“Fragments of harmonic lines assemble and collapse as the meaning of each interval must be continually revised in light of the unfolding precession of further terms in an ultimately unsustainable syntax. The mind’s ear tries to remember the sum of passing intervals, but without the ability to incorporate them into larger identifiable units each note inevitably lapses back into silence, surrendered to the presence of the currently sounding tone, itself soon to give way to another newly isolated note in its turn.”
‘Oakland, 7-’51’ from the series ‘The Shape of Dreams’
Thinking about this photograph
I bought an album on Ebay that contained an anonymous aviator with snapshots of his life: photographs of him in Oakland, California, Cologne in Germany and flying out of Italy – photos of his buddies and the work they did, the places they visited, the fun they had.
This one photograph has haunted me more than the rest.
Who was he? What was his life like? Do he get married and have children? Is he still alive?
When scanned the image was so dirty, so degraded, that I spent 7 weeks of my life cleaning and restoring the photograph working all hours of the day and night – I was obsessive almost to the point of obstinacy. Many times I nearly gave up as I thought the task impossible – thousands of dots and hairs inhabited the surface of the image and, surely, it was just another photograph one of millions that circle the world. Why expend so much energy just to resurrect this one particular image?
Some things that can be said about this photograph
It is small measuring only 9cm high by 7.5 cm wide
It is printed on cheap glossy photographic paper which now has a slight yellow tinge to it.
The image is creased at top left.
The back is annotated ‘Oakland, 7-’51’
The dark roundel with the wing on the side of the aircraft has faint text that spells out the words ‘AERO ACE’.
There is no engine in the aircraft and it looks from the parts lying on the ground that the aircraft is being broken up or used for spares.
The man is wearing work overalls with unidentifiable insignia on them, a worker on the aircraft being dismantled or just a fitter on the base.
Someone standing on the ground has obviously called out the man’s name and he has turned around in response to the call and lent forward and put out his hand in greeting – a beautiful spontaneous response – and the photograph has been taken.
Some other things that can be said about this photograph in passing
The sun splashes the man’s face. He smiles at the camera.
His arm rests gently on the metal of the aircraft, shielded from the sun.
Perhaps he wears a ring on his fifth finger.
He is blind.
This photograph is an individual, isolated note in the fabric of time. It could easily pass into silence as memory and image fade from view. Memories of the individual form the basis for remembering and photographs act as an aide-memoire both for individual memory and the collective memory that flows from individual memory. Memory is always and only partial and fragmentary – who is remembering, what are they remembering, when do they remember, what prompts them to remember and how these memories are incorporated into the collective memory, an always mediated phenomenon that manifests itself in the actions and statements of individuals, are important questions.
Images are able to trigger memories and emotional responses to a particular time and place, but since this photograph has no personal significance what is going on here? Why did I cry when I was restoring it? What emotional association was happening inside me?
“To remember is always to give a reading of the past, a reading which requires linguistic skills derived from the traditions of explanation and story-telling within a culture and which [presents] issues in a narrative that owes its meaning ultimately to the interpretative practices of a community of speakers. This is true even when what is remembered is one’s own past experience… [The] mental image of the past … becomes a phenomenon of consciousness only when clothed with words, and these owe their meaning to social practices of communication.”2
His blindness stares at us while underneath his body walks away into his passing.
I have become the speaker for this man, for this image.
His brilliant face is our brilliant face.
In this speaking, the phenomenon of making the image conscious, the gap between image and presence, between the photo and its shadow has collapsed. There is no past and present but a collective resonance that has presence in images.
“Such reasoning questions the separation of past and present in a fundamental way. As a consequence it becomes fruitless to discuss whether or not a particular event or process remembered corresponds to the actual past: all that matters are the specific conditions under which such memory is constructed as well as the personal and social implications of memories held.”3
‘The personal and social implications of memories held’. Or not held if images are lost in passing.
It is such a joyous image, the uplifted hand almost in supplication. I feel strong connection to this man. I bring his presence into consciousness in my life, and by my thinking into the collective memory. Perhaps the emotional response is that as I get older photographs of youth remind me of the passing of time more strongly. Perhaps the image reminds me of the smiling father I never had. These are not projections of my own feelings but resonances held in the collective memory.
As Susan Sontag has observed,
“Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself. Memory is, achingly, the only relation we can have with the dead. So the belief that remembering is an ethical act is deep in our natures as humans, who know we are going to die, and who mourn those who in the normal course of things die before us – grandparents, parents, teachers and older friends.”4
Remembering is an ethical act. It is also a voluntary act. We can choose not to remember. We can choose to forget. In this photograph I choose to remember, to not let pass into the dark night of the soul. My mind, eyes and heart are open.
This is not a simulacra of an original image but an adaptation, an adaptation that tries to find resonances between past and present, between image and shadow. As such this photograph is no longer an isolated tone that inevitably lapses back into silence but part of a bracketing of time that is convulsingly beautiful in it’s illumination, it’s presence. The individual as collective, collected memory present for all to see.
The form of formlessness, the shape of dreams.
1. Dworkin, Craig. Grammar Degree Zero (Introduction to Re-Writing Freud ) (2005) [Online] Cited 23rd March, 2009 at http://english.utah.edu/eclipse/Editor/DworkinFreud.pdf
2. Holtorf, Cornelius. “Social Memory,” part of a doctoral thesis Monumental Past: The Life-histories of Megalithic Monuments in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Germany) submitted 1998 [Online] Cited on 23rd March 2009 at https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/citd/holtorf/2.7.html
4. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2003, p.103.