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Photography &

Culture
Volume 5—Issue 2
July 2012
pp. 215–218
DOI:
10.2752/175145212X13330132507103

One Photograph
From Memory
Angus Carlyle

Reprints available directly from
the publishers
Photocopying permitted by
licence only
© Berg 2012

I’m not sure that the memory isn’t more reliable when it has no
external aids to fall back on.
Seneca, Letter 87, Letters From A Stoic
I think that thirty years must have passed since I last saw the
photograph.
From memory, the photograph is black and white and small,
so small that to take it between thumb and forefinger would
be to obscure some of the elements held on its stiff, matte
surface. Holding my left hand up in front of me now as a point of
comparison and making allowance for the lengthening of fingers
and thickening of flesh in the passing decades, I reckon the snap that
I am trying to recall measured some one inch in width by two in
height, its image surrounded by a narrow, pale-colored border. As I
picture it, the photograph possesses a distinctly subdued palette but
is marked by no crease, no tear, nor any blemish.
Photography & Culture  Volume 5  Issue 2  July 2012, pp. 215–218

216  From Memory

I would see this photograph when I visited
my mother’s parents’ houses. I first saw it in the
cottage high on the Scottish hillside with the
pine forest where we tried snaring rabbits, the
summer’s wild raspberries, the fast cold river far
below with its slippery rocks and drifting clouds
of midges. Later, when age had made the bending,
steep and unmetaled road to the cottage that
much harder to climb, the photograph followed
my grandparents down to the large sandstone
house in the village in the valley: its wide attic of
treasures spanning the whole building; the stand
in the WC full of the walking sticks that my great
uncle had turned (with shed sheep horns or deer
antlers for handles); the fire in the front room that
made the chimney warm to touch; the extension
whose windows caught the late afternoon sun.
I recall the photograph being tucked into the
corner of a scalloped gold frame of another, larger
image that leaned against its own velveteenbacked rest on different tables in the two
successive houses. I have no sense of that larger
image at all now. But if I close my eyes and if pull
my brow muscles toward each other, if I tilt my
head forward slightly and if I lean it a little to the
left, if I splay my fingers across my brow—if I
do the things I have learned to do to show that
I am concentrating, then details of the smaller
photograph begin to coalesce.
I can see a sky at the top of the photograph,
the forms of the clouds roughly following the
lateral line established by a road or path that
travels from the left to the right and descends as
it makes its way across, the track’s surface kept
out of sight because of the lower angle from
which the picture has been taken and by a rough
accrual of snow on the nearest verge. Snow finds
itself, too, in my memory’s ad hoc reconstruction
of the recorded scene, on the roof of a dark log
cabin that juts into the sky. Snow is also there
below the boots of my uncle, smiling out from the
left of the picture, and is there on the right, on the
rocky bank behind my mum.

Angus Carlyle

At some point—either as a child scrutinizing
the world made by the photograph in front of my
face or as an adult retrieving the memory of that
long-since-seen photograph—I must have decided
to deposit some details about the clothing worn
by my mum and her brother, for these details
form the last particulars that can be grasped with
any definition before the trail turns into the haze
beyond memory’s reach. Through concentrating,
I can get my uncle to condense into a figure who
sports a white knitted jumper that has noticeably
thicker cuffs and collar. The jumper is worn above
plus fours that are darker than the long ribbed
socks beneath them. Sometimes, when I try to
focus on the picture, I see a coil of rope wrapped
over my uncle’s shoulder; but not always. Like my
uncle, my mum is wearing hiking boots but her
lower half is covered by dark leggings—the very
darkest shape in the entire photograph—that I
remember striking me as rather stylish. She is also
wearing a jumper (this time of a finer texture and
machine-made, but still plain and unpatterned),
has a knotted neckerchief, is holding a walking
stick and shines happy and confident to the
camera, which she is the closest to.
From what I recall, the photograph was taken
on a hiking holiday that my mum and uncle had
made to Norway in the early 1960s, before she
was married and before I was born. Mum and
my uncle were said to be standing on a glacier,
a shard of information that seemed to have a
particular sharpness for me every time I heard it
struck.
Although the photograph was never accorded
any totemic value within the family—indeed
no photographs held any such symbolic roles
as were growing up—it somehow exerted a
certain pull on my imagination for quite some
time. I remember boasting about this blackand-white snap at school, referring proudly to it
at university and—I’ve just remembered while
typing this—I brought it up in a conversation
with a friend visiting from Oslo just two years

