I entertained a bizarre fantasy for many years; one that, on the surface, seemed extraordinarily actionable. In this fantasy, I line up all of the pictures taken during my childhood in order to faithfully reconstruct memories and vast parts of my life that have dimmed. There’s only one problem— most of those pictures are lost. My parents’ duplex was seized in a foreclosure in 1979, just one week after my mother left my father for good. During the course of that week, we’d gone back and forth to the house for minutes at a time, only when my father wasn’t there, to recover as much as possible. On what was to be our last reconnaissance mission, we pulled up to the house to find it padlocked with a notice from the bank in block letters tacked to the front door. I remember asking if the steel lock meant we could never go back inside as my mother pressed her head against the steering wheel of her ’76 Toyota Corolla and managed a hushed response “whatever we left, we left” as a steady stream of tears fell to her lap. Even then, the only objects I cared to recover were the old photos of our family smiling and laughing as if there were a point in time when uncontested happiness knew us. A few days later, a neighbor called my maternal grandmother to let her know that the bank had discarded all of our belongings at the curb. The neighbor managed to recover a few pictures that had strayed from the piles. The pickers, the junkmen and the thieves helped themselves to everything else.
And now, 33 years later, those few photos that survived reside in my mother’s basement where she keeps our family memorabilia. In her spare photo files, there is a still that I cherished as a child. It is a photo of my grandfather, a seemingly flawless man, holding me as a baby outside a building with a cross and the words New Salem Baptist Church emblazoned across a wooden, double door. From the evidence of the photo, I might assume he took me to church, or it was the day of my baby dedication, or it was a wedding of a cousin, or, since he was a deacon, it may have been a church meeting to which I accompanied him. I might also notice, in this particular picture, that his grin isn’t much of a grin, rather a scowl. I might take note of the ring on his third finger, right hand; a ring given to him by one of his ‘girlfriends’, not my grandmother, a fact that I would learn as an adult. I might notice that he looks upset at someone or something outside the frame of the photo. I might then begin to decode the image based on subtle cues in the picture, gradually making the memory more malleable, the truth more pliable and open to creative interpretation. Through the gaze of an adult, I’ll begin to remember that ring more clearly with greater detail, and it will link me to the subject personally. The ring becomes, as literary theorist Roland Barthes coined, the punctum, or the detail that largely informs my interpretation of that moment. The punctum becomes a guidepost by which I examine the subject, my grandfather, in the photo. All of the material data will coalesce into, more or less, the contrived image I now have of him—a loving man vulnerable to temptation, hungry for passion, vexed by duty.
In Camera Lucida, Barthes’ complicated reflections on subjectivity, meaning and loss, he explained that every photo has a studium, a symbolic and obvious meaning, and a punctum, an interpretive meaning, which is usually triggered by attention to some minute detail that holds resonance with the viewer. He acknowledged that the noticed detail is subjective and positional, having more to do with the viewer’s personal connections to the material object. Over time, Barthes added a temporal component to the punctum’s definition. The punctum matured into more than mere detail; it was a testament of temporal being. In my grandfather’s case, the ring was a symbol of the philanderer’s temptation. The photograph was a moment of not “what is,” which Barthes considered illusory, but rather “what was.” This temporal consideration made credible the idea that photos are a point of memory, a flash of time, co-present with other meanings that shape the perception of what was.
Barthes’ theory insists that we don’t look to images for their static nature. We look to images, like poetry, to remind us that everything changes and that people are in relationship with something or someone outside of themselves; a realization that, also like poetry, leaves a stinging redness in its wake. For Barthes, this stinging was the grief he felt after the death of his mother which is why Camera Lucida pivots around notions of loss. It is as if the encountered image must necessarily be met with a degree of sorrow—the sorrow of losing something, the sorrow of knowing too much, the sorrow of knowing too little, the sorrow of what has been. And though a snapshot entitled Winter Garden Photograph, a picture of his mother when she was a five-year-old child, is lengthily discussed; the photo is not found within the text. A fact that Barthes confronts:
I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’; it cannot in any way constitute the visual object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny, but in it, for you, no wound. (Barthes 1981: 73)
As for me, my wound came with the realization that the figure I had apotheosized was, perhaps, not invulnerable to impulse or desire, not wholly welcoming of piety and not morally resolute—he was just a man, limited in office and power. The truth of him came in fragmented shards of memory and I, as Barthes, “struggled among images partially true and therefore totally false.” (66)
Now, as in 1979, the pickers, junkmen and thieves rifle through my belongings, my memories, hefting away the heavy items, leaving behind traces of dross as vestiges of some past life. All that remains are the articles of memory that sharpen my incorporeal vision. Though seemingly immaterial, they are sculpted, mental images just as the photo is a distilled image in time. And if every photo requires us to look back at what was, according to the individual, then this requirement must also hold true for memory. Memories are distinct moments, time markers that insist upon a subjective interpretation largely informed by cultural, familial and societal mores. We can no more expect a memory to be universally true then we can expect a room full of people to have witnessed or experienced some event in the same way. Every eye sees differently; cameras shutter at varying speeds.
Remembering, then, must necessarily be an act of the will, an exertion shaped by personal decision. As such, both the mental image and the photographic image resist the incessant lure of literalism and authenticity in favor of the persistent gaze of individual interpretation. After all, we are little more than the small collection of events and facts that we have experienced or learned, and engaging with this wild menagerie of memory is what authenticates the work and the self.
Whether memory serves to place a personal moment in historical context, fights to reconcile the present with the past, or seeks to transform, it serves. And while many may believe that history demands a cool objectivity, divorced from emotion and coupled with uncompromising accuracy, history itself is bared as a construal, usually written by the pen of the victor. For precisely this reason there is nothing more real, nothing more authentic than what you think you knew, what you think you saw, what was and what may have been; the implied image creates a compelling imprint. And from these distinct imprints, our collective histories are written to populate the annals.
Ultimately, it seems an unfair expectation, and a downright impossibility, for our memories and writing to remain faithful to an event exactly as it happened, or loyal to the subject’s accepted and uniform image. For the creative writer, age and time, as with print photos, yellow and bend our memories, patina our remembrances. In so doing, the misremembrance becomes a misnomer. Nothing is misremembered— it is reconstituted. These reconstituted memories are the photos from which we’ve looked away, attempting to bring our history’s image into sharp focus through the most powerful implement available—the lens of imagination.