The Gestalt psychologist attests that only the organization of materials into a concrete and meaningful image can fully express and communicate the whole of universal experience. Without this direct portrayal of awareness and nature, the art stands incomplete within the natural world, and therefore is nothing. All continued human activity, of which photography is but one, requires a continued supply of activating energy, and no energy comes forth without a motive. The effect of photography is not what I see in, say, my vacation snapshots, but a tendency to see only the present as something that exists; our human energy seems to focus on the now. And of course only the present can be photographically recorded. The rest of time, the past and the future, exists only in the imagination. Old pictures show an old present. Photograph albums tend to produce in the viewers a permanent now, a continuous present. I think this was, not so much a dominant attitude, as a daring and for me a useful affirmation.
The writings found among media theorists and in the humanities and social sciences are sprinkled with such affirmations and often tend toward a provocative style of writing and thinking about photography and its substance. But the result of this analysis is often gross overstatements, particularly when media developments are causally related to other social-cultural or political phenomena. Even accepting a certain overstatment, though, I find my twelve albums of photographs do record a series of ‘present moments’ that are useful in reflecting on my autobiographical experience. All of this visual material does not capture the complexity; they transcend it, compress it, repress it. The paradox inherent in the presence of photography within autobiography is the photographs’ tendency to simultaneously document and yet undercut the narrative.
During these four epochs the camera has been for many the official family recorder. Film, video and the digital camera have come into play in the fourth and fifth epochs after, say, the mid-eighties. But for most in the West, in the cultures where I have spent my time and life, the camera has been a silent witness to every important stage in life, from birth to death. Photography’s social functions are integrally tied to the “ideology of the modern family” and the medium allows for and provides a sustenance for an “imaginary cohesion.” The photographed family can easily show us what they wish the family to be, though this may not often be the case. Photography operates at the junction between personal memory and social history and it requires an engaging narrative to act as the key to unlock the intricacies and complex nature of the “true” family behind the iamge. This memoir will function partly as that engaging narrative but, since my focus is only peripherally—and not centrally--on my family, its intricacies and complex nature will not be unveiled here beyond a few broad brush-strokes.
In my consanguineal(birth) family and the two affinal(marriage) families I have been a part of, there are between one hundred and two hundred souls, depending on how far I extend the relationships on the tree. There were about a dozen ‘significant others’ on that tree and I write about them all, but not in the detail that a 2500 page memoir might give to such a group.
Often, for reasons of vanity or because they know they are not particularly attractive, some people often dislike the way they look in photographs. Inga Clendinnen, Australian historian, thinks that photographs challenge and corrupt memory. Most of us, she goes on, remember individuals through time as a sort of moving collection of lights, vague images or an indistinct melody. If you think of how you might describe people who've mattered to you it's never in terms of a static photograph. I find this to be very true of my own experience. People, of course, will be in your memory bank, but it is as an action not an image. It will be as a glance, a movement; it will be a sensation you get when you see them or think of them. It might be a particular happiness. It's a bit like a distinctive melody that surrounds them. Clendinnen thinks that photographs cannibalise this complicated moving memory, this sequence of indistinct memories we all have. Photographs fix these memories into a form. For Clendennin photographs are a violation of the actuality she wants to cherish in her memory. This may be even more true of nature and nature photographs are a substantial part of the photographic inventory of the last half century of my life.
We all lose things in life; we all change out of sight. Memories fade. All methods of recording past actualities are imperfect, every one of them. Human memory, written texts, photographs. All of them are deficient in some way. Clendennin says she just doesn't much like the way she looks in photographs and she doesn’t much like the falsification of experience that she thinks is entailed in photographs. Of course, she is expressing her own views and others will inevitably have different views. I think these views throw my own collection of photographic memorabilia into perspective. They also suggest some particular advantages to nature, landscapes and the non-human world in my collection.
In photographs it is not only the content that has the impact, but it is also the capability of the photograph to bring the receiving human body, thanks to the sensual stimuli, into a state of physical distraction, if not of sheer trance. The seductive power of photographs in particular and media in general lies in their suggestion that it is possible for us to become pure intensities of feeling. We connect to photographs and media out of a desire for a direct experience of something that is not ourselves. This is also true of print. But with photography you only have to see, you don’t have to say. You do not need any narrative or analytical skill.
Some analysts contend that all perceiving is also thinking, all reasoning is also intuition, all observation is also invention and, therefore, by implication, it is not words which are the primary ingredients of thinking but the entire repetoire of the senses. Since language precedes perception, perceiving and thinking are indivisibly intertwined. A person who paints, writes, composes, dances, indeed engages in any art form, including I hasten to add, life itself, thinks with his senses. And so our memories, in this context, become like a series of still photographs, a film strip, a film, a musical score, a mysterious and often chaotic sensory complex.
