What Meaning Does a Photograph Have?

My Father Being His Usual Goofball Self, Atlanta, Georgia, 1971

From “I Am A Strange Loop” by Douglas Hofstadter

One gloomy day in early 1991, a couple of months after my father died, I was standing in the kitchen of my parent’s house, and my mother, looking at a sweet and touching photograph of my father taken perhaps fifteen years earlier, said to me, with a note of despair, “What meaning does a photograph have? None at all. It’s just a flat piece of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It’s useless.” The bleakness of my mother’s grief-drenched remake set my head spinning because I knew instinctively that I disagreed with her, but I did not quite know how to express to her the way I felt the photograph should be considered.

After a few minutes of emotional pondering – soul searching, quite literally – I hit upon an analogy that I felt could convey to my mother my point of view, and which I hoped might lend her at least a tiny degree of consolation. What I said to her was along the following lines:

“In the living room we have a book of Chopin etudes for piano. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photograph of Dad – and yet, think of the powerful effect that they have had on people all over the world for 150 years now. Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning. Those pianists have in turn conveyed to many millions the profound emotions that churned in Chopin’s heart, thus affording us all some partial access to Chopin’s interiority – to the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul, of Chopin. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards – scattered remnants of the shattered soul of Chopin.

In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his gentleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again in the medium of brains other than his own. Like the score of a Chopin etude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed, and it is something we should cherish as long as we live.”

9 thoughts on “What Meaning Does a Photograph Have?

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      My mother knows my dad was a goofball. We still laugh about – and at – him whenever we get together. And that picture totally encapsilates his goofiness.

      Reply
  1. Finny

    Thank you for this essay. As always on this page of Leicaphilia: a great, thought-provoking text that will certainly keep me thinking for the next few days.
    And: yes, that’s exactly what makes the difference between a good, an emotional and just somehow technically perfect picture. And that’s exactly the reason why it can be great in some situations to shoot a super sharp, technically perfect nature photo with a 46MP camera, but why the quality of a picture that triggers emotions and maybe even stirs up our minds doesn’t matter at all.
    The fact that the mother can’t get anything out of the picture may also be due to the fact that she keeps her own, different picture of her husband deep inside. Ultimately, everyone carries their own pictures of their loved ones around with them. All the more beautiful, if the photo taken then also fits to the own picture in his soul.

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  2. Rob Campbell

    That’s a good analogy.

    The most precious thing I have at home is a snap of my wife that I made for her International Driving Permit when she was about forty years of age. It lives tucked into the side of the frame of a random shot of our two kids that I exposed on the end of a roll of flm for a pro shoot for something or another. My wife, had she survived, would now be about eighty. She didn’t make seventy. I will always remember her as in that head shot for the driving permit. That picture is stronger than the memory of the way she looked earlier or later in life, and exactly as I would have wanted to remember her if all I was going to have was memory. I don’t even have the negative.

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Hofstadter would say that that photograph of your wife activates inside your brain some of the most central representations of her that survive in you, the same neuronal circuits her ‘actual’ presence did. That’s pretty profound, really. Your experience of her via your photograph and your experience of her alive with you are, in a very real sense, the same experience.

      Reply
      1. Rob Campbell

        Yes indeed, and a worry that sometimes comes into my mind is a question: without a photograph, what would be the validity of the mental image by which one remembers a person; could it be ever be accurate or would it turn into an idealised version, a mentally Photoshopped representation of reality?

        An example of this concerns my maternal grandmother: I must have been around nineteen or so when she died, and I can only get a clear mental image of her by referring to another mental image: a contact print of a Rolleiflex TLR portrait that someone made of her about ten years before she died. I do not have that photograph but believe myself to remember it well, of itself a possible trap or delusion. I cannot remember her as ever younger or older than in that contact print. Rather than aide-memoire, is a photograph perhaps a limitation to memory by trying to tie it down to a moment?

        Does an undoctored photograph provide the only convincing proof that someone existed, and also of how they really looked in one instance from a particular physical distance and from a given angle, the rest of undocumented memory being nothing but a vague, largely inaccurate trace of a retrospective sentimentality or imagination?

        We take so much of our past for granted without really knowing how accurate the information upon which we base our suppositions. Perhaps we come to believe in our own myths.

        Reply
        1. Lee Rust

          Aesthetics aside, the undeniable and durable physicality of original camera images on emulsion is the main reason I still use film. Even after decades or lifetimes have passed, they’re a reliably objective starting point from which memory, interpretation or fantasy can take flight. Traditional prints or copies may be a few steps removed from that authenticity, but at least we can hold them in our hands and look at them directly.

          Unprinted electronic images, for all their inherent advantages, have no such solid link to objective reality and are completely incomprehensible to us without an interpretive device to organize their numeric datasets into visibility. In addition, that device is likely capable of recalculating picture code into an infinite number of derivations, distortions and transformations that can have very little subjective relevance to the original sensor file.

          In the early years of the last decade, the future of chemical photography seemed so doubtful that I actually learned how to coat 4×5 glass camera plates and make AZO-style printing paper… just in case… but the market for photo film subsequently recovered a bit. Now that things are starting to get shaky again due to COVID-19, I might have to resort to my emergency photo processes after all.

          Reply
  3. Jinw

    Tim,

    This might be the most accurate writing for the indelible proof that analogue photography will live on, better than Barthe and Sontag did (believe me I’ve read them both). I wonder if I can translate this essay to Chinese and repost it on my WeChat account?

    Stay safe and keep writing.

    Best regards,
    Jinw

    Reply

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