28 November 2006

Photography, Shmotography (Part One)

In researching and crafting the text for my artefacts for our class exhibit on inventions and innovations in London, I have been thinking about why people feel the need to document their lives. The items I am working on are a Ciné-Kodak Model B movie camera, and a Bell & Howell Filmo Ciné Projector (both dating from about 1925). One area that I have been thinking about, and that I did not get to address in the exhibit work, is the effect that photography and filmmaking has on our ability to tell our stories. So, I decided to think about that here.

Some people will argue that photography and filmmaking are nothing if not the stories of our lives. I disagree. I think that images (both still and moving) are quite often poor substitutes for the stories they attempt to relate.

According to documentary filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, photographs are false pathways to memory. Real memory, as I heard on CBCs The Current for November 16, 2006, is created in the mind. While photos can trigger memories, they are not the memories themselves (My classmate, Molly, wrote a great blog about something quite similar to this). Yet, we increasingly rely on photography and other images (like films) to document the past, rather than using our brains to hold those memories.

Images have a valuable place in our world, to be sure. My fear is the potential erosion of our memories – and collective memory – that comes along with our reliance upon them. While images are valuable for those who were not present to be able to get some sense of the past, are they really a substitute for the real memory? (I suppose you could ask me what “real memory” is, and I would have to concede that that is a fair question, and I do not have the answer for it. What I mean, in this case, by real memory, is the memory of the past contained within our heads).

I think a personal example will demonstrate the fallibility of photographs as windows into the past, and how little information you can actually ascertain from a photograph. And hey, I fully expect a retort from anyone who has studied photography and what can be gleaned from pictures. I think that part of the reason I feel the way I do is because I am ignorant of some of the finer details involved in picture-viewing. But I still think I have a solid argument here.

So, I am going to present you, the reader, with two pictures. One of myself, and one of my fiancée, Donna:

So, what do you get from these pictures? What can they possibly tell you? I’ll give you a minute.

Okay, that’s long enough. So, what did you come up with?

What you would not – and could not possibly – get from the pictures is what led us to end up in the situation in which we were taking pictures of ourselves, and crying with laughter at the results.

Did you understand from the pictures that we were in a computer store in London, Ontario? Did you know that we were there because the hard drive on my computer had decided to die that day, and that it was tearing me apart? That I was pretty close to having a breakdown?

Or did you get that while I was trying to haggle with the store clerk about getting a new drive, Donna, that angel, had walked up to a computer and seen a ghastly picture on its screen, only to realize, to her horror and amusement, that it was an image of herself?

It is important to this story that you remember that I was having a terrible, rotten, no good, very bad day.

Donna then dragged me away from the clerk, tears beginning to well up in her eyes, choking back laughter. She made me stand in front of the computer, while I had my picture taken in this warped way.

We took these pictures, and then a few more, and through it all I was crying – doubled-over, even – with laughter. It was exactly what I needed to calm me down and make me see the lighter side of the whole day.

I can think of no possible way that anyone could have understood any of that part of the story behind these pictures simply be looking at them. To do that, Donna or I would have had to tell you the story. And what is more, it is possible that the story Donna would tell you would be quite different from the story I just told.

Photographs do not stand in as a record of the reality of what happened. And I recognize that no credible historian would tell me to use photos as my sole source when looking into the past. I also admit that the memories inside our heads are far from perfect. The historian in me believes that history is story. My fear is that many of the stories that can and ought to be told are not, simply because people think it sufficient to supplement the story with an image.

To be continued…

06 November 2006

Proudly, a Patahistorian

Perhaps it was wrong, as Rob MacDougall alludes, for me to admit that I often think about how I will be remunerated as a public historian. But I doubt it. I recognize that Prof. MacDougall’s concern for the fact that I wrote about making money was not him deriding me for talking about how I will make money as a public historian; it was a warning shot across my bow to let me know that I will probably not make much money in this field. In a world in which I would not have to worry about providing for myself – let alone my family – monetary concerns would, of course, be nonsense. But public history is popular history, about the people; those historical endeavours that do not, necessarily, occur inside the ivory tower. I think we would be amiss to simply not talk about how to make money.

As Jonathan Vance pointed out to our public history class, historians too often do not talk about money. Yet, history – especially public history – is a business, whether we like it or not. Take for example the federal government’s recent attempt to make cuts to museum funding across Canada. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty attempted to cut the Museums Assistance Program in half earlier this fall, thereby reducing the budgets of many museums and galleries nationwide. Had the cuts passed in the House of Commons, small museums across the country would have had to operate under tighter controls. They would thereby have been forced to either reduce their staffs, carry less exhibits, or any other number of like measures to accommodate this move.

Regardless of the fact that the cuts did not go through, public history has always been a business, especially museums. For historians operating in the university setting, the need for a business approach is simply not as severe as for those who practice history outside the academy.

It just may be possible that the lack of business acumen amongst historians is a large reason why over the past fifty years history has failed to garner the attention it deserves. Only in the past decade – or perhaps even five years – has there been a rise in interest in history (in Canada, at least).

It seems to me to be somewhat elitist to declare that wondering how I am going to make money has no place in history. On the contrary, I think more historians must consider this question, and not just when they are finished – or nearly finished – with their education.

While history ought to be an objective endeavour, free from the ills of monetary considerations, historians, myself included, are only human.

Blog Counselling

Ah, blog; why do you avoid me? A better question, you might ask of me, oh blog, is why do I neglect thee? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I fear for the repercussions to my reputation as an historian. Of course, that would just be bogus, as blogging is a requirement in two of my classes. I cannot consent, then, to using that excuse for my obscenely long absence from the blogosphere.

I suppose I could attribute the breakdown in our relationship, blog, to the fact that I am exceptionally gifted in the procrastination department. While my classmates have been busy providing dazzling intellectual insights into the worlds of digital and public history, I have been roaming the web, spider-less, looking for the elusive perfect watch. Procrastination, however, is not the reason we are growing apart, dearest blog. But we can talk about my procrastination later; there is still one other thing that I need to address here.

Blog, I have realized that I need to get over my current mindset that prevents me from posting anything but what, to my mind, is a perfect post. I have not, as my classmate Kevin has, suffered from writer’s block. I have over a dozen topics upon which I have written lengthy semi-posts. I took notice when Bill told our Digital History class that we need to demonstrate that we are doing our work by blogging about it more than some of us have been. I noticed he looked at me cross-wise. I take the hint.

Blog, I know that together, we can work this out. Alan told me so.