In my first album, a collection of some forty photographs for the years 1908 to 1953, fifteen of which are friends of my mother and people I do not know, there are some twenty-five photographs of my mother and various members of her family. The photographs provide something of a pictorial backdrop for the transition period from my grandfather’s autobiographical story which ended in 1901 to my own. His story, that part of his life that he wrote in an autobiography, ended at the turn of the twentieth century and is kept in a green two-ring binder in my study. My own pioneering story I take back to 1962 and my association with the Baha’i Faith goes back to 1953. Other aspects of my story go back to 1944, the year of my birth and even as far back as 1844 when I try to connect my family history to that of the history of this new world religion.
NARRATIVE THOUGHT TO THE RESCUE
The visual imagery of the mind appears to be both more complex and less systematic than the visual imagery of cinema. Images viewed through conscious effort are more often indistinct and elusive. Even the faces of loved ones are often difficult to recall. They sidestep the mind’s gaze if their images are actively pursued. Long familiarity renders such objects too complex and heterogeneous for a single image to suffice. Such faces become, in our mind, multidimensional, ambiguous and possessed of a breadth and complexity that photography and film condense and strip away. This is also true of sensory experience in general.
Because of the elusiveness of sensory experience a mode of thinking comes into acton, into play, called narrative thought.1 Narrative governs the disposal of objects and actions in time without which memory and language would be impossible. Most of our experience can be assigned a place in our narrative history or at least its potential, although some of our life is clearly and inevitably incoherent. -Ron Price with thanks to David MacDougall, “Films of Memory”, Visualizing Theory: Selected Essays from Visual Anthropology Review:1990-1994, editor, Lucien Taylor, Routledge, NY, 1994, p.266.
Just as film and documentary makers
are often uneasy about their narratives,
so are the autobiographers among us
as we try and reconstruct our lives, our
narratives, our stories. Some, of course,
seem less troubled. Often a celebratory
stance is adopted towards one’s memory,
masking uncertainty, an emptiness at the
heart of such authorship, a fundamental lack
of conviction; reminiscence is usually treated
as fragmentary, rarely as omniscience which
is presumed arrogance. The richness inside
people’s memories is often unattainable and
is supplanted with endless illustrative material,
with physical experience, primary stimuli and
photographic iconography. These usually
do not serve to integrate society,
encapsulate ideology or create social order;
rather they give us the unalterable record
of appearance and place
and a more profound place in our memory.
I would like to think that this story will
allow more than the record of appearance
and place and will contribute in a rich way
to that ultimate integration of society.
11 April 2000
The above paragraphs are a beginning to my thoughts on this complex subject.
TWO MEN BEYOND THE KEN
In June 1826 Shaykh Ahmad, the leader of the Shaykhis, passed away at the age of about 75 near Medina. Leadership of this community passed to Siyyid Kazim. At the same time, in the same year, the "first successful recording of nature"1 took place in France using a modified lithographic technique. Was this just a coincidence? -Ron Price with thanks to Gisele Freund, Photography and Society, David Godine, Boston, 1980, p. 22.
I see them through the eye of time
So distant is their story;
Yet in memory's warming lens
They're cherished for their glory.
Viewed through yet another glass
The focus is quite clouded;
For these men of so long ago
On history's line they're shrouded.
Bathed in the few details we've got
Attraction and repulsion,
The image is not distortion-free
But eternal is the emulsion.
The first glimmerings
Of the dawn of a new day,
In their midst were born Two Men
Who would say and write
Words beyond the ken
Of men and of angels.
29 October 2003
The photographs I refer to in this essay can all be found in Volume 1 of my Journal and they give a perspective that goes back to the start of the Baha'i Era. There is little in my account for that century 1844-1944. These photos allow me to be somewhat of a trourist in both my own life and in the lives of some others. They allow me to, in a way, symbolically possess these people. They also beautify, make aesthetically pleasing, a world, a reality, I know little about, even if it is in miniature. There is a poignancy in these photos for they are of people who are all now dead, but who occupied the centre and the periphery of my life when I was was born.
"The effort of thinking which is at work in every narrative configuration," wrote Paul Ricoeur, "is completed in a refiguration of temporal experience." These photographs provide help in the narrative configuration of the years before I was born and the early years of my childhood. Although I am unable to refigure the early years of my own experience and the years before I was born with even the briefest, the flimsiest, sense of totality, these photos provide some knowledge in terms of traces. They take me back to the last dozen years of the Heroic Age of my Faith in an indirect sort of way to that eternal present that I mention above.