Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 2, 2007
Geoffrey Batchen Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004. 160 pp.; 80 color ills. Cloth $29.95 (1568984502)
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Rumors of a tight relationship between photography and memory have been circulating since the nineteenth century, despite the many objections raised in both scholarly and fanciful works. A feature of these attacks is the prosecutor’s reluctance to produce evidence. Roland Barthes writes a long meditation on photography as a form of counter-memory that ultimately rests on a portrait of his mother that he allows no one to see. Siegfried Kracauer launches his skeptical study of photography and memory by evoking a magazine illustration of the “demonic diva,” whose image lures consumers into the memory-vacuum of an eternal present. And who is she? She is “one-twelfth of a dozen Tiller girls,” a bit of figurative fluff. In both cases, and many essays that have followed, we are led by unseen generic images—led, in effect, by our imaginations—to turn our eyes inward and imagine that we are remembering. In Forget Me Not, Geoffrey Batchen does something different: he includes actual photographic images and considers their mnemonic function on the basis of what he—and we—can see. This is a very auspicious beginning to a book that fulfills its promise.

Forget Me Not is about expressions of memory in photographic portraits, which Batchen culls from a large and lively inventory of images and photographically embellished objects produced between 1840 and 1970. These are primarily ordinary people’s pictures, windows into ordinary photographic experience. The photographers and photocrafters here are largely unknown, leaving us undistracted by the whiff of genius or mundane details of a sitter’s life. Batchen wants us to focus on the lives of the images, aspects of photographic production and consumption that are held to be both typical and significant. The agents’ names may be lost, but their agency is intact; their desire to be photographed, their performances before the camera, and their uses of the resultant images are assumed by Batchen to be meaningful and potentially communicative, even if he, a stranger, cannot find the key.

Batchen launches his study with a cluster of portraits of people holding photographic portraits or photographic paraphernalia. Though these images might be dismissed as gimmicky photographic promotion, Batchen reads them differently and very sensitively as the sitters’ expressions of kinship, affection, longing, grief, and sensuality. He points out that the sitter is not only looking at the daguerreotype or cartedevisite, but also touching it. Indeed, in many cases, the sitter is not looking at the image, but presenting it to the camera, thus posing with the image of the loved one, sending this message of togetherness into the future. Batchen is an attentive receiver of such messages. He considers the possibility that a closed daguerreotype case, held up to the camera by a sitter, is the very one that will hold the daguerreotype that Batchen is now inspecting. The author defines these portraits as self-conscious acts of remembrance in which touch offers the equivalent of a Proustian madeleine.

Whose touch? The discussion shifts from the symbolism of the pose to the expressive possibilities of paint, collage, and elaborate frames. In these works taking is plainly overshadowed by making. In some cases the photographic image is completely covered by paint, the tiny detail lost, the potential for Barthesian punctum correspondingly reduced, while elsewhere the photographic portrait is either disciplined by a grid or overwhelmed by a display of printed matter—cigar bands in one particularly crafty American example that excites the eye, tempts the finger, and tickles the nose. Still building his argument, Batchen focuses on touch, using the example of a cyanotype-printed pillow to explore the complicity of eye and hand in the storage and retrieval of personal memories. The desire not just to have the portrait of a loved one, but to have it displayed on one’s person, is proven by the existence of photo-jewelry, “a form of perpetual caress” in Batchen’s formulation. The affinities between the photographic trace, inscription, embroidery, bronzed booties, botanical samples, cigarette papers, and locks of hair are made plain in his close and vivid descriptions.

