Great pictures don't make memories—Part II

Part I discussed the concepts underlying how people make remembrances. Now we turn to how we use photography to make remembrances.

To make remembrances, we need to translate the elements the mind uses into the way we select and frame what we intend to capture, and use the capabilities of our tools to encode the moment the same way the mind processes an event.

The first step is the selection of moments.

As with most things, the easiest path to improving your process of capturing remembrances is to start close and work your way out. Consider the things in your life that you hold onto which have “sentimental value.” Look at scrapbooks and photo albums, family picture books, or other collections of items which you and the people close to you use as cues to trigger their remembrances. At a gross level, this is easy: major life events are always heavily documented. Births, marriages, graduations, participation in group events, all are likely candidates for recordation. But to make good remembrances we want to look beyond those things. Indeed, we want to find out about the things that haven’t been recorded, but which would be meaningul to a person if they had been. Those events can often be found in stories. When you hear about a great conversation your aunt had over coffee with a friend, that should form a potential photograph in your mind of the event. It’s often those subtle moments which mean the most, and those are the types of events we should seek to capture. The birthdays are always well documented—the quiet conversation in the corner usually turns out to the be the important moment, and it usually goes unnoticed.

The next step is understanding the elements of the remembrance, and its emotional content.

Think about any of your own remembrances and what elements they contain. Think about the mood, the feeling, and what visuals your mind has held onto which represent and trigger the emotions you felt at the time you experienced what you’re remembering. A simple technique for bringing the qualities of remembrances to the conscious mind is to simply close your eyes and concentrate on a specific experience. When you can visualize an image, pay attention to the sensory perceptions of the remembrance. The more you can identify and label them (e.g., colors, brightness, animation, distance or closeness, sounds, feelings) the better you will be able to translate them into conscious thought and hold them there for consideration. 

As you make a practice of analyzing your remembrances, you’ll start to see patterns and associations and recurring themes. Once you identify a few of those, it will be a clear path to observe them when you’re taking pictures. That process will be all the easier if you keep in mind that remembering is a process of exclusion: we look at a scene and determine what is significant, what loop of thought isn’t closed, or what feeling or thought we wish we could extend. 

This is why great photographs are moments and not recordings of time. Upon viewing a photograph of a moment, we get the same feeling as we do when recalling the visual impression of a remembrance. Seeing a moment provides the cues that lead to recognition, connection, knowledge, emotion, curiosity, consideration, and sensation—all elements of a remembrance—but we are able to hold that moment and participate in it longer. 

When you start recognizing these moments, it’s time to confront the shortcomings of photography. Kodak’s jingle about “taking pictures is making memories” was correct because the camera is designed to freeze time. A frozen image is much like working memory—capturing all kinds of details and holding them for consideration—but without the intervention of a photographer, it fails to encode that information into a meaningful remembrance.

In translating the process of encoding a remembrance into the action of taking a photograph, the first step, as we just discussed, is selecting the moment. The next step is to frame that moment with the tools of camera and lens, using focal length, shutter speed, ISO, and physical perspective.

Getting it in the camera.

What humans remember is the impressions of moments, and great photographs capture the kind of impressions that we form as remembrances in a similar way. Just as we selectively remember certain features of an event when it gets encoded to a rememberance, we need to frame the moment so that our photograph appropriately limits the information to what would be encoded as a remembrance. 

The act of exclusion a person engages in which forms the remembrance can be translated into framing and focus. Indeed, the exclusion process used by the mind when it’s concentrating and evaluating importance is the same as framing an image, and focusing on the subject. But creating a remembrance requires the photographer to not only perceive and think about what needs capturing, but to frame the information so that only the relevant parts are included. The goal is to make the framing and timing decisions in a way similar to how we would commit and recall a remembrance. Our remembrances are usually specific, and your goal should be to eliminate as many distractions from the scene as you can, while still retaining a contextual environment.

A good image must capture not just the subject, but also the mood and emotion of the moment. That’s what a remembrance is, and that’s what a great photograph requires. This is where shutter speed and ISO can help. Our remembrances are not static or precise, and images which capture a remembrance shouldn’t be either. Don’t be afraid of grainy images if it will help enhance the mood of the moment. Likewise, although our remembrances are usually about a specific subject, what we recall is the impression of the moment—not a frozen image. The use of slower shutter speeds to capture a sense more of a glance than a stare is useful to bring a sense of increased time to the image.

Part Three discusses how to improve your Mementos . . . .