The Camera as a Window into The Past
Looking at a photo that blends a modern scene with a picture taken from exactly the same spot many decades ago is a strange experience. When we see these two scenes entangled with one another, we experience first hand two of the most powerful effects of photography: its ability to trigger our own memories and its capacity to record history. We feel as if we are looking back through a window into the past, but we are still tied to the modern world in such a way that history begins to feels alive and very personal. These images prove to us how much photography matters.
Why Taking Photographs Matters
The way in which we see the past and remember our own lives is shaped by photography. Photos matter because they allow us to see important historic moments for ourselves, in a manner that cannot be matched by any historical document or portrait, but they are also important because they provide a means to record and share our own memories. Many of us take our own photos on vacation, to mark special occasions, or simply to capture moments in our everyday lives, but we may not stop to think about why these photos matter so much or why it is so important to use and look after our photographic equipment and preserve our pictures for future generations. The photos we take now will shape the stories and memories we share in the future, as well as providing people in the distant future with the chance to look back through a photographic window into our times.
Photography and Memory
Although photographs are an important part of our understanding of history, their significance does not end with great events and famous figures. Photography can preserve our own family histories and memories, enabling us to recall and share the most important stories of our lives. The photographs we take in our own lives can shape the way we remember events. Many of the memories we have from childhood are influenced by the photographs we have kept, and the stories that people have told around those images. When we recall the past or ask our parents and grandparents about their lives, it is often over an album of photos. The effect can be so strong that it is even possible to make people believe in false memories by showing them faked photographs of a supposed childhood trip in a hot air balloon.
Photography and the Past
Photographs can also provide us with a window on worlds that we cannot experience for ourselves, including those that have disappeared into the past. Photos have become such an important part of the historic record that they make the time before cameras were invented feel far more distant and mysterious to us than the years that we can look back at in photographs. The difference is clear when we see some of the earliest photos of US Presidents and compare the experience to viewing the portraits that are the only surviving images of others. Seeing the real faces of our ancestors, or of important historic figures, can be far more powerful that any portrait or written description. We feel that we are stepping back into the shoes of the photographer who recorded the scene, and seeing the world through their eyes.
Photographs of Then and Now
Photographs have power over our memories and our perceptions of the past, but it is when these two aspects of photography collide that something truly special is created. The effect of images that combine pictures of the same scene then and now stems from the combination of the chance to look back into the past with the emotional resonance of modern photographs that can evoke our own personal memories. When we come across historical photographs in textbooks or museums, their power can be limited by the fact that we view them in a somewhat dry and distanced way. Combining these photographs with modern images taken in the exact same spot awakens the more personal and emotional part of our reaction to photography, by bringing these scenes of the past into direct contact with our modern lives. The effect is strongest when we know the location ourselves, since our own memories of the location will be awakened by the modern picture, heightening our reaction to the historic scene, but even in an unfamiliar place, the effect is striking. Seeing the old and new coexisting alongside one another brings the past alive and enables us to appreciate just how close we are to the black and white faces that we see in the photographs. To see them walking the streets alongside the familiar bustle of modern life is to see them as real people.
By: Claire Morgan
By: Claire Morgan