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.

Memories, Photographs, and the Human Brain

Bid Time Return

Despite all the stories and films and my own best efforts, it doesn’t seem like we will be able to time travel in my lifetime. Readers of this blog know that time travel is a topic I write about rather often. I have come to the somewhat disappointing conclusion that there are only a few ways that I can travel back in time. (I haven’t figured out any travel to the future methods yet.)

One way is simply by using memories. They are, of course, somewhat inaccurate as each time we recall something from the past, we seem to alter it slightly. Still, it is the most common time travel tool.

In the 1975 science fiction novel Somewhere in Time by Richard Matheson and movie version (Somewhere in Time starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour), the protagonist, Richard, finds a method of time travel (found in J. B. Priestley‘s very odd book Man and Time about many theories of time) that involves performing self-hypnosis to convince his mind that he’s in the past.

Richard in the 1970s is dying. He decides he wants to spend his last days back in time. He is motivated by a picture of a woman on a hotel wall that he finds himself attracted to – although she was a famous stage actress who performed at the hotel in the 1890s. He stays in the historic hotel and buys an 1890s suit to wear to help reinforce his traveling back to that place and time. He surrounds himself with that time and place. It works.

Photographs and video are also commonly used for traveling back in time. I often wonder how my grandchildren’s memories will be different than mine simply because of the unbelievable amount of photo and video evidence of their lives that already exist. My sons grew up with me photographing them with film cameras. Film and processing and printing were expensive, so I was a bit limited pre-digital. I also took a lot of videos. Most of that was on a big VHS camcorder. Those tapes were converted to DVDs eventually and now I suppose I should convert them to digital files if I want them to survive. The black and white photos my parents took of me as a child still exist in their original format and don’t require conversions – though I have scanned a lot of them so they could enter the digital age. When I look through old photo albums, it is a kind of time traveling to the past.

A third time-traveling method came to mind recently when my wife and I went to France. We were walking through the little town of Pérouges. This medieval walled town is northeast of Lyon and has been kept very much intact over the centuries. As we walked the narrow paths through the own and when I climbed the watchtower on this small hill that overlooks the plain of the river Ain, I did feel myself back in time.

No, I didn’t see ghosts from centuries past. I touched objects that were ancient. I stood where people had stood 900 years ago. I didn’t time travel, but I did feel something.

Watchtower, Pérouges

According to the archaeological findings, humans have been present at Pérouges since the Chalcolithic Age (about –2500 to –1800). They don’t know when the fortress was built but its first written mention appears in the 12th century, so it is assumed to have been built in that period.

It still looks like a place from almost 1000 years ago. Films set in medieval times are sometimes filmed there, including Les trois mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers)(1961), The Bride (1985), and The Hour of the Pig (1993)

This past week the James Webb Space Telescope’s photos of deep space became another kind of time travel. It is showing us light that began a journey towards us at the birth of the universe.

The line that intrigues me most in the graphic above is this: “If you were in a Virgo Cluster galaxy today, and you had a telescope powerful enough to study the Earth, you would be able to see the prehistoric reptiles.” It’s theoretical and probably not possible, but you could see the dinosaurs. You could see the past. From place in deep space, with that powerful telescope, I could see my past.

Richard Matheson’s original title for Somewhere in Time was Bid Time Return. That comes from a line in William Shakespeare’s Richard II (Act III, Scene 2): “O call back yesterday, bid time return.” At the conclusion of the novel, after Richard has died, a doctor claims that the time-traveling experience occurred only in Richard’s mind. It was the desperate fantasy of a dying man. Richard’s brother is not completely convinced and publishes his brother’s journal of the experience which is the novel.

We are all traveling forward in time. You’re traveling as you read this sentence. Do you want to go back? Go much further forward? So far, I have not found any ways to travel forward in time. I’m still searching.

Cabins and Chapels

Following up on an earlier post about cabins…

Some years ago, I saw that The Royal Institute of British Architects had an exhibit “Le Corbusier – The Art of Architecture” which included a full-scale model of Le Corbusier’s Cabanon. That is a micro-cabin he built in Cap Martine on the French Riviera in 1952. He supposedly designed it in less than an hour with the goal of simplicity and minimal materials. It is a classic log cabin.

Though he also designed many incredible large-scale buildings and homes, Cabanon is small (16 square meters or about 172 square feet). Cabanon de vacances was the only building Corbusier built for himself.

