How the advent of the camera changed history forever

The advent which was the birth of photography had a strange effect on history. History of culture, but also of our mental history. It is merely recognised as a new artform, a mode of documentation, an aid to memory. There is so much more to it than this, I would go as far as to argue that the birth of the camera (1820s) moved us into a new era consciously and culturally.

Think about times gathered around a family photograph album- remembering better times, laughing at warm memories, trying to move on from those embarrassing pictures which mum saves for our partners and friends to see. Think about history books with pictures and photograph plates. Think about Instagram and Facebook timelines. What do these things have in common? Histories are constructed through a series of photographs. You can look through a photo album and see pictures of yourself aged 3, 5, 9, 12, 14, 17, 20, 21… and construct a history based around the chronological ordering of these pictures.

Before the camera was extant, how did people construct personal histories? Put simply, they didn’t so well. Some wealthier people may have written diaries, but these couldn’t afford us the exactitude a photograph could. Nor could they evoke a memory in the same way, that is, in evoking a memory in the same way. People simply didn’t have a literal memory, reproducing picture perfect constructions of stages of our lives. Many writers believe that memory and mental history simply didn’t have a continuity in the same way as it does today. As the EDA Collective stated, the photograph “change[s] the way we remember our past”, however, they also state that some people believe that this is a phenomenon “out of control” because “your life is told, but you don’t tell it”.

One upon a time, our history was constructed by memory, now it is constructed by pictures. But, we ask, what happens with our memory between these pictures? We unconsciously imagine what happenes, we ‘join the dots’. This creates a paradox. Beforehand, memory was of one quality- all constructed from the same materials, those fragments of the past, stored in our minds. Now we have exacting snapshots stuck together with these fragments of mind. That changes the very nature of our memories in that the way we remember things is contoured by pictures. However, there is a solid caveat to this- The things we imagine as having happened will be dictated by what memories are preserved in pictures, and everything else takes a backseat. Therefore, what your parents and friends photographed throughout your lives dictates which are to become the memories which define you, and also what and how you imagine the moments between them.

We see a bifurcation between a pre-1820s, when people’s memories worked to their own preservations and identities, and post 1820s, when memories are no longer a private inner timeline, but constructed by the dictate of other people. The inner memory is, for the first time, conditioned bu objective perspectives The bifurcation doesn’t just exist in objective history however. Whenever we see a new photograph, our old worldview must be transformed to fit this new fact, and our history changes to fit this. This bifurcates our inner history between the moment before and after viewing a photograph.

One further issue with this is the problem of confabulation. When we remember an event from our past, we don’t simply recall memories like picking out a photograph from an album. Each aspect of the memory is stored separately, then resurfaces and stuck back together to re-imagine the memory. Re-imaginings is a much better name for ‘memories’. However, each time we re-imagine a past event, the details change slightly because the objects within a memory are not stored under a contingent index of how they were stuck together. Our mental objects, as stored, also change over time as we have new experiences of the world, and some things fade and become vaguer.

When things are vague in our minds, our imagination takes over and fills it with whatever it feels fits. Confabulation, the reconstruction of memories, is a very normal phenomenon. We all have memories we may think are our own, but one day find out are from a photograph of somebody else, which we remembered incorrectly as us. This is one of the reasons that juries are made up of more than a couple of people, to avoid a wrongly remembered detail delivering jurors to the wrong conclusion. The phenomenon of photography has allowed us to remember things vividly, but also has delivered us to a point of constructing identities mashed up with other people’s lives, and based on other people’s perspective. The camera shows what the photographer sees. We become, in part, what other people think memorable, something which differs from person to person.

Try a little exercise for yourself- spend fifteen second studying the front of a magazine, newspaper, whatever you can find. Now close your eyes and try to remember it as best you can. Take a piece of paper, recreate the cover. Now look at the original. You will almost definitely have remembered things incorrectly, and some things will be missing. Now think about how you store a photograph. 7/10 details of a picture are in your head, the other 3 are lost. Every picture you see, you lose a bit, your imagination fills in the gap. These components become separated, bits and pieces stuck together to construct Frankenstein-esque memories.

Now onto another issue. Nothing exists within a vacuum. When we view a picture or a photograph, we have feelings about it, we give it context, it evokes other memories, the components of a picture are each understood by our own memories and feelings of them. The act of seeing is a complex thing, and not something which can be understood as a simple ‘viewer-object’ relationship. Take this picture of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. It’s an iconic picture, but one which conflicts the viewer, many people, on first seeing it, reevaluate how they think about her, in a higher opinion, for example.

When we see a picture, we basically have to ‘make sense’ of it. We ask who the people in a picture are, we ask what they are doing, why they are doing it, what relation that has to us… there are many assumptions which are unconsciously and consciously making when viewing a picture. They also transform our past-present relationship by changing our perceptions of both. Take these pictures, some amuse us, some amaze us, some sadden or even horrify us. Each one exists within the vacuum of history. As such, we remove ourselves from the context and we view it as an outsider. Novel, funny, sad, these views of the past all have the power to separate us from the past further than before. The gap between us and our near ancestors is tangible, the prsent is now an island like never before.

With so much weight behind the act of viewing a photograph, we can now be sure in the belief that the advent of the camera was a solid divide between an old history and a new history. To call the EDA Collective again, “the ‘moment’ is produced by a connection between the image and its recipient, and not in its place in a timeline of linear history”. There is only one real way to understand a moment, and that is to be within it. As soon as it has passed, we can be sure it shall turn away from us. The camera, for better or worse, has made us realise this with certainty. This is not to say we should oppose the camera at all. Each step in culture has had its own transformative effect on us- the birth of the novel, the discovery of fossils, the invention of impressionism in art… as culture changes, we change with it, but we may not realise that our memories and identities change with it too.

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