The Transportive Magic of Physical Objects

“Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy.” — Susan Sontag

In today’s digital world, images are more a part of our story than ever before. We are able to capture any moment for free, instantly, through a device that a billion people carry around in their pockets. While we still feel connected to our own images or images of our loved ones on a screen, pictures of strangers may seem irrelevant, detached and impersonal.

However, similar pictures of strangers from the past seem to hold a sense of mystery and intrigue — we want to know who these people were, what happened to them, and perhaps most intriguingly why they let go of this memory that was lovingly captured so long ago. These ‘leftover’ pieces of human experience echo with history, and, in the words of Patrick Pound, a Melbourne-based collector/artist, it seems that “if only we could collect all the pieces we might solve [that] puzzle”.

A factor that might play into this is that each image taken at a time before smartphones and digital cameras came at a cost. It cost actual, real money to purchase a roll of film and take your photo, and therefore there was more thought put into every click of the shutter. It also cost money and time to take that roll of film to a developer or process it in your own darkroom before you could even see the result. The immediacy and disposability of current photography didn’t exist, and as such, images created in this time seem to hold more importance.

All we have and can ever have is a partial record of past events. We only know the traces that the past has left in the present, through recorded media. In this period, it means that we only know the special moments of the past, the moments that people thought were important enough to preserve for the future by spending their precious time and money. We can romanticise the past because none of the day to day issues of everyday life are part of the record, and therefore we think it was a simpler time. There is a gap “between the records and what they are meant to be records of” (Jennan Ismael).

We have come to know this feeling as ‘nostalgia’, and it’s a curious phenomenon we don’t quite understand. We know that it’s not necessarily connected with memory, because we can feel nostalgia for something we have never experienced ourselves. Take, for example, fashion. Dressing like we’re from the 1920s envokes a romantic sense of glamour and joy — something that we never actually experienced in this time period, but that we have picked up from the records from this time.

When we experience a nostalgic trigger, we may suddenly long for a time that is out of our reach, a time that exists far in the past or never existed at all. These triggers exist in smells and tastes, intangible and uncapturable. It’s harder to intentionally transport them accurately across time.

Images have a different quality. They must be recorded to exist, and thus, our memories take on an intentional physical form. Whether those memories are our own or part of humanity’s collected memory, a lot of what we desire about the past is transmitted to us through image (or sound, but that’s a whole new essay). And even amongst images, the media that it is recorded in amplifies this feeling. For a lot of people experiencing today’s proliferation of photography, analogue media is associated with either youth or a time before they were born. Records on film, tape or even written by hand are artifacts that we simply don’t come across every day anymore. These objects offer a more “collective memory” of before-today, supplementing the rigid history found in traditional archives and making the past more ‘human’.

Personally, the connection I feel with many memories is lost when I see them through a screen. When I touch a photograph with my own two hands, and see the faces smiling out at me — whether I know them or not — it seems so much more real, and much closer to my own experience. The same thing happens with film — seeing old film footage, recorded on a real tape, seems significantly more desirable than the videos captured on phones today. The level of nostalgia is much higher when there is a physical object in front of me, not an image presented to me through a tool.

So my question remains. Are the things captured on film, or in print, better or more valuable than their digital counterparts?

The answer — probably not. People have been doing the same things forever — making connections with each other, laughing and crying and loving. They’ve been watching people play music, making art, and writing down their emotions since the beginning of time. But the idea of someone doing this in the 1920s, or the 1950s, or even the 1990s seems so much more romantic and desirable than the records I am making in 2017. As Daniel Palmer writes, we are attracted to the “historical residue, signs of previous use, and relative fixity compared to the ever present and malleable digital flow”. These objects seem permanent, whereas our memories created on digital devices could be gone any second into the digital ether. We are so attracted to found objects because of the growing anxiety attached to photography’s digital recording — and this extends to our memories themselves. They’re not cherished, they’re not carefully stored, there’s no intentional, obvious love put into their continued existence. Hence, they don’t carry with them the same stories and emotions as their physical counterparts.

The scans of images included in this article are objects I have felt a strong connection to, mostly due to their physical aspects. They are photographic slides that called to me from a shoebox in the back of a cupboard in an antique store. Other photographs I found in old tatty boxes, unloved and ready to be thrown out if I hadn’t picked them up. While I also found their content intriguing, the physicality of these objects is what I am drawn to. Photographs in the past were reserved for special moments, rare times that people thought were worth remembering. I can’t seem to leave this feeling to be destined for the rubbish bin.

Today, every moment is captured, just because it can be. The number of authors and photographers in the world has grown exponentially, and today, anyone can record their every waking moment if they chose to. There is never a time where a camera is not rolling or taking pictures. And while this has it’s merits, it has also eliminated the connection that we used to have with the physical image. We no longer keep photo albums on our coffee tables and in our cupboards.

Therefore, it can’t just be the experiences of past times that we miss. We’re still having the same human experience, but it is not recorded in a way that makes moments special. Older media has this special quality that I believe can never be replaced by the screen, because they are not only images, they are objects and artifacts of our human experience.

Further Reading

1. Pound, Patrick. Documentary Intersect. Edited by Christina Barton. Victoria University of Wellington: Adam Art Gallery, 2016.
2. Palmer, Daniel. “Once More With Feeling.” In Photographer Unknown, curated by Kyla McFarlane, 12–15. Melbourne: Monash University Museum of Art, 2009.
3. Delany, Max. “Foreword.” In Photographer Unknown, curated by Kyla McFarlane, 2. Melbourne: Monash University Museum of Art, 2009.
4. Ismael, Jenann. “Rememberances, Mementos, and Time-Capsules.” In Time, Reality & Experience, edited by Craig Callender, 317–28. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
5. McFarlane, Kyla. “Photographer Unknown.” In Photographer Unknown, curated by Kyla McFarlane, 4–9. Melbourne: Monash University Museum of Art, 2009.
6. Helfand, Jessica. “The Shock Of The Old: Rethinking Nostalgia.” Design Observer. Accessed September 1, 2016.
7. Howe, Maija. “Permission to Narrate.” In Photographer Unknown, curated by Kyla McFarlane, 10–11. Melbourne: Monash University Museum of Art, 2009.
8. Mastin, Luke. “Memory Processes.” The Human Memory. Accessed September 1, 2016.
9. Morris, Errol. Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.

This article was originally written in 2016, but has been edited and parts re-written for the purposes of this format. All images technically belong to their original photographers but now live in my care.

I’d love to continue this discussion — please join me in the comments below.