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Ron O’Donnell, unfinished stages of, then the final work (below), ‘Bonjour Monsieur Byrne’, 2019. After Gustav Courbet’s ‘Bonjour Monsieur Courbet’, 1854

‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.’

Fans of steely-gazed actor Rutger Hauer will recognise this elegy, delivered by his character, the replicant Batty, in the 1982 film Blade Runner. It’s a film that delves into human consciousness versus mechanical reproduction, how we construct memory and it constructs us, how the photograph fits into this troubled relationship.

This phrase of Batty’s—‘moments lost in time’—would be a good alternative title for the symposium Photography and Memory at Edinburgh Napier University, in collaboration with City Art Centre and The Glasgow School of Art. ‘Those moments’ were what the twenty or so speakers were investigating, as they excavated archives and assayed meaning. They were questioning what is lost, what we can retain or regain through the frozen moment, and exactly how practices with photography might enable this.

Ron O’Donnell’s rollicking retrospective made the case for collage and collaboration as a means of constructing a life in camera. As his interests progressed from street photography through interior scenes to constructed works, he realised, he explained, that, ‘I could put photographs in and play with time,’ mulching up the political, social and artistic past for his own creative purposes.

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O’Donnell’s talk also revealed an interesting anxiety about the relationship between the image and the physical body. He mentioned two photos from the 1970s that City Art Centre was reluctant to include in its recent retrospective of his work: one because the picture is of a room that contains a side table in the shape of an African servant boy, the other because it shows, inside a fishmonger’s shop, a dismembered dolphin. Academic Emile Shemilt suffered a similar squeamishness about sea creatures during his presentation on the Centre for Remote Environment’s photographic archive from South Georgia, in the Atlantic. This scientific research outpost was also for a long time a whaling station and many of its stunning images depict this industry.

I have no problem with historic pictures of marine slaughter; I’m with Ishmael from chapter 24 of Herman Melville’s 1851 Moby-Dick:

‘But, though the world scouts at us whale hunters, yet does it unwittingly pay us the profoundest homage; yea, an all-abounding adoration! for almost all the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn round the globe, burn, as before so many shrines, to our glory!’

Yes, this activity causes physical damage, but we like it, it helps with the vision. (Another Melville-influence contributor who’s obsessed with the ocean, Martha Cattell, showed what was the highlight of the symposium: her cine film made out of actual seaweed. Brilliant, and needing further consideration at great length elsewhere.)

Sarah Iepson discussed a different form of images of the dead: a resurgence of the practice of keeping photographic mementos of babies and children who have died. She cut back 150 years to a nineteenth-century field of ‘mourning ephemera’, then traced how a similar type of image-making is returning, within the particular demographic under her consideration. After a long gap when death was sanitised and hidden, there’s a movement towards an online support community, a way of mourning together and acknowledging the loss of a child. It’s a double disinterment: the child (if only visually) is recovered, while the practice of making such images, which had gone out of fashion, been buried, is itself also revivified, too. I’d be interested to hear whether Iepson relates this strand of photography, post-death, to the modern phenomenon of pre-birth photos of the baby, through the ultrasound scan.

In a different place and context, Caroline Molloy’s presentation also touched on images of the dead. Her work, impressively engaged and thoughtful, involves speaking to Londoners of Turkish origin about their important photos. But the work is almost less about photographs than it is about the experience of dialogue and exchange. Molloy visits homes in order to ask questions in English, in England. One informant (host, contact) has her daughter translate the question so that the whole family can discuss, deliberate, and come to a collectively agreed answer that is then converted and delivered back.

And what they explain is very moving. The photos are not of what they might appear to show; their meaning, their emotional valence, is something different. Some tap into cultural and religious traditions, or to deeply personal landmarks: this photo of a newborn baby does not just show delight at a new life, nor is it a reminder of a difficult birth experienced by the mother. It’s an important photo because it shows the first baby in this part of the family who was born in the UK and would therefore immediately qualify for British citizenship. This fact does not show up in a photo, but it’s the underpinning reason.

The focal point of Molloy’s talk was another photo, one that serves as an icon or totem: a composite image of family members who had died during their journey to the UK. The print becomes a devotional object, a tool or scaffolding for re-telling the story among those who got here, those who remain.

Not allowing the dead to be forgotten or erased is a consideration in the long-running research of Andrew Eskind, who described his investigations into a mismatched cache of 35mm photographic negatives showing life in Germany in the 1930s under the growing shadow of National Socialism. Eskind’s task was to work out who had made these, how, and why, and how they fitted into the bigger picture of the past. He and his fellow detectives tracked down the photographer who had chucked away a bundle of negatives into the rubbish bin outside his own back door. There’s a grim humour and symbolism in the idea that guilt, history, the past, could ever be thrown in the bin. The past isn’t dead, whispers the photograph; you can’t get rid of us that easily.

Also from the US was documentary filmmaker Casey Hayward, who does really interesting work in the form of photo-essays on the lives and dwellings of transient people affected by the opioid crisis in Massachusetts. His work is partly sociological, about the space of the city and the lives of the residents. He’s aware about how as a photographer he has moved from an initial sense of distance and difference from the people he pictures, to realising the fragility of the boundary between them, the precarity of what seems like stability in one’s life. As though everything could change in the blink of an eye, the click of a shutter. But even better is Hayward’s consideration of the process, the philosophy of the interaction. How we choose the frame, what to include, literally where to look, ideas of place and space, nostalgia, entropy, story-telling. He invokes a Tarkovskian sense of how we know, feel sympathy with, or encounter others and ourselves.

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Casey Hayward, ‘Board-up’, and ‘Burnout #3’, from the series Vague Space, 2019
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Finally, Norman McBeath looked at the photograph as both archive and process. The first project he showed us was The Boxroom Series: images of a collection of counterpoised objects that constitute his personal history. In this series the materiality of the photo is downplayed, with attention focussing on the items pictured, ranged there in pigeon-holes, their thing-ness.

He then showed The Darkroom Series, the obverse or negative perhaps, in that it is about the process and the mysteries of analogue photo-making itself, documenting the equipment and materials in his darkroom as it was disassembled for his move to digital. Everything there, which has been the material and the occupation of his waking and working hours, packed away and reduced to traces. Anything that’s left is boxed up, wheeled away to the storage unit.

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Norman McBeath, ‘Storage Units’, from The Boxroom Series, 2012

A fitting place to end. McBeath’s final image, the storage unit, is literally a metal box, in which his unwanted goods are stored, for a monthly fee. A rented container space (one among many) in which to keep old trays and tools. But there are more meanings. How many gigabytes of memory does your phone hold, what’s the unit of storage? Or the photograph, printed on the special paper, the pixels that glitter in the dark—that’s a storage unit. As is the person, the community and the mind: all units for storing photography, memory, all these moments.

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Melissa McCarthy’s next book, Photo, Phyto, Proto, Nitro will be published in November 2023 by Sagging Meniscus Press. More on her work at sharksillustrated.org

Photography and Memory, Edinburgh, 2-3 February 2023, Edinburgh Napier University