Photography changes what we remember

This 3.5 minute video (direct YouTube link; embedded below) is an interview with Hugh Talman, a photographer with the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. He muses on his act of photographing the aftermath of Katrina. The curator who was planning to visit the area asked him, “What would you photograph?” His reply: “you’d photograph the evidence of the power of Katrina. I don’t style myself as photojournalist, but it turned into having photojournalistic aspects to it.” The video shows some of his photos. Most striking: photographs of an object where it was found (in its full post-Katrina context), versus the object photographed the way Talman normally works with objects, shot in the sanitized setting of a photo studio. What a contrast.

Before I watched the video (and saw just its name—“changes what we remember”), I thought, “Oh, this might relate to photos and memories and how to use photos to nudge or direct memories.” Not so pointed as that. It’s more that a collection of photographs is a kind of memory artifact of how it was. The contrast between an object’s plain (studio) background versus that object in its environment so powerfully conveys the power of Katrina. The two photos of the same object may as well be two different objects. I’m inspired to hunt more carefully when I look at old photographs for objects and their contexts, and the clues they might provide about a person or a time. I’m thinking primarily about old family albums, but the same approach can be applied to any historical photograph collection.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on March 10, 2009 in • HistoryInterviewingPhotographs
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