© Ian Aleksander Adams


There exists a well worn idea of the photograph as record: the saving of an event, the memory of an event, the indexical recording, a sign or something that has happened. Upon this foundation idea (and it is an idea, as facts are harder to pin down here) a layer of questioning has been placed. Many of these questions deal with the factual nature of the idea, probing, supporting, digging; but the line of questioning I am concerned with now has to do with the idea of the record supplanting, replacing, distorting, removing, or otherwise altering our perception of the original reality (or even reality itself). I will not be going into depth on this line of questioning (as many titans before me have already poked and prodded and I’d be doing you a disservice if I did not instead direct you to their at times overly familiar names: Barthes, Metz, Sontag, etc); I instead wish to use a dialog from a recent article, published in the inaugural issue of Lay Flat: Remain In Light (Edited by Shane Lavalette), as a launching point for some ideas on the persistence of memory based on a (seemingly) captured moment, how fear figures into the act of photographing, and some exercises based upon these ideas.

In his essay, titled The Crisis of the Experience, Eric William Carrol links this long history of investigation (along with the more recent exploits of “photography writers such as Sylviane Agacinski, Mary Ann Doane and Geoffrey Batchen”) to his own thoughts about a current photographic crisis:

“As a result, the photographic archive falls back onto itself in a great irony – everything­ is being saved (whereas previously the archive was a place for things of value/worth) and yet our experience of time is so fast we rarely have a chance to revisit our recordings. It is the great catch-22 of photographic technologies. We spend time and money archiving our lives, only to find out that either we don’t have time to revisit them, or the technology we saved them on has become obsolete. It is a bittersweet irony that photography’s supposedly essential drive is to preserve, when in fact the technology that is driving photography is producing material just as ephemeral as the moments it claims to record [Emphases mine]. The ‘crisis’ here that Barthes, Doane, Steward, and to some extent, myself, are trying to argue, is that a photographer, in choosing to document an event rather than participate in it without a camera, is trading her subjective memory of the experience for a photographic/material one.”

I think that, since we are almost all photographers now, this idea of participation versus recording is, or should be, a common topic of discussion, which his article delves into admirably for such a short piece. I know how it is to work as an event photographer and then be assaulted while trying to enjoy myself during my off hours by people asking “Hey, where’s your camera? Take my picture!” – However, I’d like to direct your focus to the mention Carrol makes of material as ephemeral.

As you chew his words over, forgive me if I digress into my own memory – this talk of direct experience has raised ghosts of moments in my mind:

It was a beautiful morning (or was it midday?) and it was time to take some photographs. I had not experimented much with my new (used) camera and was excited to finish the roll from the previous day and drop my film off at the shop. As I left my house, I snapped a shot of the sun gleaming over my love’s shoulder – a memory for our mantel. We got in the car, the light gleaming on the dust on the inner window – “Beautiful, I must have it.” As we drove, I curated moments from the world around me. A shy and shrugging dumpster, an elderly cyclist with the gleam of determination around him. I finished my exposures, round the roll with the aging mechanism, and stood in the door of the photography shop. I opened the back. The empty space stared through me.

Burning frustration, anger at my stupidity and at the time lost – “I’ll never get those shots back! It will never be the same. I hate photography!” – then a slow realization building over the weeks following. I remembered every moment of those few shots, even though the roll had been finished the day before and sat in a pants pocket on my floor. The act of making the phantom images had triggered something beautiful in me. I saw my girl’s hair glowing in the morning light, the elderly man’s pumping legs as he rode alongside our car, all framed by the black rectangle of my viewfinder, but somehow moving, somehow alive still in my memory. I had these moments still, they were not lost. By some fluke, I had both photographed them and experienced them.

