The Memory of Time

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Palace Theater, Gary, Indiana by Andrew Moore, 2008Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund

A new exhibition explores photography's lost hold on truth in the digital age

Who? A new show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC has brought together the work of 26 contemporary photographers from around the world – amongst them Mikhael Subotzky, Moyra Davey and Idris Khan – to explore the “richness and complexity of photography’s relationship to time, memory and history.” Today we are all photographers, engaged in a global conversation of images, and millions of photographs are created every day. But the arrival of the digital age has done more than change the way we take and share photographs. Digital photography has torn the truth away from the medium, leaving it with no claim to objectivity; it not only preserves memory, it distorts it; and not only records history but can create it.

What? This is the gallery’s first project to focus exclusively on trends in contemporary photography, and the 76 works that fill its walls were made using combinations of traditional and untraditional techniques and subjects. The artists’ eyes are not on the clear-cut, the empirical, the new or the old, but on the shadow in-between – between the idea and the reality, the motion and the act, the past and the present. In their works, Myra Greene and Binh Danh question the way we perceive history through photography by evoking historical photography that we have seen – Greene’s self-portraits strongly reference 19th century colonial, anthropological ambrotypes, bringing with them the attached racial stereotypes, and asking whether these endure today.

But whilst Greene uses her camera to throw into relief the light and dark of history, Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto uses his to traverse and even escape it. To create Tri City Drive-In, San Bernadino Sugimoto positioned his camera some distance from the movie screen and left its shutter open for the duration of the film. “Each photograph… represents a movie – a whole movie in a photograph”, he explains. The screen hangs in a realm both full and empty of time. Long exposure has let many minutes of film and light into the camera, yet the screen seems to sit permanently, exempt from time, overlooking the empty playground.

Elsewhere, Andrew Moore has spent two decades capturing places where “multiple tangents of time overlap and tangle”. In his Palace Theater, Indiana, the interplay between grand Mediterranean stage set mural and sea of long-since abandoned seats laments the passing of time and the loss of a once thriving place of entertainment. Mark Ruwedel’s Dusk series also depicts abandonment, this time of homes in the harsh environment of the American West. His houses are modern yet already empty. Premature, contemporary ruins, they sit in a valley whose fracas with history was only brief.

Why? The Memory of Time marks the 25th year of its gallery’s photographic collection, and at a time when social media and image-sharing transforms the medium again, this is a landmark in contemporary photography. Despite the challenges that new technologies have presented, photography has withstood, and this exhibition reflects, as the gallery’s director puts it, “the fecundity and vitality of the medium today.” It is as necessary as ever to illuminate the evolving state of photography, and this exhibition shows that with new and old technologies combined, it is all the more possible.

The Memory of Time is at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC until September 3. The catalogue is available now, published by Thames & Hudson.