Friday, October 6, 2017

Reality and Photos

Mike over on ToP asked out loud if photographs look less "real" than they did, which I found a fascinating question from one as erudite as Mike.

It has already been pointed out to him that photographs don't look real no way no how, and he's probably just trained himself to think of the photos from about 1930 to about 1990 as "real looking" which is perfectly right.

That which we perceive, we think of as something like a photograph. In that, we deceive ourselves. What we perceive is in fact a memory, albeit a very recent one, of a visual field recently constructed out of bits and pieces by our big fat brains from a very lousy but deep collection of visual information.

Consider, therefore, memory. We imagine that our memory of Aunt Sally's birthday as a set of mental photographs, more or less. But stop there, freeze it. There's Aunt Sally blowing out the candles on her cake. Who else is there? Bev, Sam, Jane. Who is seated to Sally's right.. Um. Um. Bev? Or was it Sam? Don't you remember, Sam couldn't make it, he wasn't even there.

Memories are nothing like photographs, once we actually peer into one we find a squishy mess that is long on certain types of detail, but surprisingly short of actual visual facts.

Hold that thought while I relate a story.

I once remarked to my father that Lewis Carroll had really done a remarkable job of writing down what it is like to dream, in his Alice adventures. My father replied with his usual insight: yes, the books capture with wonderful accuracy the way we dream after we have read Lewis Carroll.

How I dreamt before I know not, or even if I did, because I heard Alice read aloud before my memories begin.

This begs a similar question. How did we remember things before the photograph?

Did we remember things, or rather fancy we did, as the sort of accurate visual record that resembles a photograph? If so, how on earth did we describe the experience of a visual memory? Did people say things like "my memory of such and such is like a marvelously detailed painting?" I suppose I could do some research, but that sounds exhausting. Is it possible that (our notion of) our visual memory was experienced differently before we had the photograph as a reference idea?

One could go find one of those rare untroubled tribes in the rain forest who have never experienced a photo, and ask, but I hear that sort of thing is frowned on.

1 comment:

  1. One of the more annoying aspects of being a photographer is to be told, "Put that thing away and just BE here! You'll never remember it otherwise!" Yeah, right: tell me that ten, twenty, thirty years from now, when you deny all knowledge of ever being here.

    A classic of pre-photographic remembering (and writing about remembering) would be Wordsworth's "Prelude", especially the passages about childhood. If you can handle the slightly archaic language, it's vivid stuff: