In this essay, I discuss the relationship between photography, photographic technology, and memory in the final decades of the nineteenth century. I do so first in relation to the desire to possess actual material memories of the deceased, and then move to consider the way in which the photograph was often used as a metaphor for the processes of memory. I argue that apart from exceptional cases, this was, in fact, a false analogy. Taking Amy Levy’s 1888 novel The Romance of a Shop as a text through which to examine both death-bed photography and the workings of memory, I explore the idea of the memory flashing back, suddenly, and link this to the developments that took place in flash photography at the time that Levy was researching her photographically-themed novel. The metaphor of the flash – and the flash-back – has proved of more lasting value in the semantic linking of photography and memory, I argue, than other attempts to link the materiality of the photographic process to the workings of the brain.
In Amy Levy’s 1888 novel, The Romance of a Shop, four sisters establish a commercial photography business in London, seeking to stay independent after their father’s death. The doorbell rings late one night in their Baker Street studio. Gertrude, the most courageous, practical, and pragmatic of the girls, goes to investigate, and “re-appeared with a grave face”:
They all questioned her, with lips and eyes.
‘Some one has been here about work,’ she said, slowly; ‘but it’s rather a dismal sort of job. It is to photograph a dead person.’
‘Gerty, what do you mean?’
‘Oh, I believe it is quite usual. A lady—Lady Watergate—died to-day, and her husband wishes the body to be photographed to-morrow morning’.
The circumstances generate a discussion about the kind of photographic work that it is and is not considered proper for women to undertake. The consensus of opinion is that this is an unpleasantly morbid commission, but Gertrude nonetheless goes round to Lord Watergate’s grand but gloomy house overlooking Regent’s Park the next morning. After all, as she puts it, “‘we cannot afford to refuse work’” (90). The fact that the corpse of this lady, with her shining masses of golden hair, “haggard with sickness, pale with the last strange pallor, but beautiful withal, exquisitely, astonishingly beautiful,” was lying “well within the light from the windows” makes her task easier than it might otherwise have been (92). Photographic magazines on both sides of the Atlantic in the nineteenth century contain detailed instructions about how, respectfully, to direct light from windows onto the deceased’s face, using such techniques as white reflecting screens and mirrors. But Gertrude did not need to manipulate the natural light in any way to achieve the memento that had been commissioned: although the rest of Lord Watergate’s house was darkened by blinds, its gloomy corners illuminated only by gas-globes supported by pseudo-classical figures, the large room in which the dead woman lay had had its blinds raised to such a degree that the photographer is “dazzled” by natural light on her entrance (92).
The fact that the end result “represented a woman lying dead or asleep, with her hair spread out on the pillow” (93) placed Gertrude’s images within a long tradition of representing the deceased in a way that appeared to offer material evidence to substantiate the consolatory thought that death is a peaceful process, and that the beloved relative lies at rest. This was a topic that was treated in painting—George Lambdin’s “The Last Sleep” (1859), showing a beautiful, ethereal woman lying in a darkened chamber is a notable mid-century example—and in the sentimental genre photograph. For example, Roger Fenton’s “Study of mother and daughter mourning over deceased child” (1856-7) depicts three women—one possibly a nurse maid—grouped around a small wicker crib, the daughter turned away in deep grief and burying her head in the lap of the older woman. There is just enough ambiguity in the ages of these women for one to be uncertain who, exactly, gave birth to the dead child: what is unmistakable, though, is Fenton’s ability to stage grief within a studio setting that gains extra pathos from drab and skimpy furnishings, that are, in turn, aesthetically deployed so that light reflects back off the baby’s white bed clothing, the cloth that is draped over a meager dresser, and a small mirror.
But from Gertrude’s perspective, something was not quite right, not quite sufficient, with her death-bed photographs. Although the prints show her to have “‘succeeded better than I expected’”—perhaps because of her lack of experience at carrying out such a task—she notes regretfully that “‘the light was not all that could be wished’” (93). It is not at all clear whether this tone of regret in Gertrude’s voice emanates from an aesthetic disappointment that she has failed to do visual justice to her impression of the “exquisitely, astonishingly beautiful” late Lady Watergate (92)—whether she articulates, to put it in more general terms, a lament at the slippage between the affect of a scene itself and its captured simulacrum: a sense of indefinable loss that was already starting to be voiced in literature reflecting on photography—or whether something else is at stake. After all, she did, at the time, feel that something about the atmosphere meant that her “faculties [were] stimulated to curious accuracy” (93): the problem does not exactly seem to be a technical one. Her regret may, it is hinted, come from the fact that she has failed to do justice to the desire of the living, rather than to the appearance of the dead. Because despite the striking nature of the corpse, and the novelty of the commission, the material images that Gertrude took with her camera that day are not what lodged most vividly in her memory. For in the room with the dead body was the woman’s widower, Lord Watergate, who had loved his dead wife passionately, been broken-hearted when she betrayed him, and had taken her back when she was dying of consumption, forgiving everything. As Gertrude gathers up her apparatus to leave,
For one brief, but vivid moment, her eyes encountered the glance of two miserable grey eyes, looking out with a sort of dazed wonder from a pale and sunken face. The broad forehead, projecting over the eyes; the fine, but rough-hewn features; the brown hair and beard; the tall, stooping, sinewy figure: these together formed a picture which imprinted itself as by a flash on Gertrude’s overwrought consciousness, and was destined not to fade for many days to come.93
As Geoffrey Batchen and others have shown, there was a close relationship between photography and the material manifestations of mourning and memory in the nineteenth century, whether one considers death-bed photographs themselves, or their commemoration in mourning jewelry, in lockets and bracelets and rings, or the display of images of the deceased in portraits of the living. Here, in this last instance, the representation of memory becomes multi-layered. As Batchen writes, when we are invited to look at a family or individual who are, themselves, looking at another photographic image, this may well have been a way for them “to acknowledge their sustenance of memory: someone may be gone but is certainly not forgotten.” The living want, in other words, “to be remembered as remembering” (10). Both the death-bed photograph itself, and the presence of a photograph within a family group or in the hands of a single (and by associative presumption, bereaved) figure offer a poignant and pointed illustration of Christian Metz’s characterization of the photograph as fetish, as signifying both loss and protection against loss. He builds on Philippe Dubois’s characterization of photography as a “thanatography” in his L’acte photographique (1983), draws attention to the fact that it shares immobility and stillness with death itself, and offers the chilling coda that even a photograph of the now-dead when alive, “by virtue of the objective suggestions of its signifier (stillness…)[,] maintains the memory of the dead as being dead” (Metz 84).
But my concern in this article is not with photographs themselves and their capacity to prompt memory, to keep memory alive, or the way in which they become—as Roland Barthes noted, in Camera Lucida, is so frequently the case—a substitute for memory itself. Nor am I dealing with the memorializing use of photographs to record vanishing buildings and views—rather than people—and their incorporation, as Helen Groth has demonstrated, into a new literary culture of nostalgia and belatedness. Rather, I want to take the phrase “photographic memory” and see how it, and the language in which memory was described and discussed in the mid and late nineteenth century, is related to the popular understanding of the potential, and the limitations, of the material attributes of the medium of photography. This is an exploration, in other words, of how—and how far—material innovation impacts on the formulation of human perception. And, I will suggest, Levy’s prose in The Romance of a Shop points to the potential importance of a new form of photographic technology to the language of memory.
The OED misleadingly claims that the first use of “photographic memory” dates from Nathaniel Parker Willis’s 1850 use of the phrase in Life, Here and There: Sketches of Society and Adventure at Far-Apart Times and Places. In fact, his question, “Why should not the Fairfaxes...give us, from their family records, the many photographic memories they must contain of Washington?” is to be found in volume form in his final 1859 publication, The Convalescent (435). The context does not make it clear whether these are actual views of the city, like daguerreotypes made by John Plumbe Jr., or, more probably, as the word “many” might, at this period, indicate, whether the narrator is referring to detailed written accounts in letters or journals, or, less tangibly, a whole mental archive of precise recollections. But an indication of how “photographic memories” might be conceived of is given by the narrator’s recollection, in Life Here or There, of one particular location on the Chemung River, where the road parallels the water, and a spring gushes from the rock above, allowing a deep green patch of wild mint to flourish: it is “one of those exquisite spots which paint their own picture insensibly in the memory, even while you look on them—natural 'Daguerreotypes,' as it were; and you are surprised, years afterward, to find yourself remembering every leaf and stone, and the song of every bird that sung in the pine-trees overhead, while you were watching the curve of the spring leap” (341). Notably, photographic memories, at this young stage in the history of the medium, are seen as emanating from the quality of the object, not as a result of any activity on the part of the perceiver. Whether consciously or not, Willis’s language echoes that of Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot in their early writings, claiming—I quote the title of the paper that Fox Talbot read to the Royal Society in 1839—that photography is “the Process by which Natural Objects May be Made to Delineate Themselves Without Aid of the Artist’s Pencil.”
