Memories Of Photographs Of Memories

A recent passage on Darts and Letters, one of the most poetic and endearing blogs I follow, reminded me of my grandad, and the most enduring memories I have of him.

One is of his old wooden greenhouse, fit to bursting with fresh tomatoes in late summer, and the overwhelming heady scent and tidal wave of heat that hit three year old me, as he opened the door at the end of a long hot day, and we carefully selected the largest and juiciest fruit for our tea.

To this day, one of my favourite scents in the world is tomato plants, and it never fails to remind me of him, some four decades ago.

I started to wonder though, how much of my memories come from experiences as they actually happened, and how much from photographs?

One of the images I saw most often of my early childhood – in fact the childhood photograph I recall more than any other – was of me standing with my grandad outside this greenhouse.

I suspect that at least 50% of the fabric of my memories of that greenhouse, how it looked, what my grandad wore, and other details come from seeing that single photograph hundreds of times.

My memory is undoubtably more of that photograph, than the event itself. 


So how much do specific photographs aid our memories? How much do they alter them? 

And today, with typical parents vastly more prolific with their camera phones than their grandparents ever were when they had to pay per exposure, and a roll of 35mm film lasted months, do any children have such lasting individual images of their own childhoods?

Or are they so saturated in images of themselves that none make any particular impact at all?

What do you think? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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13 thoughts on “Memories Of Photographs Of Memories”

  1. Family photographs from before definitely had more value I think. As you mentioned, it took more time and effort to make and develop them. Present day saturation and the fact that everyone has a camera in their pocket means so many more photos are taken and it’s harder to enjoy THE moment… I’m talking in general terms of course.

    1. Thanks Yuri, that’s an excellent point, many people are so busy firing off a hundred photographs a minute they’re not able to immerse themselves in the experience themselves.

      Always find it odd – and a little sad – that at any school play or performance or sports day there are always a few parents who watch the whole thing through a tiny phone screen, rather than just be there and see it live in person…

  2. I have negatives, slides and prints of photographs taken by my father beginning in the mid 1930’s, and a similar collection of my work beginning in the mid 1950’s. I find that I am much more interested in scanning and printing the older pre-digital era pictures than the film pictures from the digital era. Looking around my workroom right now I am pretty sure that the most recent picture on the walls is one of my son, taken in 1978.

    When our grandchildren visit, the pictures they most often ask to look at are those of their great great grandparents.

    1. That’s a good point about what we’re preserving for future generations.

      I actually grew up with very few photos around, and my wife has always had loads on the wall. I found it very strange, alien almost, when we first lived together.

      But I think it’s a good example to kids to have and share prints of photos of moments throughout our lives.

  3. I don’t think of specific photographs as much as a feeling and memories of my beloved Great Uncle. A lifelong avid photographer, we would set out in the morning in his seaside town for a day afield with his medium format cameras lots of film. Always the sense of wonder and anticipation of the next great shot around the corner.

  4. More and more of the best memories of my childhood must necessarily be retrieved through blurry, sometimes simply awful pictures my parents took on a film SLR. Yet I spent hours as a child admiring them out of the faux wood, metal file box which they were practically jammed into, dogeared corners and all. They were amazing, wonderful masterpieces to me…..even some of the worst exposures! They were masterpieces for a completely different reason. Your post is almost eerily prescient, for another friend just quite recently, very wisely counseled to me about the importance of making prints from this year for remembrances, for the boys.

    Dan, honestly I feel as though I must have already let you down…… based on my latest post which seems hardly poetic or endearing……even quite uncouth, vulgarly distasteful to anyone visiting for the first time. I hardly deserve praise for such juvenile prose. But many thanks to you for being such a charming, honest, patient friend these past few years. Because you’ve seen me through just enough to perhaps tolerate or hold your nose at my shortcomings as a journaler pal.
    warmest regards,

    1. Jason, you’re dead right about the quality of photos, that seems to be almost irrelevant over time, as long as the subject is vaguely legible.

      And we don’t look at photos of our grandparents or parents when they were young and think “I wonder what camera and lens they used”. It doesn’t matter, what does matter is they made that image.

      Don’t mention it re your blog, honestly it’s one of my favourites, I very much enjoy your writing, and of course having two boys now myself (and an older girl, 12 tomorrow, how did that happen?) there’s that affinity between us too.

  5. Yup! I have been scanning all my old photos going back to 1973, and also some of my Dad’s going back to his time in Korea in 1953. All I can say is there are many things that would otherwise have remained buried in the mists of time otherwise. Some it turns out may be important from a historical point of view beyond me and my family, a good reason not to delete every image you are not completely satisfied with…. and a good reason to shoot film, or at least print your images. A shoebox of photos is much easier to explore I think than a folder on a hard drive!

    1. That is a great line about the shoebox. I kind of wish we had that for our kids, a box of a couple of dozen prints, not hard drives with thousands of images.

  6. And today, with typical parents vastly more prolific with their camera phones than their grandparents ever were when they had to pay per exposure, and a roll of 35mm film lasted months, do any children have such lasting individual images of their own childhoods?

    That’s a thought-provoking question. I have vivid memories of my grandparents and parents that I’m not sure I can separate from photographs, perhaps because I was too young when the events happened. Back in the day, it was customary to sit around a photo album and look at the photographs with my mom or grandmother telling me about the who/what/where/when of the picture.

    I switched to digital in 2000 just after my first child was born. I do my best to revisit these old photographs, but I don’t think I have done it often enough to help cement the memories.

    1. I’m not sure I had that experience of a parent sharing photos with me and telling me the back story, but I do love the idea of it. I wonder how I can start to do this with our kids.

      Having physical photo albums or photo books and sitting round looking through just seems such an enjoyable experience, and as you say must help cement some precious memories.

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