Photography: Capturing Memories

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As a medium of communication and expression, photographs present a unique method by which an artist can capture moments in time. Photographs allow the individual behind the camera to take a snapshot of reality in its purest form, yet at the same time able to utilize lighting, angles, and content to manipulate and mold reality to his or her own wishes. Photography as art allows for the creation of ideal, captured memories and “have become the pivotal and essential tool in the construction of personal identity” (Chong 128). The relationship between photography as  a contemporary art form and memories reveals that photography is a medium that encourages artistic creation of “an act of reverence” through the capture of specific moments in time (Chong 129). Thus, photography creates the opportunity for the artist in question to utilize his own surroundings, desires, and emotional context to play with the reality presented before him and to imprint his own message upon it. Moreover, a central aspect to the nature of contemporary photography as an art form is the manner in which photographs can be associated with memories in individuals. A simple photograph of an unremarkable house or high school graduation class may mean nothing to one person, yet to another such an image can call up a storm of emotion and cause substantial emotional involvement. Contemporary artists such as Marcelo Brodsky, Vik Muniz, Christian Boltanski, and Letizia Battaglia all utilize and work with this relationship in different ways and to express various themes and messages, while largely steering away from the trends in digital photography.

While the artist can influence the memory, so can a photograph influence the memory of an event, emotion, or action. A photograph as a means of art is not complete by merely activating the shutter on one’s camera; instead, much work involving developing and producing the photographic art occurs long after the initial moment has passed. Thus, an artist can be affected by the captured moment in front of him at the same time he attempts to imprint himself upon it. Moreover, as seen in the work of Argentine photographer Marcelo Brodsky and his project Buena Memoria: The Classmates (1996) aimed at “restoring the individuality of the victims masked by statistics”, photography can have the effect of jarring the memory of individuals who had suppressed traumatic experiences in their lives (Downey 41). Brodsky focused on exposing the psychological impact of decades of government-directed terror by the Pinochet regime in Argentina and discovered that the use of photography, which with its “precise ability to freeze a moment in time”, allowed him to create a large-scale photograph featuring a time-lapse image of his high school class at their graduation (Arruti 104). The large photograph was then annotated and labeled in order to allow the viewer to know what had happened to each individual in his life. 

A later modification of this piece featured, superimposed in front of each man, a photograph that Brodsky tracked down and captured decades after the class had graduated and gone their separate ways. Those who had not aged in the photo had died, meaning the use of photography granted Brodsky the ability to force viewers to remember “a difficult past that not everybody survived” (Arruti 105). Thus, memories themselves became deeply affected by the usage of photography, as without the photographs themselves, the memories would remain embedded in the subconscious of the victims. In essence, Brodsky emphasizes what had previously been ignored—“the moment when that which no longer exists as anything but trauma can be represented visually” (Downey 42). By actively embracing the captured moment in time and showing the change over the years, Brodsky effectively created a powerful tool that put a human face on top of the emotionless statistics that are the sad legacy of the Pinochet regime.

Born in 1961, Vik Muniz is a Brazilian visual artist of substantial fame, known for his projects in which he creates copies of other artwork utilizing different materials. By “recreating famous artworks or iconic photographs, Muniz presents us not with this recreation, but with its photographic reproduction” (Plummer 232). Thus, for Muniz, it is the photograph, not the physical reproduction itself, that is the focus of piece. This is achieved by “opening up a new kind of perceptual space and calls attention to the representation itself” (Plummer 234). Moreover, as Muniz tries to jolt awake the viewer “by drawing his/her attention to the technical and conceptual mechanisms behind image production, construction and re-production”, he effectively becomes a driving force of contemporary art photography that in effect deceives the viewer and distracts him from viewing the art piece in question, and instead redirects the attentions towards the photograph of the reproduction (Cordeiro 40). Muniz achieves this effect and refocus by the use of two major properties—“recognition, the use of familiar images that the viewer can identify instantly, and novelty” and through surprise, “by reconstructing these images with the use of materials and techniques that are not commonly associated with artistic production but with other emotional and sensory perception” (Plummer 242). It is through the use of photography and memory that multiple themes can be presented and discussed within a piece of art, as each individual piece reproduced by Muniz is broken down into its constituent parts, rebuilt with different materials, and then re-synthesized again with the use of photography that once again unifies the picture into a cohesive illusion of a single image. 

