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Monday, January 26, 2009

Mirror with a Memory

Error Morris in conversation with several photographers during the Bush presidency with their thoughts on some of the more controversial shots of the former US President. via

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., writing in 1859 (about 20 years after the first daguerreotypes appeared), called photography “a mirror with a memory.” [1] He writes,

“The man beholdeth himself in the glass and goeth his way, and straightway both the mirror and the mirrored forget what manner of man he was…”

For Holmes, the photograph serves as a reminder to ourselves of who we are and how we are perceived. He might have been commenting on photographic portraits in particular, photography, in general, but his meaning is clear.

“It has fixed the most fleeting of our illusions, that which the apostle and the philosopher and the poet have alike used as the type of instability and unreality. The photograph has completed the triumph, by making a sheet of paper reflect images like a mirror and hold them as a picture…”

It is interesting to note that Holmes does not say that photography has dispelled our most fleeting illusions, or revealed the reality behind them. Only that it preserves them as if in aspic or a piece of taxidermy. In Holmes’s era, photography was thought to capture reality. We know that photographs do not capture reality, but they can capture our evasions and self-deceptions. Now, more than 150 years after Holmes wrote this essay, we have an opportunity to reflect on the past and to ask that same fleeting question that intrigued Holmes: “what manner of man he was…”

[1] Holmes, “The Stereoscope and The Stereograph,” from The Atlantic Monthly, June, 1859.


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