Batchen’s empathetic readings of these objects-in-use prepares the ground for an argument about the nature of photographic experience that is spelled out halfway through the text. In these combinations of taking and making, Batchen has detected a “creative maneuver . . . the self-conscious doubling of that indexicality often considered to be a special attribute of photography” (61). This maneuver fits photography into a much larger and older scheme of individual and communal remembrance, quickened by a combination of vision and touch. A sense of continuity, rather than rupture, is what motivated Batchen’s groundbreaking Burning with Desire (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997). Now in a field quite distant from photography’s seedbed, Romanticism, Batchen makes a link between Mexican religious imagery and the fotoescultura, suggesting that the carved housing and vivid hand-coloring of this type of family portrait raises it to a level of reverence just below the carved and painted religious icon. However, it seems important to stress—on the basis of Batchen’s examples—that systems of faith or social structure are not the glue of these photographic assemblages. They are held together by intensity of feeling, urgent in the creative moment. This explains why a collection that includes heart-wrenching in memoria, an album as bio-pic, and a double-portrait frame made in 1942 of bullet shells is so cohesive. “The locket” as well as many other supplements, from bronzed baby shoes to wax flowers, “takes indexicality to its logical conclusion” (76). The referent is twice present, meaning that absence, or the dread of absence, is doubly delayed. The chilling effect of the photograph—the relegation of the referent to memory—is mitigated by the warmth, texture, and ingenuity of the hybrid presentation.

The length and structure of Batchen’s text—one long essay punctuated by headings—allows the book to be consumed in a single sitting, an absorbing read comparable to one’s first attack on Camera Lucida and just as insistent on re-reading for the author’s fine points and subtle references. Batchen is, among other things already mentioned, a sophisticated writer who combines the disinterested tone of description and judgment with short outbursts of speculation that are both affective and effective in drawing the reader closer. This is not necessarily because one agrees but because these changes in tone, judiciously metered, initiate internal conversations, little tussles with the text, which spice the reading. Describing the frame made of bullet shells that houses the individual portraits of a couple, Batchen assumes that the object was made by the man while stationed in an army camp; my immediate reaction was that the woman had made it—one woman among the thousands doing “men’s jobs” (Rosie the Riveter!) during the Second World War. In my scenario, the message inscribed on the back of the man’s photograph does not refer to the frame but to the picture sent on request: “This isn’t very good, but its [sic] all I have” (39). Right or wrong is not the point. Batchen’s version initiates the role-playing and exchange that perpetuate the life of this couple in the fruitful commingling of memory and imagination.

The book is beautifully designed and printed with delicate color illustrations bringing out not only the hectic flush of a hand-tinted portrait and luster of embroidery threads but also—crucially—the deterioration of the prints, the faded wax roses, and by contrast, the born-yesterday quality of objects that must have hung in dimly lit rooms. One could quibble with the decision to omit figure references in the text, even while agreeing that the sheer number of illustrations would have made such constant interruption an annoyance. The coding of the images to an exhibition list organized by lender shows that the book is doing double duty as a scholarly study and an exhibition catalogue—doing this very well, given the strains of these not quite compatible functions. Princeton Architectural Press, the Van Gogh Museum, and the author/curator are to be commended for pulling it off so elegantly.

Forget Me Not focuses Batchen’s longstanding interest in the nature of photography on a large family of objects that photographic historians and theorists have tended to neglect. There are exceptions, many credited in Batchen’s notes, but the particular strength of his work is not simply that he fills gaps but that he insists that photographic theory be overhauled to accommodate the photographic objects and experiences of the many. Batchen has elsewhere brought these ideas into contemporary art; indeed, a most reliable feature of his scholarship is his capacity to find threads of continuity in proclaimed innovations. In 2001 he wrote about the index in terms of “contiguity” (Art Journal 60, no. 1 [Spring 2001]), considering the relevance of photographic indexicality in a digital world. For such contributions to photographic historiography we are indebted to Batchen, who can look at a hybrid photographic monument and call for a historical method that “matches the complexity of these objects . . . a new kind of history for photography” (Forget Me Not, 94). I read this exhortation as the writer’s “note to self,” and wait eagerly for the sequel to Burning with Desire.

Martha Langford
Associate Professor, Department of Art History; Research Chair and Director, Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art, Concordia University

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