Memory and Materiality: An Examination of Dear Photograph

On January 13, 2014, the Tumblr based blog, Dear Photograph reached 150,000 followers. Although the site has not been updated since last fall, its first three years of use provide a wealth of material I will use to examine how people interact with the past, form memories, and view materiality on the web. The blog of focus features digital photos taken by people of physical photos lined up with their original setting, with a caption beginning with “Dear photograph.” Meta right?

Here’s an example:

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Dear Photograph,
Trafalgar Square 50 years ago and my Granny never looked happier! If my house was burning down, this would be the one possession I would be desperate to save. I miss so many things about my Granny but most of all I miss her beautiful smile.
Clare

This example combines a personal photograph and message and places it in a setting of historical significance.

Some of the other photos are inherently more personal, both in place and in subject:

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Dear Photograph,
This is when I still had hair and my brother pooped himself.
We were happy, but we didn’t know it.
Domenico

If you do a quick Google search for “dear photograph” you will find, beyond the actual site (and its manifestations on other social media platforms) a number of articles profiling the site and its owner/curator, Taylor Jones. None of these articles are very long or in depth. The articles focus on “New-age nostalgia” or “digital nostalgia” but few delve into the ideas of memory.

One of the few scholarly pieces that deals with memory, Dear Photograph, and that sets the frame for my study is “Remembering with Rephotography: A Social Practice for the Inventions of Memories” by Jason Kalin. This article briefly mentioned Dear Photograph as part of a larger set of websites involved in “rephotography,” or retaking the same photograph in the same place at a different time to show change. Kalin argues that the way we share digital photos on the web  and use rephotography changes the way we remember things. Its application in a digital social environment allows users to “follow in the footsteps of previous walkers while simultaneously making that walk their own, thus producing a collective text, a collective, public memory of place that responds to past, present, and future.” In essence, these images are not only a way of remembering the past but are a means to create new memories, in a dialogue more public than ever before. This study will build off Kalin’s ideas as well as the general literature about memory to examine how Dear Photograph in particular reveals the changing nature of memory in the digital environment.

A piece in the New Yorker demonstrates another side to Dear Photograph, saying that “the project is a powerful reminder that digital photos can’t ever quite duplicate how it feels to hold a timeworn, sun-bleached, wrinkled old family photo in your hand.” This sentence gets to the heart of ideas espoused by Matt Kirschenbaum in Mechanisms when he discusses how the digital is often associated as something inherently not physical. Dear Photograph represents a juxtaposition of the nostalgia for the materiality of analog photographs while putting these objects within the structure of the new media that replaced them. Looking at these ideas and those of memory outlined above, I question, do memory and materiality relate to one another? Is Dear Photograph an attempt to adapt the memories associated with tactile feel to the digital environment? Through the examination of the content of images and text in the posts of Dear Photograph, I hope to answer these questions and reveal how this platform relates to the way we form memories in the digital age.

One Reply to “Memory and Materiality: An Examination of Dear Photograph”

  1. I think this is a great subject for a paper. Photo sharing is a huge part of contemporary society, and this kind of nostalgic use of taking photos of old photos has a lot of layers to explore in terms of public history and memory.

    If you did go ahead with this, I think that there is a good bit in Jason Farmen’s book (on locative media interfaces) that would likely be relevant. A big part of the experience of these photos is “being there,” that is, showing a layer of the past in front of the place you are at.

    Your point on the materiality of photos is spot on too. In that vein, I could well imagine some of the work that has been done on the use of image filters to make digital photos look older would be relevant as part of the lit review for a project like this.

    Looking at the content of a bunch of these photos seems like a great way to figure out the work that they are doing. I could also imagine potentially doing some interviews with folks that do this kind of thing as a way to explore some of the reasoning behind the practice. As another potential mode of working on this, I would be curious to know where the practice itself emerged. That is, what is the first photo of a photo in place? Is this something that came into practice with the ability to see exactly what a photo will look like via the use of a digital camera?

    In that vein, another thing you might consider exploring/checking out is Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography at NYPL http://www.nypl.org/events/exhibitions/public-eye I think that history of the social role of photography piece to this could be really compelling.

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