Corbusier was proud that “not a square cm of space was wasted.”  The interior was a laboratory for his ideas of buildings as machines for living, and it was also a place to spend summers and paint. Summers on the Riviera are probably not exactly the “roughing it” that I associate with cabin life.

see for photos and more information

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (1887 – 1965) was known as Le Corbusier (“the crowlike one/”) He was a Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner, writer, and one of the pioneers of what is now regarded as modern architecture. He was born in Switzerland and became a French citizen in 1930.

It has been said that “a cabin is a sanctuary” and that living in a cabin – even for a short time – should be about the restoration of your sanity. That idea makes sense to me.

Le Corbusier also built a “chapel of our lady of the height” which is a sanctuary and a pilgrimage chapel on a hill above the village of Ronchamp.

It is a much larger project than Cabanon. But much of the stone used in the Chapelle Nôtre Dame du Haut’s walls are from its predecessor – a chapel that was destroyed during WWII – so it also follows the idea of simplicity and using minimal materials.

The walls are thick and curved and the concrete roof gives the chapel a form that resembles sculpture.

Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp – CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The Euphoria of Expressionism

I haven’t watched the HBO series Euphoria but I keep seeing raves about it on social media. It is an American adaptation of the Israeli show of the same name. The second season hit this year. The reviews I had seen initially described it as a “teen” show since it follows a troubled 17-year-old who is “a drug addict just out of rehab and likely to end up back in rehab, and her high school friends.

It gets a majority of positive reviews, with praise for its cinematography, plot, score, and performances. The subject matter is mature and somewhat controversial for its nudity and sexual content. Some critics found the nudity and sexual content excessive considering the characters’ ages.

From the German Expressionist silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

What caught my attention this past week was the video (below) discussing the visual style of German Expressionism and its influence on later films and TV including Euphoria.

German Expressionism in films was a movement that used distorted sets and sharp contrasts of light and dark. The movement was initially confined to Germany due to the isolation the country experienced during World War I. In 1916, the government had banned foreign films so with supply down, demand went up for german films. . The demand from theaters to generate films led to an increase in domestic film production from 24 films in 1914 to 130 films in 1918. In American films, it was influential in what in a later movement we call “film noir.” In all instances, it is highly stylized, sometimes surreal, and not a style we often see used today. (Though there are “neo-noir” films.)

Many film historians consider German silent cinema to be far ahead of Hollywood films of that time when it comes to innovations and style. Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by the movement from the very beginning. In 1924, he worked as an assistant director and art director at Babelsberg Studios near Berlin on the film The Blackguard. His set designs for that film are expressionistic. It is also seen in his directing, especially in some of his early, less well-known films. In his third film, The Lodger, Hitchcock used styles that the studio did not want used, such as Expressionist set designs, high contrast lighting, and trick camera work. One example of the latter is a shot of a man walking across a glass floor that is shot from below,

Another classic German Expressionist film is Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (German: Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens), an early vampire film that is an unauthorized and unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. This 1922 silent horror film is directed by F. W. Murnau.

Count Orlok’s shadow on a staircase in Nosferatu

Though not all Expressionist films are horror, most have at least elements of the thriller and suspense, either physical or mental. One later American example is The Night of the Hunter. This 1955 American thriller film is directed by Charles Laughton. The critical reaction to the film at its release was so strong that it is the only film Laughton directed. It stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. It is the story of a corrupt minister-turned-serial killer who attempts to charm an unsuspecting widow and steal money hidden by her executed husband.

Expressionist lighting by Laughton puts Gish in silhouette and Mitchum lit in the background

It is a dark film based on a real serial killer. It was a commercial and critical flop at its release, but in the decades since its release, the film has been listed as one of the best American films. It often makes the list close to Citizen Kane, another classic that has an Expressionist style in many ways. The director of photography on The Night of the Hunter was Stanley Cortez, who also shot Orson Welles’ followup to Kane, the 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons.

Euphoria is not the only example we see today. The new Joel Coen interpretation of The Tragedy of Macbeth and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley have definite Expressionist elements.

Euphoria is Expressionist in its style of sets and cinematography, but not in its plot.

Here is the short video that inspired me to look back on Expressionism. And it might get me to check out Euphoria.

