Rescued from oblivion

Rescued from oblivion

“What we, or at any rate I, refer to confidently as memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.” 

That’s William Maxwell, from So Long, See You Tomorrow, a remembrance of things past on the Illinois prairie. There’s no denying the beauty of that writing, and it turns out there’s no denying the accuracy of it, either. While I was reading the novel, the “Innovators Issue” of The New Yorker (May 19, 2014) arrived as if on cue to vouch for Maxwell’s take on memory.1

In a piece called “Partial Recall,” Michael Specter writes about Daniela Schiller, a neuroscientist who is working on memory, specifically on how to help people with PTSD or similar ailments. The backstory is that a researcher named Karim Nader ran an experiment in 1999 demonstrating that “the very act of remembering something makes it vulnerable to change. Like a text recalled from a computer’s hard drive, each memory was subject to editing. First, you have to search the computer for the text, and then bring it to the screen, at which point you can alter and save it. Whether the changes are slight or extensive, the new document is never quite the same as the original.”

We all talk a lot about memory and photography. But, as a given, we tend to think of memory as pretty well fixed, even if incomplete or incorrect. Indeed, as Specter says, “Until recently, few researchers challenged the paradigm [of consolidation].” The basic concept of consolidation: “Until memories are fixed, they are fragile and easily destroyed . . . It takes a few hours for new experiences to complete the biochemical and electrical process that transforms them from short-term to long-term memories. Over time, they become stronger and less vulnerable to interference, and, as scientists have argued for nearly a century, they become imprinted onto the circuitry of our brains.”

But now, consider that the very act of remembering alters a memory. It brings to mind the concept that, on the quantum level, observation changes the observed2; when you bounce a photon of light off a very small particle (in order to “see” and record it) you jostle that particle just like the cue ball hits the eight.3

This is both lovely and exasperating at the same time. Actually, it’s way more frustrating with the memory thing. It seems maybe OK for the quantum world to stump us, but it’s terribly sad to think that our brain chemistry is actively thwarting our innocent attempts at recollection. It sets up a weird conundrum: should I try to remember something or keep it pristine by just not even going there? As if this “choice,” expressed this actively, is even available to us?

On the topic of keeping the source pristine, I turn to Alec Wilkinson’s “A Voice from the Past,” in that same issue of The New Yorker. It’s the story of the physicist (and guy I would clearly like to hang out with) Carl Haber, who has developed a process that uses optical metrology to “read” and thus “play” fragile recording media like old wax cylinders or acetate disks – without ever touching them, which would damage them irrevocably. To vastly oversimplify: you take a three-dimensional digital picture of the analog grooves, to record the width, length, and depth thereof. And then you program a computer to process that digital picture and make the sounds that a stylus would have. 

Haber has even been able to hear a folk song sung by one Edouard-Leon Scott, who – get this – “embedded his voice in soot on a piece of paper” in Paris in 1860. It’s “the oldest sound archeophonists have recovered.”4 After that bit of dirty detective work, it doesn’t seem that big a deal to read the dots and lines cut into the paper rolls used for old player pianos. Which, it turns out, seriously messes with a kind of memory: the institutional memory of how classical music is supposed to sound. Because, for example, Rubinstein played a Chopin etude for a roll, as did Ravel his own “Sonatine.” And “Stravinsky wrote his ballet ‘Les Noces’ with parts for piano rolls.”

“The rolls preserved playing styles popular in the period which had subsequently fallen into disuse,” Wilkinson writes, and “the styles conflict with the way piano is taught.” Upon hearing the rolls, modern professionals think there is something wrong with them.

Old photographs don’t quite have that dimensionality that would make us think there’s “something wrong” with them. For better and for worse, they don’t sing. But something similar: I have on several occasions looked at a landscape that I had previously photographed and thought that it – the real, live world – was somehow “off.” The trees didn’t have the right spatial relationship, for example, or that one building was slightly out of place. 

Of course, there are technical explanations for this. Last summer, I tried to replicate Lee Friedlander’s 1972 photograph of Kiener Plaza in St. Louis, with the Gateway Arch looming over the Old Courthouse building, and a statue and fountain in the foreground. But standing right where he stood, or as near as I could figure, I couldn’t make it work exactly. Obviously, Friedlander used a lens that described the space in a way slightly different from my eyes. And then I was trying to use an altogether different lens (on an iPhone, no less) to organize anew the scene. Layers of translation. Like the kids game in which you whisper a sentence from one person to another in a line until the meaning is changed entirely.

But then, apart from cameras and lenses, there’s the way that a photograph seems to definitively memorialize the landscape (or the person, or the interior) in our minds.5 That old veracity thing that is both a blessing and a curse. But I need to take that even another step further, because when I talk about a landscape appearing different than from when I photographed it, I of course don’t mean that I am at that moment looking at the photograph that I previously made. (As I at least had the sense to do in St. Louis, when I took the Friedlander along with me.) No indeed: like you (I hope), I do not carry all of my photographs around with me; I am just remembering them. Or rather, I am misremembering them.6 When I get back home and pull out the relevant print, I see that I had done some embellishing on those once-concrete spatial relationships. As I know now, my brain chemistry was spicing the image up (or down?) a bit. And now – oops – the memory has once again changed permanently.

Like the modern musician resisting the sound of Ravel playing his own music in a way with which she is not familiar, I see a previously-photographed/memorized landscape and am confronted by the facts on the ground, which tell a different tale. I just have to hope that some of that story makes it back into the newest, freshest memory. 

As for these facts on the ground getting stored somehow, I know that I’m conflating the electrochemical processes in our brains with recording media. But as Specter points out, I’m not alone: “Plato and Aristotle saw memories as thoughts inscribed on wax tablets that could be erased easily and used again. These days, we tend to think of memory as a camera or a video recorder, filming, storing, and recycling the vast troves of data we accumulate throughout our lives.” 

