The Möbius Strip of Remembering and Forgetting: Teju Cole on How the Paradox of Photography Captures the Central Anxiety of Existence
“Photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses: we need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open.”
By Maria Popova
“The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself,” Italo Calvino wrote in 1970 as he reflected on photography and the art of presence. That same decade, Susan Sontag considered how photography mediates life’s relationship with death, that ultimate commemoration, observing: “We no longer study the art of dying, a regular discipline and hygiene in older cultures; but all eyes, at rest, contain that knowledge. The body knows. And the camera shows, inexorably.” A year later, she would go on to expand on these ideas in her timeless treatise on photography, exploring its function not only as commemoration but as “aesthetic consumerism” — an insight which time has proven astoundingly prescient as we confront the insatiable voraciousness of visual culture in the age of the social web.
Nearly half a century later, the Nigerian-American writer, art historian, and photographer Teju Cole — perhaps Sontag’s closest contemporary counterpart — examines this dual role of photography as commemoration and consumerism in an essay titled “Memories of Things Unseen,” found in the altogether spectacular Known and Strange Things: Essays (public library).
Photography is inescapably a memorial art. It selects, out of the flow of time, a moment to be preserved, with the moments before and after falling away like sheer cliffs. At a dinner party earlier this year, I was in conversation with someone who asked me to define photography. I suggested that it is about retention: not only the ability to make an image directly out of the interaction between light and the tangible world but also the possibility of saving that image. A shadow thrown onto a wall is not photography. But if the wall is photosensitive and the shadow remains after the body has moved on, that is photography. Human creativity, since the beginning of art, has found ways to double the visible world. What photography did was to give the world a way to double its own appearance: the photograph results directly from what is, from the light that travels from a body through an aperture onto a surface.
But when the photograph outlives the body — when people die, scenes change, trees grow or are chopped down — it becomes a memorial. And when the thing photographed is a work of art or architecture that has been destroyed, this effect is amplified even further. A painting, sculpture, or temple, as a record of both human skill and emotion, is already a site of memory; when its only remaining trace is a photograph, that photograph becomes a memorial to a memory. Such a photograph is shadowed by its vanished ancestor.
But memory itself is an imperfect memorial: The events of our lives are similarly shadowed by the photographs of those events. Who hasn’t looked at an early childhood photograph of oneself, predating the age of conscious remembering, and not felt the mirage of a memory in beholding that moment? In those instances, what we remember is what was captured, which releases in us a believable conjecture about what was, and the conjecture becomes calcified into an unremembered memory.
The same Möbius strip of representation and remembrance, Cole suggests, exists in our collective memory. He recounts a visit to the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of works from the ancient Middle East, just as the news media were reporting on the accelerating destruction of artifacts in Syria and Iraq. (That the “news” as we know it is an overwhelmingly photography-driven industry, selling the immediacy of the present using what is invariably in the past as its chief currency, is a paradox so self-evident that it need not be belabored.) Cole writes:
Next to a selection of second- and third-century Syrian gravestones (many of them fresh with the pain of loss and inscribed with the names of the dead and the word “Alas!”), there was an old photograph reproduced from a book of the Temple of Bel, an important archaeological complex in Palmyra. About a week later, the iconoclastic fanatics of ISIS blew up this very temple. The photograph was unchanged; it was still there on the wall of Room 406 at the Met, but it was now filled up with the loss of what it depicted. The Roman-era columns of the temple still stand in rows in the grainy image — ravaged by time, but standing. In life, they’re gone.
The Institute for Digital Archaeology, a joint project of Harvard and Oxford Universities, uses sophisticated imaging techniques to aid conservation, epigraphy, archaeology, and art history. One of the institute’s current efforts, the Million Image Database project, involves photographing artifacts that are at risk of being destroyed for military or religious reasons, a bleak necessity in a world in which the beauty or importance of an object does not guarantee its safety. The goal of the project is to distribute up to five thousand modified cameras, to professionals and to amateurs, and use them to capture a million 3-D images. Already, more than a thousand cameras have been distributed, and the 3-D data from them are being received (though the directors of the project, to protect their associates on the ground, are leaving a lag of several months before they make the images publicly available). In the event of some of the objects being destroyed, the detailed visual record could be enough to facilitate a reconstruction. Photography is used to ward off total oblivion.
And yet photography, after all, is a technology — both of thing and of thought — and like any technology, it is animated by a dual capacity for good and evil. Parallel to this constructive use of photography as reconstruction of collective memory, Cole points to its destructive counterpart — its use in monitoring and manipulation, a kind of “aesthetic control” to Sontag’s “aesthetic consumerism.” He writes:
Our own appearances and faces are now stored and saved in hundreds, thousands, of photographs: photographs made by ourselves, photographs made by others. Our faces are becoming not only unforgettable but inescapable. There is so much documentation of each life, each scene and event, that the effect of this incessant visual notation becomes difficult to distinguish from surveillance. And in fact, much of the intent behind the collection of these images is indeed surveillance: the government retains our images in order to fight terrorism, and corporations harvest everything they can about us in order to sell us things.
But the most disquieting aspect of this perpetual photographic documentation is that we have reached a point where these images of us will long outlive us and might, in theory, last forever. “All eternity is in the moment,” but when the moment ceases to be ephemeral and instead lasts forever, it ceases to exist. Paradoxically, rather than furnishing a greater gateway to eternity, eradicating the moment extinguishes eternity altogether. When everything is eternal, nothing is eternal.
Cole illustrates our confused relationship to temporality with a sobering anecdote of a self-annihilating exchange with a friend via SnapChat, one of our few deliberately ephemeral technologies:
The voiding of the record on Snapchat was startling. But it was also a relief. Our real selves remained, but the photographs were no longer there, and something about this felt like a sequence more preferable to the other way around, where the image lives on and the model is irretrievable. But just as nothing can be permanently retained, nothing is ever really gone. Somewhere out there, perhaps in the Cloud or in some clandestine server, is the optical afterimage of our interaction: the faces, the shoes, the texts. In these all-seeing days, the traffic between memory and forgetting becomes untrackable. Photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses: we need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open.
I’m reminded of Sarah Manguso’s magnificent meditation on time and memory, in which she crystallized the paradox: “Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.” I take from Cole — an inference that no doubt suffers the typical bedevilments of interpretation — that the camera lens has become the supreme focal point of that existential anxiety, through which we exorcise the ultimate fixation on freezing the flow of existence. To commemorate life in the act of living it seems to be the human condition — or the human curse.
Complement the wholly terrific Known and Strange Things with Sontag on selfies, selfhood, and how the camera helps us navigate complexity and this animated history of photography, from the camera obscura to the camera phone, then revisit Israel Rosenfield’s trailblazing exploration of consciousness, memory, and how our sense of self arises.