Photography & Culture  Volume 5  Issue 2  July 2012, pp. 215–218

From Memory  217

Angus Carlyle

ago. The photograph was also valued not only
as something that could be announced to friends
and strangers, but as something that could
occasionally be mentally taken out and turned
over in my mind, its edges tested, its shape felt.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that no
subsequent events have lent this photograph
the poignancy of retrospect: both my mum and
my uncle are still very much alive and continue
to be very close. As I write this, I realize I have
a similar (and a symmetrical) relationship to
some 16mm film that showed my father and my
grandfather sailing around the north coast of
Scotland in a homemade yacht. I think the pull of
the photograph (and the film) is that it conveys a
side of my parents’ lives that was not as tangibly
accessible to me as they devoted themselves to
being loving carers. This is what I attached to:
facing peril, travel through distance and weather,
high rocks, snow and swelling seas, adventures
shared in boots and woolens.
When first asked to contribute this essay I
devised a slightly tricksy device that could make
another sense of what I wanted to say: I would
write my words about my mum, my uncle, and
the Norwegian glacier, about what I remember
of the picture that grouped those three together,
but I would write without seeing the photograph
again, imagining I could ask my parents to scan
the snap and send the file directly to the Journal.
Of course, in order to effect this strategy, I would
have to tell my parents which photograph I
wanted them to scan. As I have written, this
photograph was never negotiated in any way
special within our family. Nevertheless, I had
assumed that the picture would be immediately
recognized from even my briefest descriptions
of it. Those initial descriptions over the phone
were deliberately brief since I didn’t want Mum
or Dad to start furnishing me with additional
details of what could be seen in the photograph
and the whole exercise of attempted recollection
be somehow sullied. In the end, even the most

elaborate verbalizations on my part drew nothing
other than blanks. Neither my mum nor my dad
had ever heard of such a photograph. It was true
that there were photographs from the hiking
trip to Norway and some were dutifully scanned
and sent to me. Yet none of the images looked
anything like the one whose submarine current
has carried through me and my thoughts over
these many years. None of these photographs
had anything for me to attach to.
Despite everything, part of me remains
stubborn in the confidence that the photograph
actually exists, that it only needs to be tracked
down. Somewhere—maybe still wedged into the
gold scalloped frame, maybe in the wide attic
of the house in Evanton in Scotland—there is a
portrait-format black-and-white photograph of
my mum and uncle with the snow and the youth
hostel roof. Certainly, nothing I have been told
has yet to soften the persistence of the memoryimage: I can still picture it.
Memory: “I see us still, sitting at that table.”
But have I really the same visual image—or
one of those that I had then? Do I also
certainly see the table and my friend from
the same point of view as then, and so
not see myself?—My memory-image is
not evidence for that past situation, like
a photograph which was taken then and
convinces me now that this was how things
were then. The memory-image and the
memory-words stand on the same level.
(Wittgenstein, s. 650 Zettel)

Note
Angus Carlyle is a researcher at CRiSAP at the
University of the Arts, London. He is curious
about how we make sense of our environment
through sound. He edited the book Autumn
Leaves for Double Entendre (2007), made the
sound work 51° 32’ 6.954” N / 0° 00’ 47.0808”

Photography & Culture  Volume 5  Issue 2  July 2012, pp. 215–218

218  From Memory

W for the “Sound Proof ” group show (2008),
cocurated the exhibition “Sound Escapes” at
Space Gallery in London (2009), and produced
the CD Some Memories of Bamboo (2009) for
the label Gruenrekorder. For the last eighteen
months he has primarily been working on Air

Angus Carlyle

Pressure with anthropologist Rupert Cox and
scientist Kozo Hiramatsu, which culminated
in an exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery in
Manchester. He is currently working on a sound/
photography project in southern Italy called Viso
Come Territorio.

Photography & Culture  Volume 5  Issue 2  July 2012, pp. 215–218

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