Photographs as Objects of Memory


Edwards, Elizabeth. ‘Photographs as Objects of Memory’ Material Memories ed. by Marius Kwint, Christopher Breward, Jeremy Aynsley, (Oxford: Berg, 1999) 221-236


[Edwards shall] shift the methodological focus away from content alone, arguing that it is not merely the image qua image that is the focus of contemplation, evocation and memory, but that its material forms, enhanced by its presentational forms, are central to its function as a socially salient object.

For photographs belong to that class of objects formed specifically to remember, rather than being objects around which remembrance accrues through contextual association (although they become this as well).

In their relationship with their referent, their reality effect and their irreducible pastness, photographs impose themselves on memory. They become surrogate memory and their silences structure forgetting.


The materiality of the photograph is integral to its affective tone as an image. The subjective and sensuous experiences of photographs as linking objects within memory are equally integral to the cultural expectancies of the medium, the certainty of the vision it evokes and cultural notions of appropriate photographic styles and object-forms for the expected performance of photography in a given context.


For materiality constitutes the presentational forms which themselves structure visual knowledge as well as those related human actions in modes of viewing which form both private and collective commemorative acts.

In much of the writing on photography, on the history of photography, on memory and on the past, very little attention has been given to the actual plasticity of the photograph as object.


In the concentration of the politics of the image, materiality is too often perceived as a neutral support for images rather than integral to the construction of meaning.

Given that photographs as evokers of memory are often related to people, the invisibility of the photograph as object may in part be related to the dualism between person and non-person which has dictated the relationship between people and things

One of the formal characteristics of photography, which distinguishes it from other mimetic inscriptional devices, such as film and video (and to an extent transparencies, still photographs performed in the mode of cinema), is that photographs make the image visible through the nature of its materiality, without intermediate technical translation to realize the image beyond initial processing.


Furthermore, the evocative fascination of photographs as they operate in their stillness and materiality is very different from the evocative qualities of film or video.

Stillness invites evocation, contemplation and a certain formation of affective memory in a way that film and video, with their temporal naturalism and realistic narrative sequence, cannot.

[Referencing Metz (Photography and Fetish) and Barthes (CL)…] film suggests ‘being there’ in its temporal immersion whereas photographs speak to ‘having been there’: they are fragmentary and irreducibly of the past or of death itself.

The power of the nexus of image and material is made clearest in the destruction of the material object.

As Barthes argued [93] to reject a photograph and thus the memory-value it holds out demands its physical removal: destruction engages with materiality.

To cut, tear or, worse, burn a photograph is, as Mavor [‘Collecting Loss’ Cultural Studies xi 1997 no1 p.19] describes it, ‘a violent, frightening hysterical action, which leaves behind indexical wounds and irreparable scars’.


[…] the photograph has always existed, not merely as an image but in relation to the human body, tactile in experienced time, objects functioning within everyday practice.

Albums have weight and tactility, they often smell, sometimes of damp, rotting card, the scent of ‘pastness’.


In relation to memory, and the resurrectional qualities of photography, it is significant that many early album bindings , with their relief leatherwork and metal clasps, look like family bibles or medieval devotional books; often they suggest, like the special dynamic of the image itself, a miniaturized from, a containment and an intensification. [see stewart 136-7]

The heavy tactile surface and material form is suggestive of the weight of visual meaning contained within it.


If the photo-object engages with the body, it also retemporalizes and respatializes the photograph. In Barthes famous phrase, the ‘there-then becomes the here-now’. [IMT, 44]

Crucially the album retemporalizes, it constructs a narrative of history, not merely in the juxtaposition of separate images but in the way the viewer activates the temporality and narrative through the physical action of holding the object and turning the pages. The viewer is in control of the temporal relationship with those images.

The album also respatializes: disconnected points offer glimpses of possible pasts. they are transformed not into an experienced spatiality but with an imaginative and ambiguous space which the past inhabits, collected and co-located, they transform history into space. [see Stewart xii]


[Albums are] specific material manifestations of social desire. These relate to the function and appropriateness of form, which makes possible authorial ordering, and text, which is central to evocation and the construction of memory.


As physical distances in social relations increase, so the tension between knowledge (memory) and ignorance (forgetting) becomes a critical determinant in the flow of ‘memory texts’.


Exchanges allow, for instance, distant kin to participate in the experience and intimacy of rites of passage and other important occasions.

The exchange of the photograph as image itself expresses the social value of the relationship that is maintained  and sustained between groups and individuals, which demands reciprocity to consolidate the socially desired memory of images.

The implications of the gifting relationship are integral to the meaning of the photo-object in gestures which recapitulate or re-enact social articulations. [see Stewart 138]

They reinforce networks and identity built on the memory to which they relate, positioning individuals vis á vis the group, linking past, present and perhaps implying a future.

The specific social dimension is significant in relation to the material form of a specific artefact.

The inscriptions on the back, the mounting, the size of the print, the intimacy of the image-content in relation to the material forms are integral to social meanings and social relationships expressed through the act of exchange. Such exchanges have been found to be deeply implicated in the negotiation of social identities within diaspora communities.


Artifacts are often at their most powerful and effective as social forces when they appear to be most trivial. The physicality of the photograph is not articulated by those consuming it.

It constitutes part of the inarticulated ‘habitas’, that daily praxis within the material world, a ‘household ecology of signs’ in which social actions take place.

[Considering the wedding album]

The dialogic relationship between content, form and materiality create the socially meaningful object and the ‘correct’ expression of rite de passage.

Further access to the album and the circulation of images as material objects is an act of cohesion. The material object constitutes an intersection between social context and codified, connotative ideologies of social practice (the form of the content) on the one hand, and material production of the artefact within object- worlds  on the other.


While the operation of the ‘objectness’ of photographs is perhaps most apparent in the consideration of historical images, their salient social uses and biographies as ‘things’ are every bit as significant in contemporary uses of the photograph.

[Edwards argues] that many of the material and presentational forms preserve the traces of earlier forms, yet reflect the modern ubiquity of the image.

[gives examples of albums, made to look like books with heavy/decorated covers; furry frames; frames that record sound to go with a photo]

Here the presentational forms are simultaneously reinforcing the reality-effect of the photograph and intensifying the sensual range of associated memory. Thus the presentational forms enhance, as memory, the significance of specifically chosen photographs in a world saturated by images.

With the video perhaps becoming the main quotidian memorializer, one might argue that the choice of still photography and its presentation become evr more significant and perhaps more fetishized as a focus of longing and remembrance.


It is the appeal of these material forms of the image which is likely to outlive conventional chemical photography. Future photographs may be digitally produced, but the economy of photographic desires and concepts will surely persist.

Human values and human desire for linking objects of memory will, I believe, still demand the material possibilities of photography, where the affective tones of physical tactile quality, as I have argued, integrally construct the photograph and its status as an object of memory.

Objects are links between past and present, and photographs have a double link as image and as material, two ontological layers in one object.

One wonders if Barthes’s ontological desire would have been so stirred if it had not been for the very materiality of his mother’s photograph. For he yearned to go into the depths of the paper itself, to reach its other side.


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