12 July 2006

Mohr - Photography & Memory

What is the relationship between photography and memory? Or, more precisely perhaps, how do we use photography to prompt or sustain or construct memory? This question is not one to which I have given much thought. It came up in an exchange on a previous post. One anonymous comment (thanks!) directed my attention to a fascinating new novel by Frederick Reuss entitled Mohr: A Novel (Unbridled Books).

The novel is about the author’s actual but mysterious uncle Max Mohr, a physician and minor German literary figure who, in the mid-1930s, leaves his wife and young daughter behind to emigrate to China. One might be tempted to say the novel is a fictionalization of Mohr’s life and that of his family based, interestingly from my perspective, on a cache of photographs that Reuss discovered several years ago, many of which he intersperses throughout the novel. I have only just started the book - surprisingly it was in stock at the local Barnes & Noble. But it brought to mind an essay by John Berger that deals with this subject and I thought it might be useful to quote a brief passage as a sort of promissory note for more extensive thoughts of my own on the topic in the future. Here is Berger:

"By contrast [with cinema], if there is a narrative form intrinsic to still photography, it will search for what happened, as memories or reflections do. Memory is not made up of flashbacks, each one forever moving inexorably forward. Memory is a field where different times coexist. The field is continuous in terms of the subjectivity which creates and extends it, but temporarily it is discontinuous. . . .

A photograph is simpler than most memories, its range is more limited. Yet with the invention of photography, we acquired a new means of expression more closely associated with memory than any other. . . . Both the photograph and the remembered depend upon and equally oppose the passing of time. Both preserve moments, and propose their own form of simultaneity, in which all their images can coexist. Both stimulate, and are stimulated by, the inter-connecctedness of events. Both seek instances of revelation, for it is only such instants which give full reason to their own capacity to withstand the flow of time.

Photographs can relate the particular to the general. This happens, as I have shown, even within a single picture. When it happens across a number of pictures, the nexus of relative affinities, contrasts and comparisons can be much wider and more complex."

Several things are important here. First, Berger is taking direct issue with critics like Sontag who insist that photography cannot contribute to understanding because the latter presupposes narrative and there is no possibility of narration with photographs. Second, he proceeds to elaborate how photographs can contribute to or sustain stories rather than mere reportage. And stories, in turn incorporate a sort of reflection that breaks with positivist understandings of photographic truth. Third, Berger provocatively (and rightly, I think) insists that the co-existence he attributes like memory, to photographic narratives ultimately subverts the notion that an arrangement of photographs must constitute a sequence. Finally, and returning to Mohr, Berger describes the need for shared interpretation of the discontinuities that photographic stories inevitably present. What Reuss, unexpectedly confronting an array of unfamiliar photographs does in his novel (I think) is produce one such interpretation. He has written a "story" in Berger's sense and, importantly, it is therefore probably inapt to call his work a fictionalization. But is he constructing memory? If so, what relationship does his story bear to truth?



Blogger Shelby Koth said...

if you can remember, I was wondering what essay of Berger's you are quoting?

14 October, 2013 13:17  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Shelby - Wow! Good question. It has been a long while. But I will try to track this down.

15 October, 2013 10:01  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

The passage is from: Berger/Mohr (1982) Another Way of Telling Pages 279-81. Hope that helps!

16 October, 2013 12:44  

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