The adaption of photographs as memories

This text will explore the relationship photography has to our memories and the power of photographic documents to adapt and replace memory.  I will look at the ideas of realism and semiotics in photography and how they illustrate photography’s battle with representation and documentation. I will then reflect on this in comparison to ideas on memory. Finally I will assess how photography creates, adapts and warps our memories. 

Photography, the documents of a mechanical recording device, the automated box, acts as abstracted memories to us. We look at an old family photograph or one of a past lover and they are charged with meaning, the ghost of the past haunts these images. But what do we see? What are memories? And how do they affect our relationship to the reality we perceive? All of these important questions arrive in my mind as I have the aforementioned experience of looking at a photograph. I will attempt to answer some of these questions in this text but these are not small questions. First we have to consider how we perceive photographs to see their inherent correlation to memories. David Bate outlines the opposing theories of realism and semiotics in his book Key Concepts in Photography. These pose conflicting ideas of the ability of photography to portray some kind of realism.

“Realism is an aesthetic theory based on ‘similarity’ or an identity between the photograph and depicted reality. The seemingly special characteristic of photographs to carry their own referents (the referred objects) within the picture is a key ideological issue within the theory of photography… the argument is that the photograph is indexical – that is, caused by its referent.”

David Bate (2009). Photography (key Concepts). Oxford: BERG. p36-43.

“Semiotics, the other approach, emphasizes the way difference is involved in photographic signification. As Umberto Eco and Victor Burgin both argued, if we pay attention to the difference between the photograph and the real object represented, we can begin to highlight what photography (in all its guises) brings to the viewer. So while realism holds the idea that the signifier (the actual photograph) is the same as the signified (‘reality’), semiotics starts with the difference between these things. You could say that in realism the signifier (photograph) has disappeared into the signified (referent) and we only see the subject matter.”

David Bate (2009). Photography (key Concepts). Oxford: BERG. p36-43.

So here we can see that that these ideas pose the question of whether the viewer sees a representation or through that to the realism of the subject. This is not an argument with an answer ultimately they are both simultaneously experienced to some extent in the viewer but in my mind the attribution of emotion to an image helps to impact the viewer with an inherent realism to an image. The photographs that manage to most successfully transport us to the reality hidden within them are the ones we have some kind of emotional response to even if they are not our own. This helps us to understand our relationship to photography and the potential ability for it to represent our reality.

“The theory of realism shows us how people think about photography, about the similarity it appears to have with reality. Semiotics, in contrast, highlights the difference between what we see in a picture and the actual reality it depicts as ‘non-identical’.”

David Bate (2009). Photography (key Concepts). Oxford: BERG. p36-43.

Artists have often used their work to explore this debate. In ‘The Treachery of Images’ (see figure 1) Magritte plays with the idea of reality by drawing a pipe whilst writing underneath “This is not a pipe”.



Figure 1.  Rene Magritte - The Treachery of Images.


Figure 2.  Joseph Kosuth – One and Three Chairs.


Joseph Kosuth, in his instillation – One and Three Chairs - challenges the idea of representation in art and perception. How do we define a chair? What part of its manifestation is the place where it truly resides? If we are to play into the hand of Descartes we could argue that the definition in our mind is all we can be sure of as that is the only thing we can be assured exists everything else could just be a hologram.

There are interesting links here between these concepts of reality and discoveries in quantum physics, such as the double slit experiment. This shows that the universe, reality, is only there when it is being tested. Replications of the original double slit experiment (Thomas Young, 1801) found by firing single photons at a board with two slits in it and a photographic plate behind that the pattern on the plate indicated that the photons where passing through both slits at the same time (see figure 3). Then when the physicists changed the experiment and put a recording device on the slits the image on the photographic plate changed and the photons only went through one slit or the other. This reveals some of the inherent surrealism in the universe: reality is only there when it is being tested and the most common way is by light. This leads to ideas of light having a fundamental relationship to the creation of our reality on more than just a visual level.



 Figure 3.  The double slit experiment with photons.


Now we can see more ties between our experience of reality and photography with light being the key factor in recording photographic documents. Those photons that enter the mechanical recoding box and imprint themselves on the photographic emulsion are the same ones that construct the reality around us and project onto our retinas and through that create our own internal world through experience and memory. So the photons become transformed into electrical signals to flicker in our minds. This displays our inherent attraction to photography and willingness to attribute it with realism and value. This has also been further displayed and confirmed in the triple slit experiment (Sinha et al, 2010). 

“The world reflects the sun’s and other rays which are captured by means of optical, chemical and mechanical devices on sensitive surfaces and as a result produce technical images, i.e. they appear to be on the same level of reality as their significance. What one sees on them therefore do not appear to be symbols that one has to decode but symptoms of the world through which, even if indirectly, it is to be perceived.”     

