Exercise 3.6

The Memory of Photography


Read David Bate’s essay ‘ The Memory of Photography ’, available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17540763.2010.499609
This is a challenging essay, which introduces some complex theoretical ideas and influential thinkers. Read the text closely, noting Bate’s key points in your learning log, and extending your research to points that he references which are of interest to you.
[Link last accessed: 30/09/2020]

LP&E, p.132

[3Mar22] This essay rests on two factors: Bate’s Portsmouth upbringing and his imperfect memory of Fox Talbot’s photograph of Nelson’s Column under construction.
These allow him to explore and illustrate various writings on the workings, purpose and effect of memory in conjunction with photographs by (amongst others) Derrida, Freud, Le Goff, Bordieu, Foucault, Sontag, Barthes and Proust.

Portsmouth is a heritage naval port with Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory on display, which Bate “visited many times” while growing up. Bate knew Fox Talbot’s photograph, Trafalgar Square, 1844, the only illustration in the essay, and mistakenly thought that it appeared in Fox Talbot’s book The Pencil of Nature (1844–46)

The essay was published in 2010 when the rise of digital photography and social media was in full flow [1]: Bate saw this as a turning point in the history and in the use of photography when photographs as aides-memoire were being replaced by the digital alternatives, photo-libraries replaced by online search engines and their archives acquired by commercial and academic organisations. An appropriate time, then to consider how photographs interract with memory.

Bate begins with Freud and his 1925 essay, The ‘Mystic Writing Pad’ where he distinguishes between people’s natural memory and artificial memory, their use of external aids, giving the examples of written notes and senory enhancement, “spectacles, photographic cameras, [ear] trumpets”. Freud reinforced the point in a 1930 essay, Civilization and its Discontents, where he stated, “[i]n the photographic camera [man] has created an instrument which retains the fleeting visual impressions, just as a gramophone disc retains the equally fleeting auditory ones; both are at bottom materializations of the power he possessed of recollection, his memory”.

Bate moves on to Derrida, writing in 1996 (Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression), where, specifically considering “microcomputing, electronization, computerization, etc.”, Derrida suggests that because these systems work in different ways and have different structures to the human brain and memory, using them as artificial memory might result in distortions.

Bates goes back in history to consider more primitive memory aids, including the cultural, from inscriptions to theatre, as a way of introducing Jacques Le Goff‘s History and Memory (1992). Le Goff emphasised the importance of state (at first royal, then civil) institutions, “archives, libraries, museums” and that following the invention of printing, reading replaced memotising.
Le Goff also cites commemoration, “coins, medals, postage stamps … monuments, street signs, commemorative plaques”. Bates describes these as examples of collective memory.
Le Goff describes photography as revolutionary, citing Bordieu‘s (translated) 1965 Photography: A Middle-brow Art, to conclude that it (to paraphrase) democratised the portrait gallery. Bates lingers on the distortion caused to the family narrative by the fact that one of the parents does not appear as a result of being on the other side of the camera (as noted in I&P Exercise 1.4, Annette Kuhn describes her mother’s inscriptions in the family album as a “power play”: the choice of which images to preserve and the inscriptions recorded can offer further opportunities for controlling and editorialising the data). The family archive, Bates concludes, “enables specific social groups, perhaps hitherto unrepresented, to find an identity or identification within a specific common visualized memory”.

Looking beyond the family, Bate lists other forms of archive / collective memory,

  • the state (the police, military, government, local government, scientific and ethnographic archives);
  • the media (newspapers, magazines, television, photography libraries, advertising photography, documentary archives);
  • the arts, not only museums, galleries, and public collections but also the archives of individual or private archives (e.g. tourism, families, everyday life, collections by artists, and photographers);
  • independent social groups (whether political, social, cultural or economic in formation) which all form collections as visual memories that often overlap or even conflict with public media archives.

Bate, 2010

In all these cases there is the opportunity to edit history for future consumption (history is written by victors, a phrase sometime misattributed to Churchill): and Derrida makes this point in Archive Fever where he writes of archives “responsibility for tomorrow”.

Bate now turns to Fox Talbot’s Nelson’s Column and this is where the essay’s sole illustration appears (fig. A1, above). As noted at the outset, Bate was familiar with Nelson’s story as he few up near Portsmouth where Nelson’s flagship is an historical attraction and Bate knew the Fox Talbot image and mistakenly thought that it appeared in his book, The Pencil of Nature.