Even by the time Holmes—and Willis—were writing in 1859, however, the image was being turned round, and, as is well known, human memory itself was starting to be described as a photographic plate. Douwe Draaisma, in Metaphors of Memory (2000), provides an exceptionally rich account of the evolution of this metaphor in the latter half of the nineteenth century, placing it, in turn, within a long history of attempts to find analogues within the material world for the ways in which the mind records experience and perceptions. To take two of his examples: the American physiologist, chemist, and pioneer photographer John William Draper published his Human Physiology in 1856, with its theory that the human nervous system receives “relics or traces of impressions,” memory traces that Draper saw as even more indelibly inscribed than the “photographic drawing” that allows images that have fallen on an inorganic surface to be preserved—he went so far as to believe that a shadow never falls upon a wall without leaving its permanent trace there (Draper 269, qtd. in Draaisma 120). The German physician Adolf Kussmaul, in the early 1880s, likewise wrote of how sensory impressions are like “the invisible images, which the sun makes on a prepared silver surface” (Kussmaul 35, qtd. in Draaisma 122). In 1897, the American Journal of Photography published an article by John Bartlett asking “Has the Brain a Photographic Function,” which claims that visual images are “impressed” on the brain and then reactivated in a way that parallels the methods of photography.
Jennifer Green-Lewis has written eloquently about the impact of photography on the nineteenth century, arguing very persuasively for its symbiotic connection to what she terms “a crisis of memory, a heightened fear of forgetting in the Victorian period, stimulated…by the emergence onto the plate of the mind of too many things to remember” (564). She attributes this in part to the unprecedented expansion of knowledge, and to the importance of the detail, the particular, when it came to constituting this knowledge—whether one thinks in terms of the minutiae of natural science, or the proliferation of circumstantial detail put into circulation by print culture. And she links this fear of forgetting, too, to the heightened consciousness of the vastness of time and space that contemporary paths in scientific and evolutionary theory had created, promoting consciousness not just of an individual’s smallness within historical time, but the existence of what Pierre Nora has termed the “irretrievable past” (Nora 1, qtd. in Green-Lewis 563). All of this, Green-Lewis maintains, created anxiety about the capacity of the human mind to remember all these specifics, and concomitant admiration for the power of the daguerreotype (notable for its capacity to record minute detail) and photograph to capture and retain images of the material world. Photographs, she explains, acted both as substitutes and as prompts for human memory, helping one set up “a kind of resistance to the oblivion that surrounds life and into which the better part of it disappears. To remember is to do one’s duty in affirming the significance of one’s fellow human beings and the history they have made” (569).
Within such a culture, it is hardly surprising that the photograph should furnish the metaphoric means of signifying phenomenal memory. The OED credits the introduction of the phrase to a piece in the Dunkirk, NY Saturday Evening Observer of June 28, 1884 (“One of his artistic gifts, which has been trained to a remarkable degree, is his photographic memory”), but the idea was certainly already in circulation. The British physiologist Henry Maudsley, for example, in his 1876 revised version of the Physiology of Mind, writes of a man with a remarkable talent who could read a text and then repeat it, backwards, thus demonstrating a remarkable form of memory “in which the person seems to read a photographic copy of former impressions with his mind’s eye” (517). This is the way in which the phrase has passed into common and journalistic use.
