A Matter of Memory: Photography as Object in the Digital Age

Do you remember the last time you went out and printed a snapshot? Or filled up a chunky, leather-bound photo album with a set of family portraits? If you’re under 30, the answer could well be never.
With the immediacy of digital recording and the convenience of smartphones for organising and sharing images, the act of printing physical pictures has become something of an anachronism for anyone but hipsters and art photographers.
A new exhibition at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, seeks to address how the gradual decline of the photographic object is affecting our relationship to memory, and what happens when our century-old physical tie to the photograph is broken.

Group I, 2016. From the series Time Spent That Might Otherwise Be Forgotten © Diane Meyer.
“What has changed is the tactility of the photograph,” says exhibition curator Lisa Hostetler.
“Now that images are on a screen, they’re sort of ‘forever young’, and it becomes difficult to realise that there are many things that connect us to the past in terms of basic human emotions. These become more difficult to tease out when everything looks contemporary.”
A Matter of Memory is divided into six sections, which Hostetler insists are fluid given the multifaceted nature of all the works. It features more than 100 photographs by some 30 artists who, consciously or not, have interpreted this phenomenon in very personal ways.
The show includes images from Dutch photographer Bertien van Manen’s series, Give Me Your Image, where she visited the homes of immigrants around Europe and took a picture of their favourite photograph that they had on display in their new home, showing the eternal and evident connection they still had to the families they had left behind.
Diane Meyer from California contributes family portraits, which also speak as a personal keepsake, adding an element of tactility by using a cross-stitch to embroider over certain details of the image, such as the faces of her subjects.
Untitled, 1997. From the series My Ghost © Adam Fuss, courtesy of Deborah Ronnen Fine Art
Taking on a more abstract approach, Russian-born Yola Monakhov Stockton places photographic paper into a cardboard box and turns it into a pinhole camera, which she posts back and forth to herself and her friends.
The paper inside records the journey of the box as it passes through the various stages of the postal system, giving the resulting photograph a “sense of having a life, capturing every trace of where it’s been”, says Hostetler.
West Yorkshire, New Sharlston, 2004. From the series Give Me Your Image © Bertien van Manen.
The curator of the museum – which was formerly the mansion home of Kodak’s founder – contrasts these approaches to wider photographic usage, where digital has largely supplanted film, and analogue materials are increasingly being withdrawn. Even in the professional world, particularly photojournalism, there is the need to record as quickly as possible.
“Images that may not seem important at the time they are taken get deleted,” says Hostetler.
After five years of planning, the exhibition is open to the public accompanied by a catalogue of discursive essays, both seeking to inspire a visual dialogue and raise further questions on whether the conversion to the digital experience not only alters but also weakens memory.
A Matter of Memory at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, runs until the end of January 2017. For more, go here.

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.