.

Photography presupposes a distance in time between the observing subject and the object. The ontological idea of photography as a meeting with, and authentication of, a past, of something that once was, is due, not to the referentiality of the motif, but to the meeting with a consciousness with it.

The photographic image is fundamentally pragmatic; it has no meaning in itself, it confirms the existence and the presence of the referent, but tells us nothing of its significance. Therefore every photograph veils as it unveils.


[Sandbye discusses Durand and his theory that] it is the relationship between the pictorial presence and the subject that constitutes photographic experience, while at the same time the photograph is not just a sheer feeling of presence, but also creates its own kind of time. Photography does not mirror reality, but is a reality in itself.

Rather than about concretely depicted and absent objects, photography is about the temporality of unconscious thought processes: the wish to see more, a wish that will never be fulfilled. [after Durand]

Photography has an essentially enigmatic nature which forces us to interrogate it. In front of a photograph, we become archaeologists. The image reactivates affective, obtuse, uneasy time – the time of memory. [see Merleau-Ponty and his description of how the visible is present through its encounter with the body of the observer]


Photography today is perhaps suffering from too quickly being allowed to be identified with a mechanical instrument for analogue reproduction and simultaneously divested of the magic dimension that was so strong in the early years of the medium. [see Benjamin]

If on the one hand photography has played a part in destroying the aura of the work of art, on the other hand it has introduced another, distinctively photographic aura  not far from Benjamin’s description of the aura as ‘ the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be ‘, that is , a distance in place and time which at the same time, forms a presence that touches the observer. [see also Benjamin’s ‘A Short History of Photography’]

On the one hand, postmodern, postindustrial culture suffers from political, social and cultural amnesia due to technological acceleration: the high-tech flow of information that makes us live in an external moment, out of contact with the past or the future. On the other hand, and as a reaction to that, we note what might almost be called an obsession with memory in today’s society.


[Durand discusses Boltanski’s Sans-Souci and Shimon Attie’s Portraits of Exile]


[Aligning Benjamin’s ideas] For Benjamin, it is not possible to tell history ‘as it was’.

What we must realise is that our knowledge of the past always belongs to, and is filtered through, the present, and that the retention of memory inherent in historiography can involve an exercise of power.

Benjamin was interested in allegory and montage as methodical tools with which the artist could break the historical hold that made history into an ordered and predetermined, locked chain of events.

[on artist’s reconfiguring of memory] An expression and its signification are socially and historically variable, and by means of allegorical accumulation of diverse fragments of images, one can create a new view of history.


In Das Passagen-Werk, Konvolut N, Benjamin speaks of ‘dialectical images’ as the true critical bearers of history. Although he does not specify what kind of images he is thinking of, the description corresponds to the photograph, especially as it is used by Boltanski and Attie.

The dialectical image possesses a ‘historical index’ , that is to say, everything belonging to a particular time (this can be compared to Barthes’s concept of ‘Studium’) but at the same time it indicates a ‘particular critical point of movement in its interior’ which only comes ‘to legibility’ in another time […]

With the invention of photography, the modern world acquired a visual historical witness that was more  precise and reliable than painting.

Paradoxically, while photography could certify historical events, it also denied us the feeling of a coherent flow of history. In the photograph, the past is frozen in a series of isolated moments.


Foster concludes that photo-based pictures are the bearers of a traumatic realism which totally disregards the traditional distinction between photography as a referential medium and as a simulcrum. [see Foster, 1996, 146]


Pathos [and melancholy in contemporary art] contains a retentiveness; a saving quality that gives our present experience historical depth. The melancholy in the old, unearthed photographs Boltanski and Attie use is not the same thing as pessimism, resignation or nostalgia for a past that is lost forever. Rather it is a foundation for new insight.


As a pictorial document, [the photograph] exists between presence and absence, the general/banal andthe specific, personally charged.