Written for 451 at www.451project.com)
We are sitting at a rickety wooden table in the grounds of a bed and breakfast in the South of Glasgow. There is a collection of photograph albums on the table. You can feel the relief of the furniture every time the weight of one is lifted from it.
I’m reminded of asking for directions when I was last in Ireland. The man had said, ‘Oh, that’s easy to get to, but if I were you I wouldn’t start from here’.
There is something tragic about a photograph that is often overlooked. In many ways the negative is a graveyard for light, the end of the wave, the resting point of the particle. It’s the end of a process that started, potentially, 147.96 million kilometres away, and 8 minutes and 20 seconds ago.
Between us, on that table, are some images made of light that died twenty years ago.
With digital images we talk about resolution. How many pixels, the individual units of the image, are present? This is not strictly the case with film stock. Although film is, technically speaking, also digital. The reaction between light and a molecule of silver halide is strictly an on or off reaction.
A 35mm film, such as Fuji Velvia, is rated to resolve 160 lines per millimetre. That means, per millimetre you have 160 lines that would require the equivalent of one light and one dark pixel. This means that per millimetre you’d need 320 pixels to represent the data it can hold.
320 pixels x 320 pixels is the equivalent 0.1 megapixels per square millimetre.
35mm film is 24 x 36mm, or 864 square millimetres. Adding this all up gives a film equivalent of 87 megapixels.
In the year 2000 Canon introduced the digital version of the best-selling IXY Advanced Photo System camera, the IXY DIGITAL. The digitised version of “IXY,” while keeping the “IXY” body size, had a 2.11 megapixel sensor.
As it happens my Canon 550D that I still use is capable of 18 megapixels.
This is only considering black and white images. If we account for the true response to Red, Green, and Blue data you’d need a digital camera of approximately 175 megapixels to record all the data on a single 35mm film negative.
Can you still buy it? When was the last time you used correction fluid? Perhaps you have never used it.
A product made for a technology that is slowly becoming forgotten.
It was invented by Bette Nesmith Graham. A way of correcting typewriter typos. She had made the connection that whenever artists make mistakes, they generally don’t erase them, but instead paint over them.
Bette Nesmith Graham was also the mother of Robert Michael Nesmith, better known as Michael Nesmith, the songwriter, actor and member of the pop rock band, The Monkees.
Can you still buy Monkees records? When was the last time you listened to one? Perhaps you have never listened to one.
On the surface we know why we take images.
We take images so that we can share them with others. Mementos from places. The classic post-holiday slideshow.
We take images as souvenirs for ourselves, as reminders.
We take images to promote ourselves, or the things we want to associate with us.
We capture images like feral animals.
These are all secondary uses, however. The primary function of a photograph is memory. Externalised memory.
Humans are awful at recalling details about very specific moments in time. Things blur, or change. Some fade away. Remember everything isn’t that useful for survival, apparently, but it is useful for our enjoyment of it.
The trick here is resolution. The ability to remember every detail, not just the broad strokes.The trick here is resolution. The ability to remember every detail, not just the broad strokes.
The 2000 undisputed world champion of memory at the world Memory Championships was Dominic O’Brien. He’d won the competition five times previously. Competing in a range of feats such as:
One hour numbers (23712892….)
Spoken numbers, read out one per second
30-minute binary digits (011100110001001….)
One hour playing cards (as many decks of cards as possible)
15-minute random lists of words (house, playing, orphan, encyclopaedia….)
15-minute names and faces
5-minute historic dates (fictional events and historic years)
15-minute abstract images (WMSC, black and white randomly generated spots) / 5-minute random images (IAM, concrete images)
Speed cards – Always the last discipline. Memorise the order of one shuffled deck of 52 playing cards as fast as possible.
Dominic is also the author of ‘How to Develop a Perfect Memory’, in which he details his techniques for remembering things. Essentially they are variants on narrative based mnemonics. Creating a journey or a room in which the seemingly disparate pieces of information are linked together in sequence.
Whilst we might struggle to contain details in our memories, it turns out that the human mind is rather fond of stories. We often carry around thousands with us, both personal and received, and whilst we can’t often recall the exact words of our favourite books, the essence of them slowly becomes part of us.
It could be that this system of cause and consequence, present in most coherent narratives, was a great aid to our survival, maybe a story about which berries not to eat, or the traditional activities of seasons that revolve around planting and harvesting. Stories about places to stay away from.
Or maybe there is something comforting in being able to revisit places we have never physically been.
Still, many of us don’t possess Dominic’s talent, the ability of complete recall, but if we could, what would we choose to remember?
‘Oh, that’s easy to get to, but if I were you I wouldn’t start from here’
The point is, it isn’t only the destination, but the act of getting there. The process.
Here’s a project, 451. You could look at the destination as a collection of images, each depicting a human and a book they would like to have in their memory, but that would be missing the larger part of the questions and ideas it confronts.
This is a work that has taken over twenty years. An endeavour that has survived the near obsolescence of the materials it uses, in a time where the near total recall of any idea or fact can be summoned verbatim from the external memory of the internet.
It is a work of analogue duration.
And much like a photograph slowly revealing itself as it is developed in solution, 451 takes the time to reveal something far more than the specific moment of each image. Here we see trends in books come and go, and we see the ever present tension between narrative and facts and the usefulness of each.
And books themselves, much like the film photography, and the correction fluid, provide objects that have fought for survival alongside new technologies and new ways of storing our memories, identities, and our own narratives.
Ultimately, there lies an unspoken stipulation at the heart of this:
If you want to memorise a book, in its totality, first you have to read it.