A Poison to Memory

Art historian and critic James Elkins believes photographs are "poison to memory, because they remain strong while memories weaken." I consider this as I review several photographs made last weekend when family and friends gathered for a goodbye brunch for my nephew after his brief visit to the Bay Area. The foggy, stormy, blustery day belied the calm light we all felt in good company and the gratitude we held for my nephew's survival of brain cancer.

I find Elkins' idea compelling; I marvel at his metaphor. In what ways might a photograph act as a poison, a substance that when absorbed creates a disturbance in an organism or, when too powerful, leads to death? Why implicate the photograph? Don't all moments following a given moment essentially poison or kill the moment before? Isn't every moment dying to the next eternally and always?

Yes, but would we be so aware of this if not for the photograph? It reminds us of one particular moment, a moment which otherwise would have ceded effortlessly to the next, a moment we would not likely even have distinguished as a "moment," that is, as a puncture of time. Worse, the moment, out of flow of its original time and now an image -- something Paul Strand calls an "organism" with a life of its own -- begins to work upon us; each time we look at it we absorb something new, we see something that wasn't part of our original experience but which was nevertheless there all along.

You see where this is going. Whatever we all experienced at that moment on the beach -- the slap of frigid air on the back of our necks, the sound of Molly's laugh above the crash of the waves, the sudden downpour as we dashed across the street, the firm crush of my nephew's hug -- is no where in these photographs and the photographs themselves contain a host of things none of us experienced at the time even though we were there.

Poisonous though they may be, I nevertheless find them restorative. I guess that is the way it is with many things that ride that fine line between poison, death, and cure, say, for instance, chemotherapy.