How do photographs shape memory and identity?


To photograph a moment is to privilege that moment. When we look at the resulting photograph, we privilege that moment yet again. Sharing photographs with others can be a means of sharing and reinforcing privileged perspectives and experiences, and of building community based on a shared experience of a photograph’s contents.

Yet, as we show in this exhibition, “photography” is never just one thing, and the ways that photographs were taken and shared varied considerably over time. For example, compare the daguerreotype of Mrs Morrow to the portrait of James Harry Finn featured on a wanted poster. Next consider how each of these examples compare to a full album of snapshots when it comes to telling the story of one person’s identity.

Many of the photographs included here feature places rather than people, and were intended to either remind viewers of a particular place or share views of an unfamiliar place. These photographs contribute to the ways that places were remembered and imagined—to what James Ryan and Joan Schwartz have called “the geographical imagination.” Schwartz has elaborated on this idea by explaining that imagined geographies are products of representational practices that transform ‘space’ on the ground into ‘place’ in the mind” and that such images are always “value-laden visualizations of people(s), place(s), and the relationship(s) between them” (4). 

As you move through the photographs in this section, through portraits and snapshots, souvenir books and albums, postcards and playing cards, consider what they convey about the identities of the photographs’ subjects and owners, and about the relationships between them. Pay attention to what is included in these examples as well as to what is left out, for technical or other reasons. Examining collections of photographs with a critical eye can help us to notice what has been excluded and overlooked, which may help us to imagine new histories and identities.