The mundane time machine

We make many kinds of photograph. There are our artistic endeavours, aspirational, serious, representative - if at all possible - of what kind of photographer we want to be. There are family photos, and photos to document things for practical purposes. Then there are the photos we make just because we feel like photographing. I rarely get much aesthetic joy with the latter if I’m honest, because generally the right subject and light are absent. I’ve just picked up the camera because I feel like doing photography.

The photograph in front of me is a most inauspicious one: it shows the side of a bath (in gaudy 1980s turquoise), a shower curtain, a cloth, a stretch of red patterned carpet, and the bottom of a door. Whilst looking at it, I am transported, partially if not fully and literally, to Morcambe, England circa 2000. It is a thoroughly mundane image, arguably of little aesthetic value and not an image possessed of public currency. Yet it depicts a space that I knew intimately, a space from my childhood and rich with memories of holidays at the seaside and of growing up. Like the Proustian trigger, it sets off a chain of associative memories and feelings. A most unremarkable photo and yet a poignant and fulsome personal one. An incidental thing and somehow a representative one.

Giving this further thought, I begin to wonder if the image is not all the more powerful for being incidental and mundane. Had it been a carefully constructed documentary shot of one of my grandparents’ rooms (for it is taken at their house), or a family ‘moment’, of the officially sanctioned happy family occasion kind, would it be quite so evocative?

Doubtless this is a personal perspective on a specific image, but it does point to a category of personal photography we might single out. Apparently incidental and mundane shots of small details that months, years or even decades later become thoroughly evocative and memory-laiden. 

I have always been interested in the historical nature of the photograph. It is a fact of photography that it always represents what has been (even if that moment is as close to us as a few seconds ago). Without wishing to romanticise the fact, photography acts something like a little time machine for our individual experiences. I think there are different kinds of images that do this; or, to put it differently, images that evoke memory through different mechanisms and lines of association.

My little meditation today provokes in me a modest resolution. A resolution to, every now and again, train my camera on some mundane but especially familiar object or corner of my life. A little visual message to my future self and a catalyst for memory.