Vilem Flusser (2000). Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Edinburgh: Reaktion Books. p15.

“Tools in the usual sense tear objects from the natural world in order to bring them to the place (produce them) where the human being is. In this process they change the form of these objects: They imprint a new, intentional form onto them. They ‘inform’ them: The object acquires an unnatural, improbable form; it becomes cultural.”

Vilem Flusser (2000). Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Edinburgh: Reaktion Books. P23.

These quotes further illustrate how photography interacts with our reality, light and representation. We can see that photographs have inherent ties to our memories both in the way they are created and the role they play in our experience of reality. They hold the potential to add to or replace our memories: the truth, our experience, of reality is revealed in part by light. This arcs back to Jean Paul Sartre’s ideas of the absurdity of the world. Where he said if we really examined the world around us and the things we do they are surreal and absurd. So to counter act this we try to make ourselves feel comfortable with familiarity. This comfort and familiarity are achieved through experience; the creation of memories and the ability to scan through this archive to find that familiar reference. This is the same way we view photographs, scanning the vaults of our memories to find familiarity and attribute meaning, thus producing an emotional response. There is a branch of psychological science that presents the idea of transactive memory (Sparrow et al, 2011) – that we rely on others and artefacts to remember for us.  So, photographs could be part of our transactive memory systems, storing memories for us and we just have to remember how to retrieve the photograph in order to recover the memory. Below in figure 4 a photograph from an unknown person, which I feel illustrates these ideas.



Figure 4. Unknown - Photograph


In his writing, ‘Memory Images’ (1927), Seigfried Kracauer briefly looks at the concept of memory and its relationship with photography. He outlines some interesting points in the area I am focusing my work on, memory and photography. I have selected three quotes from a text, by Ian Farr, which I feel pose interesting ideas in this area.

“Memory encompasses neither the entire spatial appearance of a state of affairs nor its entire temporal course. Compared to photography, memory’s records are full of gaps.”

Farr, Ian (2012). Memory (Documents of Contemporary Art). London: Whitechapel Art Gallery. p45-46.

Here Farr poses the idea that memory is not as comprehensive at recording as photography. This makes sense as photography doggedly records all that it perceives whereas memory usually only records information that is perceived as important. This disrupts the synergy people usually perceive between photography and memory. The photograph is not an internal memory although it is often easy to feel as though it is especially with the addition of sepia tone, worn edges, signs of the passage of time etc., which adds to the aged memory aesthetic. The photograph is an object, which is subjectively viewed, an abstraction of a memory; it can be a signifier for memories but never fully encompass the experience of them.

“No matter which scenes an individual remembers, they all mean something relevant to that person, though he or she might not necessarily know what they mean.”

Farr, Ian (2012). Memory (Documents of Contemporary Art). London: Whitechapel Art Gallery. p45-46.

This quote really interests me as it gets to the core of an idea I have been having when considering my relationship to my own memories. That they haze and become confused with images rolling past in my mind’s eye which some I can place and some I cannot. There are images in my mind of places and people I am not sure if I have experienced first or second hand or if I created them myself. This shows how memory can record reality, dreams and constructs of the imagination and then these different memories can blur together. Thus providing a distorted experience of reality, one that is moulded by the brain as much as the sensory organs. This is an idea I have been exploring in my work as I try to recreate scenes from my memory with some of the parts coming from people and places I have experienced both first and second hand and also imagined. In the psychological sciences, it has been argued that a new memory is laid down each time an event is recalled (Morton et al, 1985).  So when viewing a photograph, one might be remembering the event of the photograph, rather than the original event itself.

“An individual retains memories because they are personally significant. Thus they are organized according to a principle which is essentially different from the organization principle of photography. Photography grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum; memory images retain what is given only in so far as it has significance. Since what is significant us not reducible to either merely spatial or merely temporal terms, memory images are at odds with photographic representation.”

Farr, Ian (2012). Memory (Documents of Contemporary Art). London: Whitechapel Art Gallery. p45-46. 

In this quote Farr looks at why photography and memory differ. He deduces that it comes down to the fact photography bases its recording on whatever objects are in-front of it but memory only records the important aspect of the scene which can include other components, such as the emotions involved. These are two very different ways of recording the experience of reality although they both use the energy from an external scene in the form of light to create an abstraction, one is tangible and the other is internal both not without their inaccuracies. What appears from what we have read are, in fact, repeated dualities in the ability for photography and our memory to represent as a document of reality. Now I will look at ideas on how the document of the photograph can be used to adapt someone’s memory or even replace it. Below in figure 5 is a mixed media collage by Fred Tomaselli which I feel illustrates these ideas.