Bate regards the image as a two-fold Le Goff, as a monument and a photographic reminder of a monument and also notes that The Pencil of Nature (in which it does not appear) is, in Derrida’s terms, Fox Talbot’s personal archive.

Under the heading “prosthetic memory”, Bates now considers Foucault‘s argument from the 1974 essay Film and Popular Memory, that collective “popular memory” is damaged by “a whole number of apparatuses … popular literature, cheap books and the stuff that’s taught in school as well”. The effects, if not the causes are similar to Derrida’s assertion, though whereas Derrida identified negative mechanistic effects on individual memory, Foucault sees negative effects being wrought intentionally on collective memory.
Bates comments that, “[i]n my view, this pre-digital struggle is no different from the struggles over popular memory in the new so-called digital domain of the photographic image”, but writing in 2010, Bate had not seen and could not envisage the directions and extent of digital changes. Those changes have made “everyone a journalist” (Anastasovski, 2019), able to report and depict versions of particular truths, but social media have also enabled silo mentalities to develop, fed by propaganda generated by individuals and institutions.

Bate also notes that individual memories are, in addition to images (visuels), triggered by sound (auditifs), gestures and actions (moteurs): no mention of tastes and smells. Freud is cited, asserting that “childhood memories are primarily visual” (Bate paraphrasing Freud’s Childhood Memories and Screen Memories, 1901).

Under a new heading, mnemic-traces, Bate then addresses how natural and artificial memories are integrated and used. Returning to Freud, quoted earlier from the Mystic Writing-pad, where he suggests that memory aids are “improvement[s] or intensification of our sensory functions”, we are then referred to Freud’s seminal 1900 The Interpretation of Dreams,. The mnemic-traces operate on two systems, the unconscious (which is inaccessible) and the conscious-preconscious where memories are recoverable. The conscious mind is the active thought process of the individual which can choose to access memories. The conscious-preconscious also stores screen memories – “fixed images from childhood that haunt each individual”.

Continuing with Freud, Bate notes his assertion that the things remembered from childhood are often inexplicably trivial, “certainly falsified, incomplete or displaced in time and place” and “mistakes in recollection cannot be caused simply by a treacherous memory” (from Freud’s Childhood Memories and Screen Memories”, 1901). Bate associates this with his false memory of Fox Talbot’s Nelson’s Column being in The Pencil of Nature and also such effects being used by the surrealists to “destabilize the intellect about the status of reality”. Freud uses of the word “screen” in the sense that these memories are retained for life and used as a shield against significant, unpleasant memories. Significantly, Freud also asserts that the workings of screen memories offer “a remarkable analogy with the childhood memories that a nation preserves in its store of legends and myths” and that takes back to Derrida and Le Goff and the cultural distortion of collective memory.
It also leads Bate on to Proust‘s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–1927) and Barthes’ coining the term punctum in Camera Lucida (1980), both of which hinge on involuntary memory. Bate states that “Barthes’s concept of the punctum is related to Proust”, although Barthes denied this, “nothing Proustian in a photograph” (1980, p.82). Bate continues, “Whereas the studium is akin to voluntary memory (public or cultural associations can be consciously recalled), the punctum is an involuntary response to a photograph … Barthes’s punctum is like Proust’s “involuntary memory”.

Bate then applies this grasp of voluntary and involuntary memory to his relationship with the Fox Talbot image.

He describes the content of the photograph, Nelson’s naval career, and how looking at the photograph has an “involuntary … effect” on him, reminding him of his Portsmouth childhood and repeated visits to HMS Victory, where Nelson’s heroic story was retold. Coincidentally, he had recently read a novel by Sue SontagThe Volcano Lover (1992), about Lady Hamilton, Nelson’s lover, and that had brought the image to mind. Bate reminds us that Nelson died in 1805 but that the monument was not built until 1844: he restates Le Goff’s argument that these memorials “bind social memory into a unity”. He concludes,. “as [an] “artificial memory” device a photograph intersects with a “natural memory” in complex ways. It can be said that photographic images do not destroy personal memories, but that they interact with them in very specific ways, which may not always be conscious.”

Bate does not consider:
1. how photographers have and can make use of the processes he describes (other than a brief reference the the Surrealists); or
2. the other purposes for which photography is employed.


