A few seasons ago on Christmas Eve after a night drinking wine with some close friends, and admittedly all being a little silly and nostalgic, our host, my closest friend for nearly 20 years now, pulled out her box of photographs. This box contained important moments from the last 15 years or so and we proceeded to all spend a half an hour passing them around for a look. Commentary and laughter ensued. A sweet end to a sweet night. And at the time it seemed like a simple, familiar activity, though I think I may be in the last generation where we still pass around physical objects of photography instead of passing the iPhone to the left hand side as it were. Nonetheless, it got me thinking about what is contained in that very simple, act of sharing a physical cache of memory and experience, one that we could all engage in, together for a moment with our hands. It is connected to something deep for me, that I keep pondering as the years go by, one that has probably caused my deep love for Barthes, spurred my undergraduate studies in photography. What is it, when we touch a thing, an object that contains our collective or personal memory that is so powerful?
So, as I write this, I need to be clear that I’m not interested in naysaying or debating the current technological iterations of photographic expression, I have a degree in the subject after all, or decrying a current generation for their lack of imagistic memory or longevity, but rather, I want to talk about specific, private/ shared moments and their power, without comparison. Because what I realized was that our host’s self-curated chronicle, through these objects of importance in photographic form, connected to my own chronicle too. It is a shared history via shared experience and commemorated by the very act of saving and relishing particular moments of celluloid film, in physical form. Our stories are all different, we saw the events differently, remember them differently, but the image, becomes a touchstone around which we can all see something familiar and from there, access our own experience.
And so, she was speaking to us, her “audience” if you will, about private, beautiful moments that she holds dear, that hold meaning for her. They connect to my moments, my own memory of that time and because she holds the images, I am a guest in her house of memory. And I don’t have prints of any of this. For me, until this moment, they existed as fragments only. Suddenly, her archive made my own experience (re)manifest.
This all seems abstract. But here is an example: there were pictures of a river trip we all took together one summer and several featured images of me and my sinewy, handsome rock climber boyfriend of the time. We are all beaming and in our early 20s, laughing into the camera, hot in the sun. And it was as if, I could love him all over again. It was as if, the physical object of the photograph conjured that love. And suddenly, that affection was shared by everyone in the room. We all laughed at how handsome he was and how proud I was of his good looks, nearly forgotten a decade later, as he is out of all of our lives, an image only in that moment. We marveled at how young we all were, we remembered those fragments—the heat of the Moab sun, the coolness of the deep and muddy Colorado river, the coffee shop where we ate breakfast, our river guide friend, leaping off the back of the boat, the summertime, the adventure, the movement over highways and through landscapes and across rivers, our collective freedom. Waking up at sunrise under willows. Nostalgia at its best, encapsulated in physical form. A thing that has passed on, able to remain again.
And so, I guess, after I said I wouldn’t, I would argue that all of us, huddling around a screen, or individually staring into each other’s iPhones, doesn’t hold the same power as passing a photo around a room. Perhaps there is as much meaning in the constant stream of our experiences on a screen (a medium which I also love) as there is in the lasting, physical form of a printed photograph. But for me, it is a different. Those images don’t stand, they move in a stream and are easily discarded, easily made, easily manipulated, easily gone. Again, there is surely a value there as well.
But there is something I like about that physicality. When I was an undergraduate, my photographs all took on a physical form. I would adhere them to sculptural pieces that I’d create to accompany them. I wanted image and experience, the visual and the physical sensation of that experience to be concomitant to one another, to be inextricable. I wanted an image to be more than an image, a piece of information. I wanted it to be sensory, to be an object as well. I wanted to make it hard to dismiss; I wanted to be able to hold a memory in the hand, to touch it, to kiss it even. I think I still want that.
You see, I don’t have any physical photographs of that handsome boy. Somewhere, there are love notes we wrote, but that box is so long gone, it might as well be forgotten by now. I wouldn’t think to conjure him through email or some other medium for the exclusive purposes of transporting myself back to that time viscerally. He exists as a fragment in my story, beautiful, it is true, but with each passing year, more and more lost. Until. Until a midwinter gathering with posole, tamales, a small box of photographs and suddenly I remember him again. Suddenly, he is indelible, performing his humor and rehearsed detachment before the camera, all the while, wrapping his arms around my thin, young waist. I remember me, suddenly, that way, all the worry of adult responsibility suspended. I remember each of us this way, in full color. It is again, Utah, late June, a caravan of Toyotas and Subarus careening through a sweltering desert. Each day spread out before us like wonder.