Famous for his use of uncommon materials to produce his art, Vik Muniz created a series of photographs in the late 1990s entitled “Pictures of Thread”. These photographs are “copies of famous landscape paintings created with cotton thread”, made of threads arranged to reproduce as accurately as possible (Plummer 233). Muniz's 20,000 Yards is a reproduction of Jacob van Ruisdael's famous The Castle at Bentheim. The photograph of the thread reproduction actively attempts to transition from the original by enticing the viewer to follow the visual intensity of the photograph. The photograph itself is a flattened landscape, lacking the potent depth and sense of scale of the original, but instead draws the viewer to understand and appreciate the power of the materials used. The work itself shows how transient memory itself can be when applied to interpreting reproductions of other works. Memories are not whole entities—one does not recall every exact precise detail of a memory, but rather impressions and constructs of what is experienced. Muniz's work is reflective of this, as the 20,000 Yards piece is a mental interpretation and impression as well as reproduction of the original work. Serving as an “inspiration rather than dictating a pattern”, the photograph is a play on the mind's insight into how specific moments of time are captured (Plummer 233). 

Muniz, moreover, gives the viewer a humorous take on sensory shifts when comparing  memory to a physically captured photograph. In his render of chocolate syrup entitled Olympia. Here, Muniz utilized a chocolate mold in order to create “a kind of conceptual and material mirror effect of the image” (Frérot 114). This illusion of sweetness and shininess, a play on the ink drops of the original painting, also reflects a theme seen in the 20,000 Yards piece and the entire “Pictures of Thread” project, namely the breakdown and reconstitution of the human memory in the form of a synthesized reproduction photograph. Thus, Muniz is able to draw a contrast between the objective truth seen in a photograph, which captures perfectly a moment in time, and the human interpretation of that moment, which is highly subject to sensory manipulation and bias. 

French artist Christian Boltanski, born in the ending phases of World War II in 1944, stands in contrast to Brodsky and Muniz by focusing on somewhat more explicitly darker themes in his work. With his “self-effacing charm, obsession with death, and warm humor”, Boltanski challenges the viewer to disagree that his photography is essentially a  lie (McGurren 11). He argues that small little moments captured by photography do not and cannot tell the whole story; instead, these fragments and pieces of ideas become corrupted memories and ingrained in the minds of the onlooker. A typical photograph “presents the reality of how something appears in a specific moment in time, but Boltanksi's haunting images plead for the viewers' interpretations, rather than a passive acceptance of the images as depictions of reality” (McGurren 13). Fond of the morbid, Boltanski operates by focusing on death; images of dead bodies, corpses, and broken families dominate his themes and messages. This realism in photography is also seen in the analysis of Exit Through the Gift Shop.

While simultaneously acknowledging his own inability to effectively tell a holistic memory, Boltanski seems to embrace this failure. Stating that he tells “little stories without words” with his art, and that is “why my art is a failure: you can't stop people disappearing”, Boltanski embodies a unique character that delves into the relationship between photography and memory (Darwent 76). He strives to “construct and contort these memories, creating imagined fragments that together form narratives comparable to the greatest of literary fiction” (Darwent 77).  Unable to preserve the entirety of the memory of the individual, Boltanski opts to capture the fragments of the memory as possible in order to synthesize a human interpretation of what has occured, not necessarily a wholly objective or universal image. 

Boltanski's famous work, The Reserve of the Dead Swiss, features a large collection of dead Swiss collected by the artist from various newspapers and sources. Each photograph was hand-picked by Boltanski. Invoking strong emotions, similar to Brodsky's class photograph piece, Reserve is a fascinating insight into Boltanski's approach to memory and photography. He states that “We hate to see the dead, yet we love them, we appreciate them. Human. That's all we can say” (McGurren 13). Reserve features the chosen photographs of dead Swiss, with each photograph shrouded on the base by long bolts of fabric. Large, harsh lights hover only a few inches away from the face of the photographs, thereby lending emotional context to the piece as the lights are reminiscent of the Holocaust motif common in Boltanski's work. However, the explicitly stated nationality of the dead portrayed in the piece distances it from the memory of the Holocaust, allowing the viewer to attach more personal significance to the faces. The overly exaggerated nature of the dead faces lined up in identical ways are eerily reflective of the happiness portrayed in Brodsky's work, in which the classmates all wore smiles on their faces, even though several of them would perish in the tyranny that rocked their home country. 