But of course, the memory doesn’t normally work like a daguerreotype, nor—except for particular uses—would we particularly want it to. “If someone could retain in his memory everything he had experienced,” writes Milan Kundera in Ignorance, “if he could at any time call up any fragment of his past, he would be nothing like human beings: neither his love nor his friendship would resemble ours” (121). People who possess what is now termed “eidetic memory”—the power to recollect numbers or words or images with extraordinary exactitude—may be considered as burdened as they are gifted, as Borges memorably dramatized in his fantastical 1944 short story “Funes, His Memory.” Indeed, Maudsley’s prime examples of people with “photographic memories”—one who was an “imbecile in the Earlswood asylum for idiots” who could accurately repeat a page of a book that he had read a year earlier, without understanding a word of it, and an “epileptic youth, morally imbecile,” who would repeat a leading article in a newspaper having read it once—are distinguished by the fact that they lack comprehension of the details that they so meticulously regurgitate. He speculates, in fact, that there is a cognitive reason for this: it may well be that the mind to which this extraordinary facility belongs
is prevented by the very excellence of its power of apprehending and recalling separate facts from rising to that discernment of their higher relations which is involved in reasoning and judgment, and so stays in a function which should be the foundation of its further development; or that, being by some natural defect prevented from rising to the higher sphere of comprehension of relations, it applies all its energies to the apprehension of details.518
Maudsley himself had already brought home the tedium of such a mode of recall or recounting when he writes about the inferior scientist, one who possesses inadequate ideation—that is, an insufficiency of the kind of inductive imagination that makes a good researcher. Such a person, rather than trying out hypotheses against material, will doggedly delineate “a tedious picture characterised by minute industry and overwrought detail, in which there is no due subordination of parts, no organic unity of idea—in which truly soul is wanting—and from which, therefore, no one can carry away a true idea of the whole: unpregnant of his subject, he had gone about to give a photographic copy or a minute delineation of what cannot be photographed” (295)—that is, the impression of the whole that is made through the workings of all the senses, and not just the eye alone.
Francis Galton, in the late 1870s, tacitly acknowledged the inadequacies of the metaphor when he tried to use the principle of the compound photograph to suggest the way in which the memory in fact overlays and blurs the images it contains. “Our general impressions,” Galton told the Royal Institution on April 25, 1879, in an attempt to show that some stretching of the usual metaphor of the mind as a photographic plate was necessary if it was to be of any use in conveying the workings of memory, “are founded upon blended memories” (230). Illustrating his point by projecting three separate portraits by means of three separate magic lanterns upon the same screen, then by showing both actual composite photographs, and a camera with six converging lenses and an attached screen on which six separate pictures may be adjusted and brilliantly illuminated by means of artificial light, he also made a comparison between the brain’s palimpsestic methods of recording impressions and the action of a hypothetical plate prepared with some specially prepared sensitive material:
Whenever any group of brain elements has been excited by a sense impression, it becomes, so to speak, tender, and liable to be easily thrown again into a similar state of excitement. If a new cause of excitement differs from the original one, a memory is the result. Whenever a single cause throws different groups of brain elements simultaneously into excitement, the result must be a blended memory.230
Alternatively, rather than a “blended memory,” resulting in the production of a composite photograph in which individual distinguishing marks are, as it were, averaged out, the memory’s receptive surface can be figured as something much more akin to the idea of the mind as a palimpsest that Thomas De Quincey put forward in 1845, in which—in an image remarkably evocative of the new practice of photography—“everlasting ideas, images and feelings, have fallen upon your brain softly as light,” with each seeming to bury that which precedes it, without that initial impression in fact having been extinguished (144). Such a figuration of the photographic operations of memory is one that feeds into the way that Proust (who, via Baudelaire, was strongly influenced by De Quincey’s concept) describes the difference between the real and the imagined Albertine: “Since memory begins at once to record photographs independent of one another,” he writes, since it
eliminates every link, any kind of sequence between the scenes portrayed in the collections which it exposes to our view, the most recent does not necessarily destroy or cancel those that came before. Confronted with the commonplace and touching Albertine to whom I had spoken that afternoon, I still saw the other mysterious Albertine outlined against the sea…621-22
Proust’s account, superimposing experience upon recollection and idealized projection, brings home the way in which the idea of the memory as a photographic device functions best when it is used in a suggestive fashion, when it depends upon an injection of subjectivity, rather than when its employer is attempting to find a metaphor that will explain physiological process. Clare Dillon has termed De Quincey’s palimpsest a “psychological fantasy,” and notes that it thus “shares in the undecidable fate of all fantasies. It is somehow real and not real, both internal and external to the mind. It has a psychical reality that, however, does not preclude its material reality” (252). By the same token, the photographic plate still receives an impression of the light rays that have fallen on some person or object at a given moment, just as the individual’s memory holds sensory impressions that—as is now thought—stay there through the synaptic connections that take place in the brain between one neuron and another.
Yet late nineteenth-century psychologists started to object to the way in which the formulation of “photographic memory” took no account of the way in which memories lodge themselves in the unconscious, nor of the mobile nature of many of these recollections (the advent of film, of course, was to furnish a whole new set of potential metaphors). Siegfried Kracauer, heir to these objectors, came up in 1927 with a couple of paragraphs that succinctly destabilize the comparison between memory and photography. Memory’s records are full of gaps, he wrote: “it skips years or stretches temporal distance” (50). Compared with a photograph, it collects and arranges details in an arbitrary fashion. More allusively, as though he is using language to mimic the affect of memory itself rather than the qualities of a photograph, he sees memories as being “opaque, like frosted glass which scarcely a ray of light can penetrate,” embedded in “the uncontrolled life of the drives”: what is recollected is that which one’s consciousness recognizes as “true.” But at least such memories are potentially recoverable: in the surface existence of a photograph, “a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow” (51).