Figure 5.  Fred Tomaselli - Organism


In this journal article Tom Slevin (2013) argues that memory has become prosthetic, in the sense that it is replaced by photographs, due to our inability to trust our senses. Much like the idea of transitive memory mentioned earlier. This feed into what I am doing as I am trying to understand the relationship I have to my experience and memories and how photography relates to this.

“Memory became mechanically prosthetic at the very moment humanity could no longer trust its own act of perception or remembrance. Photography fulfilled a cultural need to inscribe fixity upon the temporal continuum of existence in an age traumatized by the realization that there was no permanent basis for reality and truth.”

Slevin, T. (2013). Prosthetic Memory. Philosophy of Photography. 4 (1), p109-112. 

Here Slevin puts forward the idea that photography has given us the truth we could not find in our own experience or memories. The mechanical reproduction of nature entices us to believe it holds a truth about its subject, as it appears to be an accurate representation. It is a faithful mechanical reproduction and this gives it the realism I looked at before in the writings of David Bate. So the photograph takes precedent over our own experience or memories, as it seems to be objective although it is truly not due to its own inherent subjectivity.

“Photography came to function as a technological instrument of memory. In a cultural moment of profound doubt regarding the foundations of knowledge and reality, this technological prosthesis made exterior that which was once interior by arresting the fluid traces of existence in space and time.”

Slevin, T. (2013). Prosthetic Memory. Philosophy of Photography. 4 (1), p109-112. 

Here, again we have the idea that photography makes the internal experience of reality an external one, ‘fixing the shadows’ as Fox Talbot would say. My relationship to the photographs I take and appropriate is in the same context. That each of these are frozen moments of time which either I experienced or someone else did, and I’m now experiencing them second-hand. They are all there as metaphors to my memories both first and second-hand. I then deconstruct and reconfigure them into tangible ideas, which represent multiple thoughts, feelings and emotions I have based around certain times. All we have to relate back to is the perpetual moment. My work into the process of taking photographs then deconstructing and reconfiguring them mirrors this idea.

“Through the mechanical extraction of a fragment from the whole, photography became a prosthetic supplement to memory. Photography translates and encodes the flow of existence into a fixed site of signification. The cultural crisis of knowledge found reassurance through such a mechanical process, whereby the fluidity of the referent is transformed into a fixed (photographic) sign. However, instead of guaranteeing memory, photography metamorphosed it.”

Slevin, T. (2013). Prosthetic Memory. Philosophy of Photography. 4 (1), p109-112.

Here we can see the writer emphasises the point I made previously that although photography has the illusion of truth this only hides the manipulation of reality that takes place in a photograph and how it is truly subjective just like our own experience. He also talks of the quality of photography being a reassurance through its transformation of subject and this again displays how photography can adapt existing memory or create new ones. We experience so much of the world through the second-hand media of photographs that they become our reality, our truth. We may have never been to some exotic countries or seen the sights of beauty they have to offer but we can experience mediated vision of these things with the second hand memories of photography. They ooze an inherent realism as discussed before and have the allure of truth. We cannot help but suspend disbelief in the face of this overwhelming attraction to our reality-seeking mind. 

In conclusion then, I have drawn together the disparate strands of theoretical and experimental physics, the psychological sciences, together with the philosophy of art and photography to reveal the many interlinked ideas, concepts and theories that show the dualism of our experiences. We experience photography as if it were reality itself as well as a representation of that reality. Memories represented by photographs can trigger a reliving of the experience and emotions they portray as well as becoming new memories in their own right. Photographs have the power to be the external memory store as well as bringing second-hand experiences for people who were not at the original event. We live in the perpetual moment with nothing to relate to but our memories to understand the place we are in. Our senses are only taking in a small amount of detail and the recording in our mind of that detail will never achieve perfection so our experience of reality is fundamentally flawed. This leaves us stranded and photography appears to offer us a respite from the uncertainty of the experience of existence. The allure of truth and potential to be charged with meaning photography seems to offer us an oasis of meaning but ultimately all that we find is what we project onto it.





Bate, D (2009). Photography (key Concepts). Oxford: BERG. p36-43.

Farr, I (2012). Memory (Documents of Contemporary Art). London: Whitechapel Art Gallery. p45-46.

Flusser, V (2000). Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Edinburgh: Reaktion Books. P23.

Foster, H. (2011). Art since 1900 : modernism, antimodernism, postmodernism. London, Thames & Hudson.

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Morton, J., Hammersley, R. H. andBekerian, D. A. (1985) Headed records: A model for memory and its failures.  Cognition, 20, l-23.

Sinha, U., Couteau, C., Jennewein, T., Laflamme, R. & Weihs, G.  (2010) 'Ruling Out Multi-Order Interference in Quantum Mechanics', Science, 329, 418-421.

Slevin, T. (2013). Prosthetic Memory. Philosophy of Photography. 4 (1), p109-112.

Sparrow, B., Liu, J. and Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science, 333, 776–8.

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