As a document, the photograph sits cosy with reminiscence. It can aid the unearthing of past vignettes, people and events. It can also replace the act of remembrance itself, providing a physical manifestation of memories outside of the body.
For Future Reference, an exhibition curated by Pippa Milne at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, explores the dubious inscriptions of memory, deceptive and mutable, as they traverse our minds, objects, spaces and landscapes. An intimate neurological angle is woven throughout, underscored by the essay Photographs and the Signs of Memory Distortions in the exhibition’s publication, written by Yale psychology professor Scott A. Guerin.
The shifting nature of memory is lyrically explored in Justine Varga’s photographic series Moving Out, 2012. She photographs her recently vacated empty studio space, which can be viewed as a stand-in for the mind. Its propensity to engrave and erase memory can be likened to the marks of previous inhabitants on the studios walls and floors and the layers of lights that shift across the space. The use of analogue film creates a hazy depth and painterly sensitivity in the work’s slight tonal range, inducing a feeling of expanded time condensed within each image.
The Proustian power of objects to evoke memory, real or imagined, forms a thematic facet of the exhibition. Sophie Calle, whose work is personal and confessional, writes accounts of memories associated with objects. In Red Shoe, 2000, the eponymous item sits amid knick-knacks in a display case accompanied by a narrative relating a teenage friendship ritual of shopping center theft.
Rodney Glick and David Solomon’s installation Joe Binskey’s Tree of Life, 1995, compounds multiple layers of memory and deception. A collection of framed family photographs sit on a mantle surrounded by other memorabilia. Displayed on the wall above are letters addressed to Joe by devoted children and grandchildren, each containing some link to the photos assembled below.
But these photos are stock images, and the artist’s description reveals that Joe is a Jewish émigré. A survivor of Auschwitz who lost his wife, Joe has invented a fictional family. But Joe, too, is a fiction, an invention of the artists. In this work photography enables personal deception and fantasy.
There is a softness and languidity in how memory is conceived in this exhibition that evokes the nostalgic snapshot. As digital technology allows photography to proliferate, the medium becomes less intimate. Once a recorder of the events of our life, it is becoming a performance, an act of self-promotion projected into the echo chamber of the internet. Although this exhibition did not directly address this, it caused me to ruminate on it and how current photography will affect our memories in the future.
This show is erudite yet relevant to everyday life, refreshing to see in a thematic contemporary exhibition, which often lean towards the esoteric.