This helps bring home yet further the fact that those writers who attempted to explain memory through the metaphor of the photograph fell firmly into the camp of those who sought to understand it primarily through physiological terms, rather than concentrating on the wayward, unpredictable, mutable features that were more readily explained through the developing theories of subjectivity and the unconscious. Frances Power Cobbe, in her 1866 piece entitled “The fallacies of memory,” drew a clear distinction between the two ways of looking at the faculty, pronouncing firmly that “Memory is neither an impression made, once for all, like an engraving on a tablet, nor yet safe for an hour from obliteration or modification, after being formed. Rather is memory a finger-mark traced on shifting sand, ever exposed to obliteration when left unrenewed; and if renewed, then modified, and made, not the same, but a fresh and different mark” (104). Her language echoes not the vocabulary of photography’s success at capturing a trace of the material world, but the long-standing trope used to express apprehension about any form of representation ever being able to capture the essence of anything and hold it still. It is a reworking of Edmund Spenser’s sixteenth-century lament at writing’s inability to stay human transience (“One day I wrote her name upon the strand,/But came the waves and washèd it away/…Vain man (said she) that dost in vain assay/A mortal thing so to immortalize” (645); a trope that Oscar Rejlander employed when recollecting his horrified dismay, early in his career as a photographer, that his early prints faded: “I felt,” he said, “as if I were only writing on sand,” and was tempted to give up (76).
Rejlander was one of the few nineteenth-century photographers to attempt photographing a memory. His composite print of 1859, Hard Times, seems to show an argument between a dejected, remorseful laborer, and the sick wife at whose bedside he now sits, although the shadowy nature tableau has allowed at least one commentator to read this as the man extending a blessing to his wife as she departs this life for heaven: simultaneous possibilities for analeptic and proleptic readings are both signaled through the blurred and obscured representation of a time that—whenever it is—is not the present of the photograph. The fact that Rejlander labeled the photograph a “spiritualistic” exercise might seem to look forward to the departure of the woman’s soul—on the other hand, it could signal that he is haunted by his past. The translucent form of the couple certainly has much in common with the representation of ghosts of the dead that became so popular later in the century (and were often achieved, themselves, through forms of combination printing): one reason why these photographs were so convincing, I suggest, is because the shadowy image of transparent individuals corresponded to a sense that it is somehow natural to present that which belongs to the memory as having a hazy existence.
But this is not how Gertrude, in The Romance of a Shop, remembers the death room scene that she photographed. Some six months later, she is puzzled when, photographing an artist’s work in a studio, she knows that she has previously encountered the tall, sunburned man who enters. The face that his appearance called to mind was, however, “pale, haggard, worn with watching and sorrow. Then, as by a flash, she saw it all again before her eyes; the dainty room flooded with October sunlight; the dead woman lying there with her golden hair spread on the pillow; the bearded, averted face, and stooping form of the figure that crouched by the window” (114). This mention of the “flash” is highly significant. In the first instance, it recalls the “picture which imprinted itself as by a flash on Gertrude’s overwrought consciousness” (93). Since the 1850s, photographers had been experimenting with substances that would allow them to take photographs on dull days, or of interiors without recourse to stand lamps, or of people, without requiring that they hold themselves uncomfortably still. In 1857, John Moule patented a pyrotechnic compound that he termed “photogen,” a mixture of nitre, sulphur, and antimony sulphide. Burning with a brilliant blue-white light, it was relatively cheap—around 2d an exposure—and was rapidly adopted by portrait studios in London. Even if the results were exaggerated in their contrasts, it had instant novelty value: it’s estimated that in the winter of 1860, some 30,000 portraits were taken by this means in London alone.
