Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Great pictures don't make memories—Part IV

Part III discussed how to improve your Mementos through the process of mindful iteration. In this Part, we complete the process and discuss how to make a Memento for your audience.

In The Salmon of Doubt, Douglas Adams stated a common conception of technology:
I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies: 
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
That’s correct about common conceptions of technological progress, but people who apply it to Mementos are wrong about humanity and our minds.

Humans have been in the rough form we are used to seeing for awhile now—for about 200,000 years physically, and about 50,000 years in terms of behavioral development. At best, our technological revolutions (in the broadest sense) have only been going on for 600 years, since the agricultural revolutions enabled humans to be less concerned about the scarcity of food so that more time could be put into improving the quality of life. The kind of electronics technology with which we deal on a routine basis, and which for many was invented before we turned thirty-five, has only been around since the mid-1980’s.

What that means is that the technological revolutions which we “take for granted” today and view as part of our daily existence are being dealt with by a brain which has had no time to evolve to meet the demands. Indeed, this modern world with which we interact is confronted and processed by a brain which hasn’t had much of any evolutionary change for at least 35,000 years. What we think is normal and ordinary is a function of familiarity, but we still process it in ways that took millennia to evolve. Our present day abilities to manage and use these technologies are mere adaptations by our very old brains.

These neurological processes are reflected in our psychology. “Haptic memory” is the name applied to sensory memory acquired by touch. We use this to identify things we feel, as well as to appropriately interact with them. (Think about picking up a gallon of milk which you believe to be full, but which is empty; or believing that there is one more stair when there isn’t.) We also use our geospatial abilities to navigate pure thought. (The “memory palace” of associating places with concepts was used very effectively by the Greeks and Romans more than 2,000 years ago to recall speeches lasting many hours.) Relevant to us as photographers, humans combine these two neurological abilities when we interact with things we care about emotionally, and not just intellectually.

Research comparing how we interact with and use electronic and paper books is helpful to understand the processes at work because much of it overlaps with photography. This is an excellent article in Scientific American on the topic. Here are the highlights applicable to our goal of making Mementos:

Ownership: Research has found that readers are not as cognitively invested in reading ebooks because they don’t feel any ownership of the text. Even where a book is in your iBooks catalog and can be recalled at will, our brains don’t view that “ownership” the same way it does with something physical. 

Likewise, images on a screen are ephemeral. The viewer has no sense of where the image physically came from, or if it will be there again. That lack of permanence is dissociative, and doesn’t lend itself to an image becoming a memento.

Haptic memory: As with the page of a paper book, a printed image has an immediately discernible physicality. Touching it reveals its shape, weight, and size. It has corners and possibly borders. There is a front and a back. The ability to use our proprioception allows more of the mind to engage with the object, allowing us to not only take in, but preserve, more layers of meaning.

Topography: A series of images provides linearity and order. But even in a single image, the orientation of the composition within a frame which can be felt allows the viewer to more easily orient to the content.

Touch: For none other than Alfred Stieglitz, touch was a major concern. In 1931 a publisher asked him for permission to reproduce some of his images. He replied:
My photographs do not lend themselves to reproduction. The very qualities that give them their life would be completely lost in reproduction. The quality of touch in its deepest living sense is inherent in my photographs. When that sense of touch is lost, the heartbeat of the photograph is extinct.
Alfred Stieglitz, Alfred Stieglitz. Masters of Photography, Aperture, p. 16.

From these rough concepts we can summarize simply what it is that a Memento needs: it must be tangible. The human mind responds most fully when we engage it as it is (a primitive structure made for the physical world) and do not strain it with what our technology has made possible. To be a Memento, the image needs to appear on a print,  in a book, on a sheet of glass or metal, or encased in a locket. Whatever the medium, it should be physical so that it can not only be beheld, but held. 

We live in a time where the barriers to image-making are low, and amazingly, despite the rise of the electronic, we also live in time where it is easy and inexpensive to transform the ephemeral bits into a tangible item, whether it's with a photo printer, or through Zazzle. If you want your images to become Mementos, you have to make them physical.

Just as not every experience makes an impression which we can recall as a remembrance, not every event we observe as photographers is suitable for capturing moments. But when you get one, it will be lasting, it will be great, and the owner will be able to press it to the heart.