A short film by Thomas Flight that shows Expressionist influences

Tiger Moms and Tigger Dads


I saw a reference on this windy March day to the “blustery day” from A.A. Milne’s Pooh books and it had an illustration of Winnie-the-Pooh, and Tigger getting blown into the air in a clearly delightful way.

That got me thinking back to a book I “reviewed” back in 2011 called  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother back in 2011 when it was getting a lot of attention lately. I picked up the book at the library because I had seen it on the cover of Time magazine. I never did finish reading it.

The author, Amy Chua, is a professor at Yale Law School. Her two earlier books wouldn’t lead you to think she might write about parenting. Look at two of her book titles: World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability and Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance–and Why They Fall.

But perhaps the titles do tell us something of the way she raised her children and the way she was raised. The book and author are rather proudly “politically incorrect” (by American standards) about the “Chinese way” of raising children.

It had gotten a lot of criticism, especially from the Western parents that it criticizes. A Wall Street Journal piece titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” got more than a million reads and thousands of comments and when the author was on the usually lightweight Today show, host Meredith Vieira was clearly on the critical side.

You can find excerpts from the book online if you’re curious. One example that rubs many parents the wrong way is that she turned a simple piano piece into forced practice for her 7-year-old daughter that ran “right through dinner into the night,” with no bathroom or breaks for food or drinks until she learned it. Does it bother you that she would call her daughter Sophia “garbage” for being disrespectful? (Chua’s father did it to her all the time.) She threw back a handmade birthday card at her daughter saying, “I deserve better than this.”

Chua has said that “To be perfectly honest, I know that a lot of Asian parents are secretly shocked and horrified by many aspects of Western parenting.”  She is baffled by our willingness to let our kids waste hours on games, television, Facebook, and other things. And she can point to research that supports some of her ideas, such as that American parents do too much insulating of their children from the discomfort and distress of everyday life.

I taught in the K-12 world for 25 years in a wealthy school district that had a large Asian population. About a third of my students were Chinese and Korean and I certainly came face to face with their parents. Chua writes that these parents “assume strength, not fragility, and as a result, they behave very differently.” That was true of the parents I met in conferences that were always about grades.

One father told me that he believed that all children could be “A” students – it was just a question of how much time and work was needed. “My daughter might only need to study two hours for an A. My son might need 10 hours.”

I believed that not everyone could be a top student or a great musician or athlete. I think realizing that is also a part of growing up. Despite my childhood dreams, I was not to be the shortstop on the NY Yankees no matter how many hours I practiced. I don’t think even a Chinese mother could have made me an NBA forward or a Nobel prize-winning mathematician or even have gotten me to score an “A” in calculus.

If protected kids don’t have to deal with difficult tasks on their own, will they be unable to develop what psychologists call “mastery experiences?”

Does the dreaded “drill and kill” repetition style of learning also kill creativity?

A cognitive psychologist quoted in that Time article says:

“… if you repeat the same task again and again, it will eventually become automatic. Your brain will literally change so that you can complete the task without thinking about it. Once this happens, the brain has made mental space for higher-order operations: for interpreting literary works, say, and not simply decoding their words; for exploring the emotional content of a piece of music, and not just playing the notes. Brain scans of experimental subjects who are asked to execute a sequence of movements, for example, show that as the sequence is repeated, the parts of the brain associated with motor skills become less active, allowing brain activity to shift to the areas associated with higher-level thinking and reflection.”

Sounds like the drill work is a good thing, right?

As a teacher and as a parent, I can see some valid points in her approach. There are definitely some children who need very strict boundaries, rules, and consequences, at least at some times.

Tigger via

Still, I am glad that I didn’t have a Tiger Mom. I’m glad that I was encouraged to explore things and go out and play for hours and hours and try new things and give up on them so that I could try other things. I’m happy with the way I turned out.

In Milne’s Pooh books, you have models of different ways of approaching life. Tigger is on the crazy, anything for fun extreme, but there is also wise Owl

I raised my sons the same basic way, though probably with more psychology and ambition included than my own parents. But I was definitely more of a Tigger Dad. I wanted to bounce around, watch movies, try, fail and then try again and try new things as much as they did. And I am very happy with the men they became.

The original Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed toys playing. Clockwise from bottom left: Tigger, Kanga, Edward Bear (aka Winnie-the-Pooh), Eeyore, and Piglet.