There is no textual evidence that suggests that Levy’s Lorimer sisters used flash: their glass studio would have provided the necessary light for their bread-and-butter portrait photography. But it is significant that in 1887, the year before the novel was published, the German pair of Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke mixed fine magnesium powder with potassium chlorate and antimony sulphide to produce blitzlichtpulver, the first widely used flashpowder. This substance, its effects, and the facility of its use was enthusiastically written up in the photographic press with which Levy certainly seems to have been familiar, in language that, like earlier writing about flash illumination, drew parallels between the science of photography and the sudden, awe-inspiring shock of illumination produced by natural lightning. It was, for that matter, readily appreciated as an explosive substance that would greatly aid the practice of post-mortem photography. In 1891, the American Journal of Photography, in a brief news item, noted that “According to the British Journal ofPhotography, flash light is now successfully used in photographing the dead. The artificial light overcoming the difficulties heretofore experienced in photographing a corpse” (350).
The vocabulary of flash is employed by Levy, too, in a scene that blends reminiscence, the workings of memory, and the shock of a sudden, illuminating realization. Towards the end of the novel, Gertrude’s wayward sister Phyllis lies in her coffin, dead of consumption (a death that implants itself in the memory through the olfactory rather than the visual senses, through the overpowering smell of tuberose from the dead girl’s lover that imposes itself on the delicate perfume of roses and violets left by family and friends). Then Gertrude realizes why Lord Watergate had taken such a concerned interest in her sister: “It was explained now, she thought, as the image of another dead face floated before her vision. That also was the face of a woman, beautiful and frail; of a woman who had sinned. She had never seen the resemblance before; it was clear enough now” (182). Memory of the departed has started to become visually fragile, an impression, rather than something vivid. But the linguistic pattern that was earlier established breaks out one more time, when, a month or so later, the widower—of course—proposes to Gertrude. Even though, the first time round, she refuses—or at least postpones—him (“‘too soon, too soon,’”), it is at this moment that “By a lightning flash her own heart stood revealed to her,” and she realizes that love has been slowly building and growing within her (190).
The language of flash is both the language of revelation and of recollection. In it, I suggest, rather than in any metaphoric appropriation of the photographic plate, lies the most interesting inheritance of the connections that were forged between photography and memory during the nineteenth century. “Photographic memory” has endured as a lay person’s term for “eidetic memory,” that power to recall, with extraordinary accuracy, strings of words or numbers, or the tiny details of an imaged scene. Yet even this popular usage could be given new life by its coupling with the language of the developing technology of illumination. In Fred White’s 1901 short story “The Black Narcissus,” for example, Inspector Darch, of Scotland Yard, is described as “a man with a gliding step and a moist grey eye, that took the whole room and the trim garden beyond and eke the novelist in like the flash of a camera, and held the picture on the mental gelatine for all time” (Russell 233).
The technology of flash photography—the very shock that it delivers—emphasizes suddenness, surprise, interruption. This, one might fairly say, characterizes an important type of memory: the unprepared-for irruption of the past into the present. The narrative concept of the flashback, first used, it would seem, in a 1916 Variety magazine review, has become standard usage to indicate a segment inserted into a film to take one back to a previous time; it has also, by extension, come to describe those moments, just like Gertrude’s, when one’s memories spring out at one with peculiar vividness. A film, of course, animates and gives temporality, through sequencing, to photograph after photograph, frame after frame. The intrusion of memories into the present was often signaled, in early film, by the use of slow fades in and out, or the use of blurred definition. But a snap recollection, an unbidden image or sequence from the past, an image that carries with it a highly emotional or vivid memory, a memory that arrives with the violent effect of a sudden light—such is the true flash-back: the predecessor of what Roger Brown and James Kulik were, in 1977, and under the influence of later developments in the technology of flash photography, to term the “flashbulb memory.”
Victorian commentators on memory and photography were quick to see, indeed, the unarguable metaphoric connection between the recording processes of the mind and the way in which certain prepared surfaces could be made to record, whether permanently or semi-permanently, the material surface of the world. But this was a comparison that soon ran up against the limitations and inadequacies of such an understanding of memory. Nonetheless, other developments in photographic technology—developments designed to throw light on that which was dark and obscure and otherwise very difficult to record—started to offer up a more specialized vocabulary: one that could be appropriated to suggest particular types of striking recollection. The techniques of flash photography, and the vocabulary in which human recollection is described, come together strikingly when attempting to describe the tendency of the human mind to flash back, whether deliberately or not, to the memories impressed within it.
Kate Flint is Professor of English at Rutgers University. She is author of The Woman Reader 1837-1914 (1993), The Victorians and the Visual Imagination (2000) and The Transatlantic Indian 1776-1930 (2009), and is currently working on a book provisionally entitled “Flash! Photography, Writing, and Surprising Illumination.”
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