There is some wonderful discourse on images not made by photographers. Most of this writing, such as the excellent and often poetic text on Photographs Not Taken, collected by Will Steacy, deals with this idea in relation to choice: A photograph avoided by moral judgment, the desire to be more in the moment, the conscious choice to not raise the lens. In contrast, the discussion of accidental loss is often relegated to technical forums and darkroom hallways: “My CF Card crashed, the bride and groom will kill me! Please help!” or the wails of a first year student, “My Film! Oh Crap My Film!”

While the majority of academic and professional writing is concerned with the conscious choices of image making, the average person has more experience with the second kind of non-image: the image accidentally lost. These experiences are educational, as photographers learn to take better care of their equipment, to properly secure their film canister while developing, etc, but the impact of these experiences on memory and the resulting fear of loss is often less explored. Let me tell you another story that I’m sure will be as familiar as the last:

I am in my first darkroom class, my senior year of highschool. I have tried four years in a row to get into this class and I am determined to be the best I can – to do the best, to do things none of my classmates are doing. I have trudged past my initial lessons and technical exercises and am ready to do something original! Finally, I am presented with the opportunity, a relatively open assignment to create something worthy of the cover of Time Magazine (which we later composite from our scanned darkroom prints with our caveman-like early Photoshop software). My idea is genius. Using scotch tape, I cover an entire room in paper: floor, table, desk, chairs. Then I hang a pen from the ceiling.

I set up the first artificial lighting I’ve ever used, some lovably low output “hotlights,” two desk lamps and a light my father uses to work at night on construction sites. Everyone will see the depth of my concept and be in awe of my execution. I shoot an entire roll of this one set, then carefully take down the paper, saving what I can to use for other assignments and recycling the rest. The entire process takes me a little over a day.

The next morning in class, I carefully and methodically ruin my film by forgetting to screw the top of my canister on all the way. I will not lie; I was a sensitive youth and there were tears. I had worked so hard! It wasn’t fair! My teacher, one Katina Papson, somehow comforted me and convinced me to reshoot. I pulled myself together and managed to cover a corner of a room in paper. The images turned out close to my original concept, with a bonus in the form of an unexpected cat picture (which I actually like a lot more than the planned stuff, fancy that.)

Some lessons are obvious – pick yourself up, start again – and many have been cemented through years in the professional industry. A client will not accept tears, only results. But another thing, less obviously useful, has stayed with me: that first shot was the best. It was perfect. And it will always be perfect because there is no image to prove the thought wrong. Even years later, with the obviousness of my technical deficiencies and ridiculous concepts glaring back at me, I will never be able to shake the feeling. This was the one that got away. This is the shoot that I will always think of when I am photographing something important; I have that nagging feeling that this will be another perfect shot and once again it will never be seen.

As in my earlier anecdote about phantom film, here are images made, composed, captured, but in the mind and memory, unable to become transfixed to paper through our familiar photographic process. They will be photographs to me still, strangely, not simple memories – something about their creation has bound them to the photographic idea, and I will remember them as images as much as experiences – and they are immeasurably important to me and my perception of the world. How can this be learned from? Played with? How can this experience be shared?

I have had this idea of The Lesson, an idea that may some day soon become an exercise, a learning opportunity for some students (perhaps unfortunate, perhaps fortunate – learning, as we all know, is a process directly proportional to outlook and effort of the student. One can often learn as much from a horrible teacher as an amazing one.) I’ve talked it over with a variety of people, most recently including educator Matthew E. Clowney at the Society for Photographic Education national conference in Dallas, and here is The Lesson’s current form:

Currently, The Lesson is designed for young adults, photography students towards the end of high school who take the elective seriously or intro photo students in a college program. These students are eager to learn and scared. They do not want to fail, they do not want to break the unfamiliar equipment, they do not want to be judged as incompetent by their peers and instructor. Their fear is a productive kind, a kind not often found in older image workers.

This class must be organized slightly differently from most current classes: all the students are shooting black and white film of the same type. They are using cameras supplied by our theoretical educational institution (with theoretical budgets). The film is shot outside of class, but then brought back to class and developed under kind supervision.

