In her forthcoming novel Men and Apparitions (Soft Skull, 2018), Lynne Tillman, following historian Geoffrey Batchen, notes that photography was invented by a species obsessed with the need to document the world, to make an image since ‘images make us’. ‘A symptom of positivism,’ she writes, photography is ‘incessant hope for proof – of anything.’ Long before Nicéphore Niépce slow-burned a view of Les Gras onto a pewter plate in 1826, we had dreamt of taking the present with us, into the future, to preserve some visual aspect of it for posterity, to flatten experience (and memory) into a picture, so that we might not forget how la vie had been before it wasn’t. In July 1971, the poet and artist Bernadette Mayer undertook her own study of the medium for a project called Memory in which she shot a roll of 35mm film every day of that month while keeping a daily journal. She developed the rolls – 1,100 photographs – and presented them as a slideshow with an accompanying six-hour narration from the journals at Holly Solomon’s 98 Greene Street space in February 1972. This year, CANADA has partially restaged the exhibition for the first time since Solomon showed it.
A sidewinding poet whose work has long been concerned with documentary procedure and the plainspoken nature of things, Mayer has written as one might photograph, recording the world as it stands before her, often in an up-swell of lyrical feeling. See, for example, her poem ‘Anthology’, from Poetry (1976), which consists of a series of lists of flowers, medical abbreviations, salutations, causes of fires (‘defective or overheated chimneys, flues, known but not otherwise classified, sparks from bonfires…’), and so on. In Memory at CANADA, the poet’s lyricism and quotidian observation intersect at a near-overwhelming level, with the 1,100 slides presented as a sumptuous wall of images. The photographs range in content and quality, with some capturing the blurry ordinariness of a diner and others the composed, dreamy aspects of certain downtown apartments, where Mayer mingled with poets and artists. Cars and fireworks flash. Men and women sit in the blue-tint of rooms at evening.
In Studying Hunger (1975), Mayer reflects on Memory and its memorializing poetics, particularly photography’s dreaminess. She nods to A.D. Coleman’s review of Memory in the Village Voice, where he describes the show as an ‘enormous accumulation of data’. She writes: ‘Cause memory & the process of remembering, of seeing what’s in sight, what’s data, what comes in for a while for a month, memory stifles dream, it shuts dream up. What’s in sight, it was there, it’s over, dream makes memory present, hidden memory the secret dream, it’s not allowed, forbidden …’ She continues with what reads, at least to my mind, as reference to photography and its alchemizing conversion of experience into an object as an aid to memory: ‘And dream’s an analogy to reprocessing in process, so rewrite it, it’s changed, but a memory according to how you record it now & as it could go on forever …’
It could go on forever but it doesn’t, and that is photography’s point: to seize what must immediately end (which in fact ends in the process of capturing it), and to make of it an image, if only some small part. Forty-five years after its debut, Mayer’s Memory evokes a bygone city that we have lost but refuse to give up on. It is a testament to – a proof of – photography and memory’s entwined success and failure at making the present a past, and the melancholy effervescence of a medium that has captured us all.
Main image: Bernadette Mayer, Memory, 1971–72. Courtesy: Bernadette Mayer Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of California, San Diego
First published in Issue 192