Memories are Made of This

In memory, by Kevin Dooley, Creative Commons: Attribution 2.0.

For all that’s been said about the form and content of photographic images, few of us are aware of how the ways we actually see, process, and remember photos helps to explain their power over us. Say what you will about the skills or “vision” of gifted picture-makers, but early on in the process of working on click! photography changes everything, I began to wonder if there weren’t some physiological and neurological reasons that could more objectively explain why photographs evoke such immediate and powerful responses from us. So, I decided to try to seek out researchers who might be able to shed some light on what happens when we look at an image. How we, literally, perceive, access and remember the information in the photographic images that we see.

Polaroid Memories, by Tetsumo, Creative Commons: Attribution 2.0.

Perhaps naively, I called a “brain institute” at a local university, explained what I was up to, and inquired if there was someone around who might help me test out my vague ideas about photography and perception. To my surprise, the person who answered the phone said, “Wait, here’s a scientist,” and passed the receiver over to someone who, from the sound of things, happened to be walking by when my call came in. I explained what we, at the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, were up to, and posed the first question that popped into my mind: “Is there a difference between what we see when we look at a photograph of something, as opposed to looking directly at the thing, itself?” The response I got—one I’ve heard a number of times, as we reached out to potential contributors for click!, who we invited them to think about photographic images from new perspectives—was, “Nobody’s every asked me that question before.”

Realizing that what I was asking was probably too broad and philosophically fraught, I spent some time coming up with more specific queries before I started the next round of cold calls to   more targeted researchers in the field. Luckily, one of the first people I spoke with was Jeremy Wolfe—director of the Visual Attention Lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and a professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard University—who immediately got what I was after and generously explained some aspects of the work he and some of his colleagues were up to. For click!, Wolfe has written a story that describes how quickly and emphatically photographic images imprint themselves as, and in memory. The experiment he presents to illustrate the point is as startling as it is simple. See for yourself. Click here…

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