Letizia Battaglia, born in 1935 in the Italian island of Sicily, is a famous photographer that focused much of her career on acquiring images for both peasant life in Sicily, but also documenting the brutality of the Sicilian Mafia. As “she continually documented the crimes perpetrated by the organized groups in her hometown of Palermo”, Battaglia offers a unique insight into how her photographic art portrayed the reality of the situation with which she was presented (Tannert 9). Though she focused more along the lines of photojournalism than dedicated artistry and exhibits, Battaglia nonetheless is known for hauntingly beautiful photographs of Sicilian life and mafia violence, often photographing five or more murders a day in the coastal city of Palermo. Known for the powerful images captured during the worst of the struggles with the Mafia, Battaglia is famous for several photographs. One of her iconic photos, a black and white shot where a young Sicilian boy wearing a light, opaque pair of women's hose around his head to disguise his features is aiming a pistol at a rival gang member outside of a church, helps to enforce the idea that Battaglia's photography is used precisely to maintain and preserve instances of human brutality, and to maintain those moments for all eternity. In another photograph, Battaglia captures the aftermath of a triple murder in which a prostitute and two of her clients lay dead, still dressed in Sunday finery and with a poster of a nude woman on the far wall (“Shooting the mafia…”). These photographs reinforce Battaglia's desire to capture those perfect moments as clearly as possible.

Unlike  Boltanski, who depicts death in a far less gritty and realistic fashion, Battaglia is dedicated towards the physically accurate and psychologically impacting reality of death. However, invoking a strong emotional response to the violence shown, while a goal of Battaglia, is nonetheless perhaps not the desired effect. Boltanski and Brodsky portray death in very distinct ways—Boltanski focusing on the macabre and Brodsky on the human impact, whereas Battaglia is seemingly entirely focused on creating the memory of the actual violence through photography. Instead of couching the violence and the brutality of the Sicilian mob through more abstract representations of death, Battaglia succeeds in her quest to provide an unadulterated and absolute picture of violence. Her photographs truly are moments frozen in time, often taken so soon after the events that the blood from the victims is still fluid. 

As a medium of communication and expression, photographs offer the artist a multitude of ways to capture moments in time, influence memories, or be affected in return by memories. Allowing an individual the ability to preserve moments in perfect instances of memory, photographs nonetheless are deeply interpretive creations, capable of invoking a broad range of emotions and sending any number of thematic messages. Often dependent on how the viewer and the artist interact over the design of the piece, photographs encourage creation of new emotional contexts that may not have been intended. Thus, artists such as Marcelo Brodsky, Vik Muniz, Christian Boltanski, and Letizia Battaglia all work with the medium of photography to achieve very different ends. For Brodsky, invoking an emotional response and putting a face to the violence in Argentina drove his particular style of art, whereas Boltanski's obsession with death led him to more abstract, yet equally potent examples of human mortality and the creation of a photographic narrative through his art. Vik Muniz, who endeavors to observe, break down, and then rebuild in photographic form popular images and art pieces, attempts to emphasize the falsity of human memory and how subject it can be to influence. Letizia Battaglia, the famous photojournalist, directed her efforts toward an honest and brutal depiction of human violence, attempting to capture the rawness of death in its purest form. Regardless of their motives and methods, the unifying usage of photographs as a medium to convey and influence the memories of the viewer is a fascinating and intriguing concept.

Works Cited

Arruti, Nerea. "Tracing The Past: Marcelo Brodsky's Photography As Memory Art." Paragraph vol. 30, no. 1, 2007, pp. 101-120. 

Chong, Albert. "The Photograph As A Recentacle Of Memory." Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal Of Criticism, vol. 29, 2009, pp. 128-134. 

Cordeiro, Veronica. "Vik Muniz: Three-Dimensional Pictures." Art Nexus, vol 41, 2001, pp. 40-43. 

Darwent, Charles. "Christian Boltanski." Art Review (London, England), vol. 38, 2010, pp. 76-78. 

Downey, Anthony. "Thresholds Of A Coming Community: Photography And Human Rights." Aperture, vol. 194, 2009, pp. 36-43. 

Frérot, Christine. "Vik Muniz." Art Nexus, vol. 9, vol. 76, 2010, pp. 114-115.  

Plummer, Sandra. "String, Space And Surface In The Photography Of Vik Muniz." Textile, vol. 5, no. 2, 2007, pp. 230-243.  

McGurren, Diane D. "Becoming Mythical: Existence And Representation In The Work Of Christian Boltanski." Afterimage, vol. 38, no. 1, 2010, pp. 9-13.  

"Shooting the mafia - in pictures." The Guardian, n.d., http://www.guardiannews.com/. 

Tannert, Christoph. "Letizia Battaglia." European Photography, vol. 28, no. 82, 2007, pp. 8-9.