Down the Ballot

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Philosophy of Photos

my great uncle and guy named Ted.
I have been in the process of scanning a vast family archive of personal photos since 2012. These photos date back to the late 1800s to as recently as 2002. It seems most people (in my family at least) made the jump to digital about 2004, as I have seen very few photos from 2004 to now. While out to lunch with a friend the topic came up as his parents are in their 70s and have a vast archive of their own that he has been trying to figure out how to one day make digital for easy sharing with family.

That was mostly my driving goal behind doing this project. There is a philosophical aspect to photos and photography, that as I open up photo albums full of people I have never met I start to drift away in thought about. Everything from the aesthetics to the practical nature of taking a photo is and can be debated.  (probably in some haphazardly managed Philosophy of Art class).

Why is it that we cling so close to that box of grandmas or grandpas photos? Memory is a great topic in epistemology and also cuts across several others. Probably one of my favorites. We rely so heavily on this thing called 'memory' that peoples lives are sometimes dependent on either a collective memory or an individuals memory. It has a great power over most cultures on Earth. When we talk about memory, we're not only talking about that box of photos but all sorts of things that we have experienced. There also seems to be great diversity in how much we remember. As well as something concerning intensity of the memory. I did a project on JFK in high school, where I went around to friends and family who were old enough to remember the JFK assassination.

My father told me he was in school watching a film when it came over the intercom system. Teachers and students were in shock, people were crying. It was something he said he would never forget. Much like in my own example of seeing 9/11 unfold on national television at home and at school. Yet, I would be hard pressed to tell you what I had for lunch on March 12th, 2005. I could take a good guess, but I doubt it would be accurate.  That got me thinking that perhaps photos are one of the ways of helping memory. Those paper pieces of captured light help us where our mind fails.

We all 'remember' differently. A photo can at least can help set the stage for memory. They are temporal. They capture the moment. I am giving lots of family members a senior portrait of my great uncle that recently passed away. This photo was taken in the early 1930s before all of us were born. Yet we know it is our great uncle. I don't have the memory (I'd be a time traveler if I did) of my great uncle as a senior in high school, but I have a representation of it because of the photo.

That's another great thing about photos. They are like your own personal time machines. The British comedy Red Dwarf did a spin on this idea by Kryten producing photos that you can enter; be part of and thus alter history. We can't muck around with history like the those smeg heads, but we can at least get a glimpse of the past.

As the technology improved and got cheaper for more and more people to have one it lead to more and more photos being taken, until where we are today in the world of instagram, flicker, and other online photo sharing services. Here is a quick diversion article about how many photos are out there in the digital age. Nearly 30,000 photos uploaded to instagram every minute? That's a lot of old 35mm rolls of film.
An Alfred Monner photo from WWII featuring my grandmother.
This last image is perhaps my favorite I have found going through my grandmothers photos. During WWII she worked on the Swan Island Shipyards. She started off as a painter and became a welder. She is the first worker on her knees between the man standing and the other one bent down.  For years afterward she would often do welding work for her second husband (much to his frustration according to my father and uncle).

The photo was taken by Alfred Monner. He was an Oregon born photographer that has collections housed with the Oregon Historical Society, the Portland Art Museum and other institutions in the region. He was taking photos for most of his adult life until his death in 1998. This one was taken while he was working for the Oregon Journal. I have contacted OHS in hopes that they can track down the image so I can get a better copy. This one has seen better days.

The task ahead of me continues. I have several more albums and a few more small boxes of images to scan before I can take a break and let others who know some of these people organize them. It has been a fun and sometimes frustrating process. Having to rely on the memory others is sometimes difficult.

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