Photography and Memory

The almanac told me that on August 19, 1829, French painter and physicist Louis Daguerre presented his photographic process to the French Academy of Sciences. He had not taken the first photograph. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce did that a few years before, but the quality of those earliest ones was quite poor. It took an 8-hour exposure to capture an image.

Daguerre worked with Niépce to improve the process. The newer method only needed a copper plate coated with silver iodide to be exposed to light in the camera for 20 to 30 minutes. It was then fumed with mercury vapor to bring out the image and then fixed with a salt solution to make it permanent. Daguerre called the finished product a “daguerreotype.”

Daguerre’s photo of Boulevard du Temple, Paris

In Daguerre’s image of Boulevard du Temple in Paris from 1839, you don’t see any traffic or pedestrians because the long exposure (10-30 minutes) didn’t capture moving things. However, if you look closely, there is a man getting his shoes polished (bottom left corner) and the pair must have been there long enough to be captured on the photo plate. There might be third person to the right of the two men sitting on a bench and reading a paper. The three are praobly the first people ever captured in a photo.

It was a dangerous process and photographers became ill or died from mercury poisoning. And the daguerreotype was best suited for still objects. Still, people wanted their portraits even if it meant sitting in bright sunlight as perfectly still as possible for a half hour, and so early daguerreotype portraits have some stern-looking faces.

memory and now video Simply put, a photo is information about past light that we can perceive in present time. Similarly, memories are the affects of our past experiences on our present self. A picture can trigger a buried memory and recall a precise moment in time much more rapidly than words. But why exactly? Neuroscientists have known for many years that humans have an extraordinary ability to encode pictures Photographs can serve as memory storage and, when viewed, can activate memory recall. Imagery an effective way to enhance memory, reduce false memories, study finds. Summary: Using imagery is an effective way to improve memory and decrease certain types of false memories, according to researchers

An NPR story last year counterintuitively suggested that “To Remember The Moment, Try Taking Fewer Photos.” The process of “offloading” our memory using photos is aptly called the photo-taking impairment effect. That is when we use technology to remember something, you are outsourcing their memory. Unconsciously, if we knows that a camera is preserving a moment, you don’t pay the same kind of full attention to it that would create a strong memory.

The technology doesn’t need to be “high tech” for thisind of effect. Write down a phone number or list of things to get at a store and you are offloading memory. But research shows that a picture can trigger a buried memory or recall a precise moment in time much more rapidly than words.

So, then photos are bad for our mental health. According to some research, photography is a highly cognitive activity and participants in a study who engaged in digital photography showed benefits to their episodic memory and reasoning skills.

We know that memories are not exact digital copies of the events we witnessed. Digital photos are and video is an expanded version of that. Every time we recall a memory, we may accidentally alter it or diminish its accuracy.

In 2015, psychology researchers published a paper titled “The Brain in Your Pocket” that found that people are using computers as a cognitive crutch. We take photos, leave ousrselves notes, ask it to find answers on the Internet for us. I’ll admit that I really know very few phone numbers of my contacts because the phone does it for me. I ask Siri or Alexa if it will rain today, who directed Casablanca (Michael Curtiz) or what is the current price of a Bitcoin (about $21,000). One of those questions is about memory; two are about the future. All three shape cognitive functions, such as attention, memory, processing speed, reasoning, planning, problem solving, and multitasking.

Should we fear photography? An early professional daguerreotype photographer said concerning people’s reaction to their portraits that they were afraid at first to look at the photos. They were embarrassed by the clarity of detail in a way that looking in a mirror didn’t cause the same reaction.

The painters that became known as the Impressionists were at least partly reacting to photography. Why try to capture every detail realisticlly on canvas when a camera could do a far superior reproduction? They needed to do something the camera could not do. There are also things about memories that a camera can not record. Those things may be the most important elements of memories.

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Memories, Photographs, and the Human Brain

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Ken

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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