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Walking Memory

One of my key interests over the last five or six years has been the idea that our bodies remember the places that our ancestors came from. While it’s an idea that is found in a number of different cultures, for the time being I’m interested in how it plays out within my own experience of place. I’m interested in how it’s something that is felt more than consciously understood. I’ll try to describe it here.

As I’ve written elsewhere, on my Andrew Dearman Art Stuff Facebook page and in some of the conference papers that I’ve presented overseas (online), I became interested in this idea when I went to London for the first time to present a paper on the topic of the use of re-photography in phototherapy.

Conventional rephotography is where you find an old photograph of a landscape or other kind of environment, find where it was taken from, and then go to the place to take another photograph from the same vantage point with a view to comparing what has changed within the space.

Within phototherapy, you find an old photograph from your childhood, and then re-stage the taking of the image, striking the same pose. This element of ‘striking the same pose’ is quite important, as it points to the idea that our bodies retain and then recall something of past psychological state when being photographed. It isn’t a well-known or commonly used form of therapy, and as with most forms of therapy, it should only be undertaken under the guidance of a trauma informed therapist. Rosie Martin and Jo Spence in the UK and Judy Weiser in Canada are some of the key authors within the field.

This book edited by Del Lowenthal is quite useful in describing the field.

'Phototherapy and Therapeutic Photography in a Digital Age', Del Lowenthal (ed), 2013.

I stumbled into the field of phototherapy when in mid-2017 I re-encountered a photograph that was taken of me sitting in a tree in about 1980. My initial response to seeing the photograph was like a panic attack. Rather than stay in what could have been a distressing state, I quickly became interested in how the photograph could have such an affect on me. This experience formed the basis of a conference paper that I presented in Helsinki in early 2018, and then in London later in the year.

That was quite an intense year, as in between those two presentations, I had a heart attack and was diagnosed with a leaking heart valve.

While I had been to Europe on eight separate occasions, this was my first trip to London. Normally I experience severe jet lag and it takes me a while to adjust. North is South and South is North. However as tired as I was, when I arrived in London, North was North and South was South, and I had the weird feeling as if I knew my way around. The paper went well, and I returned to Australia a week later. (I mentioned some of this in an earlier blog post on this site.)

A few months later, I discovered that half of my sixteen great great grandparents migrated from the East End of London (or nearby) in the mid to late 1800s. Some had moved from the countryside for a few years, starting a family before migrating, while other family lines could be traced back to the 1500s.

With this new information I developed the idea that the sense of familiarity that I experienced in a city that I had never been to before, was in fact a form of remembering. Developing this idea of gesture and ‘striking a pose’ as it is found in phototherapy, I became interested in how walking the same streets, experiencing distance, pace, camber, and incline, can be considered as a form of recall. Within phototherapy the dynamic of encoding (experience) and decoding (recall) is confined to the lived experience of one individual. However, with this research project, the same dynamic becomes epigenetic and intergenerational. The element that connects it all together is the role that the somatic nervous system plays in movement and remembering. This is speculative, of course. But it’s certainly worth exploring.

I’m interested in how using an analogue camera whilst walking through these familiar spaces can act as a mediating factor. How our eyes move back and forth as we walk through such places is worth considering. The movement of our limbs, the camber and incline of the footpath etc is important in respect to our experience of ground, but the sideways glance that we give is also important. These movements of the body, big and small, are points of repetition—something that the bodies of our ancestors did daily. In looking through the view finder of a camera, we focus our attention on one aspect of the view in front of us, while paradoxically becoming hyper aware of other phenomena like smell, sound, temperature, etc. These things somehow manage to come back to us when we view the photograph when it’s been developed.

I returned to London a year later in September 2019, to write, take photographs, and walk the same streets that my some of my great great grandparents walked before migrating.

About a week before that, I decided to hop on a bus here in Adelaide, and visit the suburb that I grew up in. For a whole lot of complex reasons that sit within my response to seeing that photograph taken of me sitting in a tree when I was about fifteen years old, I’m not comfortable going back there. But I treated it as an exercise in therapeutic photography—which is similar to phototherapy but doesn’t involve a therapist.

I took an iPad with me, on which I had a scan of another photograph from about 1980—a selfie that I took up the back of the bus. This is the image at the beginning of this post.

I restaged it with a 1953 Agfa Silette film camera, which has become one of my favourite cameras. It doesn’t have a light meter, so I have to look at the ambient light and think about what the settings should be.

I walked around the neighbourhood that I grew up in. I walked past the house that I grew up in. Taking photographs and then walking away.

I sat at the edge of the football field where I used to fly a kite in 1979, writing reflections on temperature, smell, ambient sound.

I walked along the creek where I used to catch tadpoles and frogs. I walked past the local shops. I stood on street corners. Taking photographs.

Importantly, with a camera like this, I only find out if the settings have been right, when I develop the film. I was happy with the results. This was one of the cameras that I took with me to London. I like the weird crinkled edge and I've made a point of scanning the film, leaving those edges present. The material qualities of the negatives, the edges, scratches and dust spots are important for me. They reassert the fact that the negative is a thing in time and place, not just a window through which we see the world. I think that's my early arts training as a sculptor creeping back in, but it also relates analogously the idea of the body that remembers place.

On the tech side, I usually use Ilford FP4 film with analogue cameras that don't have light meters (and often with some that do). The main reason for that is that if I have to make use of my eyes as a light meter, I want to have a familiar reference point. Once again, it's a memory thing.

idk, i might delete this post. I'm using it as a place where I can play with words and pictures.

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