It intrigued me in my adult life to discover that A.A. Milne was a pretty lousy father. His son Christopher, who owned Edward Bear and is the model for the fictional Christopher Robin, came to hate his father. He found his father’s fame a kind of torture. There was a bitter rift between the two men that never healed and has been documented in books and films. take a look at Christopher Robin and Goodbye Christopher Robin. Ann Thwaite’s A. A. Milne biography was the inspiration for the 2017 film Goodbye Christopher Robin.

Readers and critics have gone much deeper than just viewing the Pooh books as children’s literature. Too deep, perhaps.

I do like the philosophical takes on the gang from the Hundred-Acree Wood. (see The Tao of Pooh & The Te of Piglet) I’m not a fan of the psychological analysis of them. A tiger mom might agree with the psychology though. I do think that all of us “have some issues” and are at least “a little bit crazy.”

But is Christopher Robin a schizophrenic, and his “friends” are simply manifestations of his moods?

Tigger does seem to suffer from ADHD and a case of “risk-taking behaviors” causing him to be very impulsive and willing to try just about anything.

Piglet has an acute case of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and self-esteem issues.

Kanga is British but like many American moms is perpetually over-protective of her little Roo.

The voice of reason and intelligence, Owl, seems unable to spell out words, and his misspelled words hint of dyslexia.

I always liked Eeyore but he is the most obviously in need of therapy for his depressive disorder and “chronic dysthymia.”

Poor Rabbit has some OCD and an odd sense of his importance that doesn’t often match that of his friends.

Just before he died, the real Christopher reported that he had at least come to terms with his love-hate relationship with Winnie-the-Pooh, if not his father. He said that “Believe it or not, I can look at those four books without flinching. I’m quite fond of them really.”

The Stuff of Dreams and Nightmares

The Twilight Zone was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid. In my earliest viewing days, it often scared me and I watched it on our couch with a pillow handy to block my view sometimes. But it also had funny episodes and lots of surprise endings whether the story was more science-fiction or what would be considered horror for that time on broadcast TV.

As a young viewer, I thought that Rod Serling – the creepy smoking man that introduced each episode – wrote all the stories but I learned that a wide variety of writers were used. Some of them were very well known for writing outside of TV, such as Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury,

George R. R. Martin (better known for Game of Thrones) and Richard Matheson (two Jersey boys, Bayonne and Allendale, respectively) wrote for the show and for other series I talk about here. Martin wrote for The Outer Limits and Matheson wrote alter for Serling’s Night Gallery.

Years later, I realized how many episodes were moral tales. I used a number of these half-hour short films in my classroom. They were even distributed at one time as VHS tapes for teachers with packets of teaching materials.

There were several TV series in the Twilight Zone mode that I eagerly watched and had definitely had influences on my reading, writing, and thinking.

one step beyond

Produced a year before Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond ran three seasons. For whatever reason, in the 1950s there was a lot of interest in the paranormal, UFOs, and the occult. This series differed from Twilight Zone because it used stories of supernatural events that appeared in newspapers and were thought to be “true.” Unlike Twilight Zone,  they couldn’t tie up the episodes neatly at the end because most of these mysteries are still unexplained.

outer limits

My previous post on Conrad Aiken’s story, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” inspired this essay on some strange TV series from my youth because I recalled a film version of his story.

The Outer Limits appeared in the mid-1960s was another science fiction series that was a hybrid of Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond with original stories many of which were based on known science and some that imagined a future that might be strange or frightening based on where current science might lead us later.

Rod Serling created another series in the 1970s called Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. It was in many ways a modern reboot of the Twilight Zone. I thought about it while writing that Aiken essay because I remembered that his story was dramatized on Night Gallery.

I’m almost certain that I watched the episode on my birthday, October 20, 1971. I was a freshman at Rutgers and I had no TV, so I used to go to the student center at Douglass College to study where there was a TV room. This was not an exciting birthday. I was feeling pretty lost that first semester. College wasn’t what I had hoped for. I had expected to reinvent myself in college but I was the same kid I was the previous spring in high school. I even had a half dozen high school friends who were at Rutgers or our sister school, Douglass.

I tried to find the episode online and learned that it was dramatized and directed by Gene Kearney. It was narrated by Orson Welles, which I remember because I was rather obsessed at the time with Welles’ films.

I found a version online (not great quality).

I also found another version of the story done earlier in black and white by Kearney.