The Continuum of Fixed Places
What remains when we leave our past behind? Surely memory does not simply atrophy - it endures in the silence of the spaces we once frequented. Affixed to the mundane, to the inanimate: a door handle worn bare by our everyday entries and exits, the grass once alive, now tortured into a path by incessant and insensitive footsteps, the warm light which lingers on the windowsill we once used as a ponder perch for childish dreams, the crack in a wall that was once strong enough to hold a family together. The Continuum of Fixed Places: the silent spaces that bravely continue through time's impatient ticking - those that hold the shadows of how we have become; the womb-like places that broodily harbor the traits we have discarded and the realms from which we take the ghosts we carry with us still.
If my own treacherous memory serves me correctly, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in May 2015; for me, an obsession grew out of a need to understand, from a want to help. Out of this fixation of time’s effect on memory came this project. I began questioning what was left of a past - the warm glow of nostalgia brought me again and again, and without effort, to my childhood home; this is where I began, with my camera, to search within the beginnings of my memories. I could not, however, find the memory I was happy with. This is not to say my upbringing was abusive or malicious, I have just changed so much since then - the self I now know, no longer fit those walls. I left anxious, and found myself battling with more questions than answers. After some agonizing months, I had stumbled into Marcel Proust's book 'Remembrance of Things Past, in which I found the beginning of the answer:
“Poets make out that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. The fixed places, contemporary with different years, it is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find them.” (1)
These lines provoked me to pause my search for what was; to instead think about what I have become, about what my memory is. How it created what I am today, and what I would eventually become. I began to think about time, and the changes it had brought to me and my childhood surroundings. I wondered where those discarded personality traits were left, and whether they were in fact still there: vestiges hiding in a corner or a crack, or maybe in plain sight - waiting. Did they want to be found? And was my contemporaneous self ready, or even able, to understand what they were or might still be?
I re-began. Setting up my camera and chemistry, thinking of how I was going to portray this. I could not escape the thought of perception, a word which means everything to a photographer. John Locke, a founder of empiricism, in his piece entitled 'An Essay Concerning Human Understanding', I read about perception and its connection to memory:
"The other way of retention, is the power to revive again in our minds those ideas, which after imprinting have disappeared,or have been as it were laid aside out of sight; and thus we do, when we conceive heat or light, yellow or sweet, the object being removed. This is memory, which is as it were the store-house of our ideas. For the narrow mind of man not being capable of having many ideas under view and consideration at once, it was necessary to have a repository to lay up those ideas, which at another time it might have use of. But our ideas being nothing but actual perceptions in the mind, which cease to be any thing, when there is no perception of them, this laying up of our ideas in the repository of the memory, signifies no more but this, that the mind has a power in many cases to revive perceptions, which it has once had, with this additional perception annexed to them, that it has had them before. And in this sense it is, that our ideas are said to be in our memories, when indeed they are actually no-where, but only there is an ability in the mind when it will to revive them again, and as it were paint them a-new on itself, though some with more, some with less difficulty; some more lively, and others more obscurely." (2)
Locke’s conception, of our memory being a repository of annexed perceptions, was an idea I became fascinated with. Our minds’ daily updating of memories because of our current desires, aversions and morals - constantly reworking the foundation upon which our understanding of our self is built. Molding our memory of the self we once had and therefore changing that "memory" for good. To me, in its simplest form, photography is the practitioner's rendering of their perceptions of a specific time and place. How could I do this with photography - a two dimensional and static medium; how could I express these "initial imprints" and additionally, and more importantly: these "annexed perceptions"? I was looking for all that adds up to the fullness of myself today, in a photograph. Could I do this with what Proust calls a "contemporary with different years" self? Could I conjure up memories today? Made up memories - as if they were fresh today, and then add onto them the changes I had already gone through.
I do not subscribe to the notion that we should not bring up a memory in order to preserve it; I am however, fascinated by and agree with this concept. But I think rather, that we should bring up memories often, in order to change them, process them, and therefore progress our idea of self. I am interested in whether photography, as a time encapsulated memory may help to counter this idea and maintain it, or rather, corrupt the memory further. Creating an original memory or perception that was not even there in the first place. Could I today create, as it were, a foundational memory, in order to see if I was able to add annexed perceptions to it?
I began with my composition: a perception, an "original imprint". I have become increasingly interested in how painters like Klee and Picasso have strived to find the innocence and naivety of children in their painting. Of newcomers to this world, who are, as Locke would put it: "blank slates". Could a photographer use this same approach - to be unburdened by experience? I wondered if I could produce childlike, simplistic in vision, "snapshot" photographs with my large format camera and complicated 1850's photographic technique.