The camera may be an imperfect metaphor for memory, but it does at least point to something that anyone who photographs seriously will understand: how much gets left out. I bet I’ve made at least fifty thousand exposures in my life (which is probably on the low end for many photographers), so just think how much I’ve left out intentionally. And then think of all the stuff that I (read: you) have left out unintentionally – all the great stuff that I didn’t notice or comprehend or whatever. But I guess that’s why Friedlander exists. 

This point was brought home in another context in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s wonderful piece in the The New York Times Magazine (April 13, 2014) called “Please Don’t Bury My Soul.” The title comes from a line in “Last Kind Words,” a blues song from 1930 by Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. The handful of songs created and recorded by Thomas and Wiley are widely regarded as masterpieces. The miracle is not that the recordings survived, although that is one, but that they were made at all: 

A furniture company, that’s how it started. The Wisconsin Chair Company. They got into making phonograph cabinets. If people had records they liked, they would want phonographs to play them on, and if they had phonographs, they would want cabinets to keep them in. The discs were even sold, especially at first, in furniture shops. They were literally accessories. Toys, you could say. In fact, the first disc “records” were manufactured to go with a long-horned gramophone distributed by a German toy company. So we must imagine, it’s as if a subgenre of major American art had been preserved only on vintage View-Master slides.

Here again: a visual/photographic metaphor. Incidentally, who would turn down a View-Master version of American Photographs?

Sullivan recounts a lengthy investigation into the lives of these women, particularly Thomas’s, as she was the primary songwriter and singer. Lengthy because neither lady left much of a trace outside of those recordings. It’s a long, generous piece of writing, and I was delighted when Sullivan finally “got a text from him [Elvie’s nephew Robin, whom Sullivan and an assistant had tracked down] one night . . . It had a little picture attached. I opened it and looked into the eyes of L.V. Thomas. [That Elvie/L.V. confusion being no small hindrance in the detective work.] A Polaroid. Robin had put the image on the sofa and taken a picture of it with his own phone.”

A digital photograph of an instant photograph. The memory of an artist of genius reduced to twice-removed fact. “I tried forcing myself, through an almost physical mental exertion, not to project momentousness onto the picture,” Sullivan writes. That’s a sound reaction for a journalist, especially one writing for the Times, but I say go ahead and project that momentousness. It feels OK. I do it all the time.


1. Which reminds me of my favorite literary assertion that was scientifically ahead of its time: Whitman’s “for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” I’ve asked a few people, but no one seems to know if Walt would or could have known of the physics underlying his metaphor. Which then: is it no longer a metaphor when we understand the actual behavior of atoms? Probably it’s better to let that mystery be.

2. I have enough respect for my inner science nerd to note that I know that this is an “observer effect,” and it must be distinguished from the even more mind-blowing Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which, pace Wikipedia, asserts “a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle known as complementary variables, such as position x and momentum p, can be known simultaneously.” 

More enlightening is this contrast, attributed to one Professor V. Balakrishnan of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, and which I present verbatim from Wikipedia, where it was deemed important enough for italics: The uncertainty principle actually states a fundamental property of quantum systems, and is not a statement about the observational success of current technology.

3. And let’s all be thankful that it goes down that way, because that physical interaction is the essence of our medium. All those little photons hitting the film at different wavelengths (and thus different levels of energy; we won’t furrow our brows over particle/wave duality for now) and having quite an effect on (in the happiest case) all those little silver halide crystals. And then later, similarly, in the darkroom, photons passing through the negative, undergoing wavelength alteration, and striking the silver compounds in the paper, again having quite an effect.

Light sets free, sets in motion. Even before Genesis 1:3, and certainly ever since. The anonymous author of “Midnight Special” saw release from earthly bondage in the headlamp of the locomotive, which would “shine her ever-loving light on me.” (Some people sing it “ever-living,” and I think it sounds pretty good either way.) And freedom – at least of the variety found in Philadelphia – asks that you “shine a light, won’t you shine a light?”

But of course that’s only half of the story. “Life is transitory; light and life together hasten away,” as J.R.R. Tolkein’s translation of Beowulf has it. We must show vintage prints in darkened rooms, lest an abundance of photons accelerate their demise. Sometimes, in even greater caution, we must cover the picture with velvet. (Which might be a good idea for all photographs; it heightens the drama of viewing immeasurably, and there’s really nothing like the tactile experience of lifting that heavier-than-it-looks lushness.)

As with a stylus on those aged wax cylinders and acetates, we must destroy our pictures to experience them. For the photographer, light is not just metaphorically but literally the Lord: the photon giveth, and the photon taketh away. 

4. Check out how beautiful are the thoughts and the writing in this paragraph by Wilkinson: 

Silence is imaginary, because the world never stops making noise. A sound is a disruption of the air, and it doesn’t so much die as recede until it subsides beneath the level of the world’s random noise and can no longer be recovered, like a face that is lost in a crowd. In past times, people sometimes thought that all sounds that ever existed were still present, hovering like ghosts. Guglielmo Marconi, who sent the first radio message, in 1902, believed that with a microphone that was sufficiently sensitive he could hear Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount, and in 1925 a writer for the Washington Post speculated that a radio was capable of broadcasting the voices of the dead. A radio transmits vibrations, he wrote, and the voices of the dead “simply vibrate at a lower rate.”

5. Joan Mitchell, who did not always paint from direct observation, told the art historian Paul Schimmel in 1980: “I carry my landscape around with me.” I suppose that’s true for photographers as well, even if our pictures are somewhat more constrained by the realities of the land.

6. Quick: which way is the Eggleston tricycle facing? I hadn’t the confidence to place a bet on my answer when I first heard that question.