What a photograph can and cannot do: a visual investigation into the social phenomena of photographs as a memory device

Shirley, Anne
Robertson, Natalie
Amundsen, Fiona
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Master of Art and Design
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Auckland University of Technology

As members of extended families and genealogical lines we collect and view photographs to remember. By situating the present investigation within the context of archival family photographic collections, this research seeks to understand the assumptions surrounding the interplay between the practice of viewing photographs and notions of remembering. Historically, photography has been connected to concepts of stability and truth with photographic images acting as a metaphor for ‘real lived experiences’. When a photograph is viewed, whatever was present before the camera is verified. In his seminal text Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1980), French theorist Roland Barthes describes this as ‘a truth to presence’ (Barthes 1980: 84). Barthes links this position to Poststructuralist theory, by determining that photographic signifiers, denotative data, are stable where as the signified, the idea or meaning, is contingent on what a viewer brings to that particular ‘text’. Therefore the viewer relies on denotative data to process meaning. This research explores the ways photographers play with photographic processes to disrupt ideas of stability of meaning surrounding this medium. The visual component of this research explores the expectations that socio-cultural groups, specifically extended families, have when viewing photographs. The subsequent work will endeavour to lay bare the interplay between such expectations and the supposed reliability of the photograph in respect to both meaning and perception. Using an archive of my own extended family’s collection of photographs, this thesis seeks to disrupt the story-telling qualities of photographs. This interruption strategy points to poststructuralist discourses surrounding the stability of the photographic image and the context in which photography is grounded. The work will challenge viewers to re-assess what the photograph can or cannot do. The final work will be comprised of 80% practice and 20% exegesis.

Photograph , Memory device , Family photographs , Viewing photographs , Contemporary art
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