I labored for months to perfect this "innocent childlike snapshot" style of composition. I liberated myself of all the compositional rules I had previously learnt, all the correct exposure techniques, all the prescribed laws of making a "good" photograph. I realized that this was almost impossible: besides the "good photograph" rules and laws I have learnt, I have lived for too long, experienced too much, and formed too many opinions to have the innocent confidence of a "blank slate". Still, I endured with my important task. I eventually made a breakthrough, it was along the same lines: instinct. I have now come to know that it is instinct that takes over when knowledge and trusted opinion is unavailable. I used this, it became important to never second guess myself, to go with my first choice, to put intuition before anything else.
Under my focusing cloth, at the first point of "THIS IS IT, this is the photograph!" I left the frame as it was, never returning to the camera-tripod-scene trio until I had the plate ready. In my mobile darkroom, I attempted to remember the image I was about to make in order to select a pre-scuffed or pre-dirtied plate as to get the "imperfections" in aesthetically pleasing and thought-provoking placement on the final image, as if I was selecting a destiny for this “initial imprint”. This choosing of the plates is difficult as with a view camera, the image on the ground glass one uses to compose and focus with is upside down and back to front. This along with the serendipity caused by the sloppy technique I used to pour and process my pre-scuffed plates is a nod to the extent of our ability to control our "additional perceptions annexed," a nod to the inevitable change. It is also a nod to our attempts at creating, or molding a memory - to the degree with which it is possible to do this. In doing so, I was reminded, once again, of the brilliance of Proust:
"A photograph acquires something of the dignity which it ordinarily lacks when it ceases to be a reproduction of reality and shows us things that no longer exist." (3)
Not only was this newfound, "THIS IS IT" way of composing photographs acquainting my handmade glass positives with "things that no longer exist", I was also adding on possible futures. There had become a timeline: original imprints, then the annexed perceptions - it was as if I had lived in this glass plate, this multidimensional, multi-faceted conglomeration of silver, glass and time. My place in this capsule is made clear by the transcendence of these times by my immovable object: the fixed place - the home in which I grew and changed, the home that still stands as it did in my youth.
I was unburdened by experience and knowledge, it was bliss; I was steadily making good photographs - as ecstatic as a child, I was playing! in whim, in free dance: the joy of innocence. I was learning everything again, in love with photography again, in love with a new way of looking, until indecision once again crept into my new perspective; I made, and photographed, more than one composition of the same scene - disaster. My theory was confirmed to me once I had been overpowered by the anxiety of choosing which of these three photographs is the one I actually meant to make. I was crippled with indecision, this showed above all: doubt. An unconscious doubt caused by experience and informed decisions. Those damned "good photograph" rules and laws found their way back into my composition and then jostled with each other - digging deeper the pit of doubt.
A six-foot, fully grown pit of doubt so devoid of impulse, of play, of fun, of truth - I withdrew like a child after an accident, I withdrew into maturity. I realized, through practice, the only true memory is one that has imprinted into a fresh mind - one without lessons of the world. That each memory we have passed this point is corrupted in some way or another - molded by our surroundings, the morals of our community, of what we are taught and what we learn. Molded by doubts, insecurities and the reflections of them.
The childhood home, my own memories, photography, Marcel Proust, John Locke, time and my own doubts of this project have brought me some clarity, to a better understanding of memory and identity - not only of my own, but that of my father, our collective and individual memories, and of personality, morals and culture. Memories are the building blocks of the self, bricks of play and learning, built with the mortar of doubt, that with immense patience and natural cunning, creates over time, our identity.
Time's effect on our memory has varying aspects of honesty and mendacity, but we live by it today and this is a truth we are certain of, an identity we are certain of. No matter who we are, we all have our fixed places, our initial imprints and our annexed perceptions; we all have our own continuum, and from there, we all have our future, both individual and shared. The forming of a personality, I've come to learn, is a complex, fascinating, beautiful, and fickle phenomenon which is unique to each individual, but which cannot exist without the world we share around us. I've also come to learn that it is malleable only by how we perceive our memories; only by a concerted and conscious effort can we mold who we are. As intelligent, social beings, we have a moral obligation to know where we have come from, how we have become and who we want to be - the roof of a house cannot be without the foundation; the importance lies in how we build the walls.
1. Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust page 929. 2006 Wordsworth Edition Limited, England
2. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke page 113
3. Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust page 693. 2006 Wordsworth Edition Limited, England