Warming up the cold hard evidence: Place and identity, memory and history—and all those old photographs

‘Warming up the cold hard evidence: Place and identity, memory and history—and all those old photographs’, Exploring Culture and community for the 21st Century, Global Arts Link opening publication, Ipswich, 1999.

Places are built on shared histories. Identities are constructed from collective memories. Our sense of a collective past lays the foundation for our sense of location in the present. Increasingly, historic photographs (or films) are being called upon to provide the factual evidence for this shared past. Images have long been central to news reportage, but now they are essential to any retelling of history. Images have long been key repositories of personal memories; but now, through the mass media, in museum displays, and as part of public celebrations, they are becoming fundamental to collective memory as well.

The photographic image has contradictory qualities when it comes to its uncanny ability to document history and evoke memory. The historic photograph is intimately and completely of the past in a way no other written record or collected artefact can be. It is a direct optical and chemical impression of an actual scene from the past. Yet, in its ability to substitute its frozen tableau for the past, the photograph also raises the suspicion that it is casting us adrift from a full, rich experience of living memory and authentic history.

As a result of our technological development the past is all around us as never before—but only as an image. No longer do we experience the past in the form of spontaneous rituals, shared habits, or inter-generational knowledges passed down hand-to-hand and mouth-to-mouth.  Now we see the past as a myriad dislocated fragments: retro-styled images used to sell products or political parties, iconic media images perpetually reprinted or rebroadcast on every historic anniversary, huge on-line image data-bases with instantaneous touch-screen accessibility, old film clips shown as part of the manufactured nostalgia of ‘Where Are They Now’ TV shows, and so on. In the process of this massive eruption of the past into the present, images are swept away from their initial contexts, fictional and documentary sources are interchanged, films are re-sequenced, photographs are re-juxtaposed, and historic moments are morphed together into a lubricous phantasmagoria of yesterdays.

But ironically, just as photography and film have destroyed the orderly progression of time and our sense of embeddedness in tradition and history, so we are forced to rely on them more and more to return to us some sense of a stable place in history and collective memory. The last few decades have witnessed a memory boom like never before—from family genealogists searching through library microfiche for that elusive record of a distant ancestor, to cool retro-hipsters rummaging through market stalls for that perfect object from their favourite decade. Both are impelled by a sense of loss, a desire to not so much know their history, as to feel a palpable connection with the past, to set foot once more on a solid shore after the temporal turbulence of the present. To these amateur mnemonists the past is entirely about the present, it is a demonstrable alternative to it, a fantasy means of escape from it, and, most importantly, the place for perhaps meeting somebody, somewhere else in time, who is reaching out towards them.

In all of these processes the photographic image is fundamental. Historic photographs are performing more vital functions for collective identity than ever before. For instance personal photographs have long stood on mantelpieces in improvised household shrines to remembered dead and acknowledged ancestors, but now historic photographs also have the unprecedented privilege of being the centrepieces of virtually every official commemoration. In these public ceremonies official photographs are performing the same role for the nation, city or town, as the faded snapshot or sepia studio portrait does for the family.

In some instances they have even become literally monumentalised. Photographs have been etched into stone in Australian war monuments such as the Vietnam War Memorial, 1992, on Anzac Parade, Canberra; the Kokoda Memorial, 1996, in Concord, Sydney; and the Monash Memorial, 1998, in France. For most of this century the photograph, as a form of media reportage, has traded on the fact that it was able to pluck a fleeting instant out of the rush of time. But in the case of the Kodachrome slide which was cropped, enlarged to cinematic size, and etched into granite for the Vietnam War Memorial, the evanescent instant captured by the army public relations photographer has been literally turned into eternal stone. Within this commemorative context the shutter blade’s slice of time acquires not only an architectonic presence, but becomes the locus for the same contemplative temporal dilation as a roll call of the dead, or a minute’s silence.

Certain film and TV images also aggregate into lithic media presences through ritual repetition: every ANZAC day we are shown the same few seconds of weary feet pushing down through the mud of the Kokoda Track, or the same lone bugler against the sunrise. Repetition becomes the key factor in this commemorative use of images. Media images which are not repeated are not remembered. When media memory has substituted for our organic memory we cede over our ability to remember. Because images package up experiences of the past, they can just as easily be used to dispose of it as to retain it. (Remember how you were glued to the telly during the Gulf War? How much of it can you remember now?) Every photographic image is therefore a function of an archive, an archive in which photographs are much more likely to lie dormant and forgotten, as to be retrieved to reintroduce the past to the present.

Even counter-hegemonic memory relies on the evidential substrata of the photographic archive. Aboriginal Australians have long cherished a collective memory resistant to white forgetting. Their long term memories of invasion, dispossession and social destruction have evaded, over a period of generations, the deliberate attempts at extermination by both history and public memory. Their memories have so far survived organically: through individual transference hand-to-hand and mouth-to-mouth, and through stories, songs, and art. Recently photographic archives have also become crucial to Aboriginal counter memory. Photographs are being used to allow individuals to forensically retrace lost family. They are being used collectively to recreate and share a sense of larger blood ties. In this process anonymous ‘historic’ photographs of Aborigines, which were once part of the very process of colonial dispossession and which, like their subjects, were dispersed to various public collections, are being gathered, radically re-inflected, and imbued with the warmth of memory.

Many contemporary Aboriginal photographers have initiated a one-on-one dialogue with these mute survivors from the past. They have attempted to evade the colonial scrutiny of the original photographers, and the enforced pantomime of the subjects, to discover something that has long lain dormant in the image. By focussing on the returned gazes of their lost ancestors contemporary Aborigines are recognising a defiant challenge returned across the generations.

Many aboriginal artists directly incorporate historic photographs into their work. For instance in the exhibition Patterns of Connection 1990-91 Leah King-Smith used superimposition to liberate Aboriginal ancestors from the nineteenth century photographic collection of the State Library of Victoria and return them as ghostly presences to contemporary images of her own country; while in Native Blood 1994 Fiona Foley took upon her own living body the subjugated poses of her Badtjala people as photographed in the nineteenth century and collected by the Queensland Museum.

Whether one is consolidating an established sense of place and identity, or re-establishing such a sense after a history of dispossession or dislocation, the silent tableau of the photograph, itself cast adrift in time, is being desperately re-animated with the most important thing of all: our memories.

Martyn Jolly

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