The first assignments are commonplace. They learn how to load the film and use and understand the focus, the f-stop, the shutter speed, the winding mechanism, the developing equipment, basic artistic lessons on depth of field and the so called “rule of thirds” (this part is optional, personally I believe there has to be some better way to develop an understanding of the meaning of composition) and so on – the standard Upton and Upton. For each assignment the instructor has supplied the students with one roll of film – use this film, and this film only – and if the students are competent the film works as expected, technical lessons are learned, and grades are given.

Now the students, reminiscent of myself during senior year, are ready for the next step – a personal assignment of sufficient emotional weight. The Time Magazine cover assignment I completed will probably be too dated as the idea of the magazine cover showcasing something important will be dead soon, so I suggest a more general assignment: "Shoot something of great importance to you."

The students are given their film, as usual, with instructions to bring it back next class. When they return and start developing, a panic starts and then spreads. “My film is blank!” Personal fear turns into general confusion as all of the film is blank. No student (at least if they followed instructions without cheating) has any usable images. Ideally, they have nothing but entirely blank film. The instructor, at this point, after calming some understandably upset and confused people, takes the group away from the darkroom to talk.

This is a very rare approach to learning about photography (especially at this introductory level) but I think this discussion of a conceptual and emotional focus is the most important part. Perhaps they are located somewhere calming, like a field on a perfect day, seated in a circle and relating their experience. They learn from each other, they talk about the subject matter they photographed, their feelings of loss, whether the memories of those moments are more or less clear for this experience.

If the instructor is the kind of educator who is inclined to give grades, this talk or follow-up paper may be graded (though perhaps they wish to push a different lesson and give out more film asking the students to reshoot – if you do you get an A, if you do not, you get an F. This isn’t exactly the process I’m hoping for, but I can see it being useful to a developing photographer.) The grading is not the important part (is it ever?), it is the discussion and investigation of the experience, an experience that I think is useful to anyone who deals with images and memory, basically any member of our modern society.

I’m sure to some people this seems to be a cruel and unusual lesson. It is of course, and is also, at this point, theoretical. I can’t predict the response of the people in the class, and I’m sure any professor using The Lesson risks a certain amount of vitriol. It might not be possible to use the same Lesson twice without word getting out and deflating the process. It may be possible that some students would be scarred by the experience, though hopefully not frightened away from photography in its totality. In fact, I think this fear may be useful.

Many I talk to agree that there seems to be something missing from how most photographs are made. The majority of photographers explore aesthetically, trying to find clues in the final image and the technical details (What paper? What focal length?), but I want to know what is missing from the process. Not the developing process: I'm interested in the set of actions and ideas that exist within us during the image making.

One thing I found missing in my own life was fear. It was strange when I found this – I thought the certainty of getting what I “wanted” from an image must be a good thing, a feeling nurtured through my commercial experiences and college grade hounding. But when trying to do my personal work, I felt stuck; not unmotivated, but motionless, emotionless. I needed something to gamble on, something to make me excited.

I thought back to my experiences with lost images, and the fear of loss that I had spent so long meticulously avoiding, and finally made a connection. I slowly stopped shooting most of my personal photography with my digital camera, not for an aesthetic reason, though I certainly enjoy the current aesthetics of my projects, but because I was nostalgic for the more risky film experience. I bought expired film from over ten years ago in bulk. I picked up my 50 year old TLR, the one with the periodic lightleaks, and stopped packing the lightmeter in my backpack. I guess now.

I make sure to live in the moment while photographing it, because I don’t know which memory will be more important to me as experienced or archived. And I am scared every time I drop off my film. I cringe when I pick it up and rejoice at the surprises that find me. I fear my mistakes and I embrace and love that fear. Even though I no longer think of uncaptured time as lost, since I know I was there without “proof,” it has helped me appreciate the moments, images of moments, that I have found. By regaining the fear of the first year photo student, I have regained what I love about the process of photography. With fear, I am alive again.



Ian Aleksander Adams