Saturday, October 6, 2012

Creative Process Journal: On Photography and Memory

Cabinet Card
Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

One of the most tangible links between clothing and memory exists in the portrait photograph, especially the carte des visite and the cabinet card. Popular in Victorian times, these cards were albumen prints made from glass negatives, attached to stiff card backing usually printed with the photographer’s name. In this medium, we can revisit the past to see the clothing that ordinary people wore in the latter half of the 19th century.

The Ryerson Fashion Research Collection has a small cache of rare carte des visite and cabinet cards, depicting Canadians photographed in studios from Toronto and other Ontario towns.  In a few cases, names have been carefully written in blue ink just below the image or on the back of the card. The thick cards are yellowed at the edges and some have faded. There is a slightly musty smell -- the scent of the past. How is it that these photographs became separated from those who had the desire to remember? Is it because they were objects of exchange, circulated among friends who later moved away or forgot?

As I study these cabinet cards and carte des visites, my eye fixes on items of clothing that remind me of the specific historic pieces in the collection. In those photographs, I feel like I am looking into the face of the wearer and seeing what is now a fragile artifact reborn. Through the image, the dress comes to life in a way that it will never be again.

Cabinet Card
In an essay on Photographs as Objects of Memory, Elizabeth Edwards states that photographs "belong to that class of objects formed specifically to remember", in that photographs "express a desire for memory and the act of keeping a photograph is, like other souvenirs, an act of faith in the future" (222). She concludes that "objects are links between past and present, and photographs have a double link as image and as material, two ontological layers in one object" (236).

This double link as image and as material is at the core of my project. I am taking photographs of garments that are in the last stages of their object life, fixing them in time and creating layers of meaning  through a lens, thereby honouring the memory of the vibrant women that once wore them.

For further reading:
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982. Print.

Edwards, Elizabeth. "Photographs as Objects of Memory." Material Memories: Design and Evocation. Eds. Marius Kwint, Christopher Breward, and Jeremy Aynstey. New York: Berg, 1999. 221-236. Print.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. Print.

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