1. Nikon had launched the D1 camera in 1999, “the world’s first practical digital SLR” for professional use, “good enough to replace 35mm cameras for news and sports” (Collard, 2020). The first iPhone, with a 2MP camera, was released in 2007 (Holmes, 2022). In 2013 the majority of the top-grossing films were shot on digital media rather than celluloid (Follows, 2017). Facebook launched in 2004, Twitter in 2006 (Maryville, 2022).


[7Mar] There are many ways to appreciate Bate’s essay, but for any enthusiast of Barthes’ Camera Lucida (such as this writer) it will be as a long-winded explanation of punctum and studium, punctum is like Proust’s “involuntary memory”. Whereas the studium is akin to voluntary memory (public or cultural associations can be consciously recalled), the punctum is an involuntary response to a photograph.
As such, it is a welcome addition to the literature.

LPE Exc 3.6 References

Alexander, J, Conroy, A, Hughes, A, & Lundy, G (2019) Landscape, Place and Environment [LPE]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Anastasovski, NM. (2019) Everyone is a Journalist — The Blurred Lines of Citizen Journalism [online]. medium.com. Available from https://medium.com/@nataliamarieanastasovski/everyone-is-a-journalist-the-blurred-lines-of-citizen-journalism-f1fb2c39e65a [Accessed 7 March 2022].

Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Random House.

Bate, D. (2010) The Memory of Photography [online]. tandfonline.com. Available from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17540763.2010.499609 [Accessed 5 March 2022].

Collard, L. (2020) Nikon D1 [online]. lewiscollard.com. Available from https://lewiscollard.com/cameras/nikon-d1/ [Accessed 5 March 2022].

Follows, S. (2017) When and how the film business went digital [online]. stephenfollows.com. Available from https://stephenfollows.com/film-business-became-digital/ [Accessed 5 March 2022].

Fox Talbot, W.H. (1844-46) The pencil of nature. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans.

Holmes, C. (2022) iPhone Release Dates [online]. whistleout.com. Available from https://www.whistleout.com/CellPhones/Guides/iphone-release-dates [Accessed 5 March 2022].

Maryville University (2022) The Evolution of Social Media: How Did It Begin, and Where Could It Go Next? [online]. maryville.edu. Available from https://online.maryville.edu/blog/evolution-social-media/ [Accessed 5 March 2022].

The sources cited by Bates for his essay are:

1. Arago, Dominique Francois. 1980. “Report.” 3 July 1839”. In Classic Essays on
, Edited by: Trachtenberg, Alan. 17Newhaven: Leete’s Island.
2. Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida, New York: Hill.
3. Barthes, Roland. 1980. La Chamber claire: note sur la photographie, Paris: Gallimard Seuil.
4. Benjamin, Walter. 1979. Illuminations, London: Fontana.
5. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1965. Un art moyen: essai sur les usages sociaux de la
, Paris: Minuit.
6. Derrida, Jacques. 1996. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, London: U of Chicago P. Trans. Eric Prenowitz
7. Enwezor, Okwui. Archive Fever – Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, New York: International Centre of Photography/Steidl, 2008.
8. Foucault, Michel. 1989. “Film and Popular Memory”. In Foucault Live, New York: Semiotext(e). 1974. Reprinted in Michel Foucault
9. Freud, Sigmund. 1901. “Childhood Memories and Screen Memories”. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 83–93. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1980
10. Freud, Sigmund. 1989. “Civilization and its Discontents”. In Civilization, Society and Religion, Edited by: Freud, Pelican. Vol. 12, 243–340. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1930
11. Freud, Sigmund. 1984. “The ‘Mystic Writing-pad.’”. In On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, Edited by: Freud, Pelican. Vol. 11, 427–433. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1925
12. Kracauer, Siegfried. 1994. History: The Last Things before the
, Princeton: Wiener. Trans. and completed by Paul Oskar Kristellar
13. Laplanche, Jean. 1999. Essays on Otherness, London: Routledge.
14. Le Goff, Jacques. 1992. History and Memory, Oxford: Columbia UP. Trans. Steven Rendall and Elizabeth Claman
15. Whitehead, Anne. 2009. Memory, Oxford: Routledge.
16. Yates, Frances A. 2001. The Art of Memory, London: Pimlico.