Of Photographic Memories
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, November 2000

I used to wonder if a photographer would still feel the urge to photograph if suddenly blessed with a photographic memory. While it would seem that having what is called a photographic or “eidetic” memory wouldn’t overwhelm the desire of every outdoor photographer to communicate the visual power of what they’ve seen to others, such may not be the case. There’s good reason why we quickly forget most of what we see.

The mental abilities required to make compelling nature photographs may be opposite those that lock in an enduring, photographic memory of a scene. It’s all related to a bold statement that I made in a previous column: “Nature photography has no Mozarts. To the best of my knowledge no child under the age of 10 has produced a genius body of work appreciated at the highest level by adults unaware of the age of the artist.”

Eidetic memory, the ability to retain a highly detailed mental image of something not in sight, normally fades before puberty. Mozart’s unusually eidetic memory stayed with him. He was able to create one symphonic composition after another “almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture,” but he died in his thirties, still behaving like a juvenile.

Studies have concluded that up to half of young children have vivid eidetic memory. Many have it to such a strong degree that, with no prior instruction, they can count the stripes on the Cheshire cat’s tail well after being shown an illustration from Alice in Wonderland or spell out words in a foreign language they don’t know after seeing them a complex photograph. The rare few who retain it as adults generally live confused, unhappy lives with failed relationships. One eidetic man could clearly remember every face, but failed to recognize people in social situations because his precise mind imprinted frontal views, oblique views, and profiles as separate memories.

There’s a sound evolutionary reason why young children have such a potentially dysfunctional memory. Visual input is held wide open because only through life experience can a sense of relevance for what should be held in memory be gained. Research professor Steven Rose further explains in his book, The Making of Memory, that the human race evolved in situations where “it was a good bet that the environment in which one grew up would be virtually identical to that in which one spent one’s entire adult life. Hence the eidetic memory of childhood, enabling rules of perception to be developed, could smoothly transpose at the approach of puberty into the more linear forms of adult memory.”

Rose goes on to say that “as mental processes change with aging” and youthful speed of processing declines, “we develop better strategies to cope with and manipulate information. In a culture less obsessed than our own with speed for speed’s sake, we might be prepared to regard this change with age as something rather positive–what other societies have called wisdom.”

Another explanation for the role of selective memory loss in wisdom comes from Danish science writer Tor Norretranders. His European bestseller, The User Illusion, calls consciousness, including visual awareness, a highly simplified illusory simulation. It “presents us with interpreted data as if they were raw,” much as when we select an icon or word from a computer screen, a whole bunch of stuff begins to happen inside that we don’t fully understand and couldn’t possibly track with our brains in real time. The key to understanding consciousness may be in what we’re unconscious about. Norretranders recounts how human and artificial information systems alike use far more energy to clear information than to store it. “Knowledge is not what costs. Wisdom does.” In what could be a description of a good photographic eye, he concludes: “Making things look easy is hard. Clarity requires depth.”

Computers beat brains at memorizing fixed information, but brains handle judgmental functions with an apparent ease that defies computer simulation, especially where meanings involve esthetic metaphor, as in all creative art and photography. The greatest photographs are remembered more for their metaphorical meaning than for the precise information they contain. These meanings transfered into our brains via photographic compositions are the result of emergent processes shaped by experience in the minds’ eyes of photographers. Our latest “smart” cameras may have autofocus, autoloading, and programs for autoexposure, but an autocomposition feature can never replace human wisdom.

When researchers tested average adults for recognition rather than specific recall, they were wildly surprised to discover that photographs are so loaded with objective information and subjective meaning that an eidetic memory isn’t needed to recall if an image has been seen before. It had been long established that people with average memories could be asked to recall a list of four digits and read them back accurately a few minutes later, but as the number was increased and the recall time was extended to an hour, most failed. A resulting scientific paper was wryly titled, “The Magic Number Seven, plus or minus two,” summarizing the normal recall variance of between five and nine digits. Phone numbers are a case in point. Some people easily recall these seven-digit numbers, while others forever look them up. We normally deal with area codes as add-on separate entities.

The surprise came when a researcher tried to test how many slides average adults could recognize a week after a projection session of one every five seconds. His colleagues predicted accurate results of no more than twenty from projected pairings with previously unseen images that randomly alternated position. He kept expanding his tests until he established that average adults could recognize at least 10,000 images after a week with an accuracy that did not fall off as the number of images to be remembered rose. He found no upper limit.

Great nature photography usually happens with a conscious passion for how we want a scene to look in the mind of another as we distill the situation before our eyes down to its essentials. Children tend to see photographs eidetically, without sensing any interpretive artistry. An image is merely a substitute for the real thing, assessed as if the actual scene was being observed.

The remarkable performances of some child protegies in activities that begin with simplicity and gradually attain complexity, such as music, dance, and painting, do not transfer over to nature photography, which becomes visually compelling through the reverse course of previsualizing essential order and simplicity out of the great complexity of the natural world.

Our best photographs are unique because they evoke meaning through visual metaphors and equivalents that are based not only in the natural scene but also in the vivid inner life of our mental storehouse of knowledge and personal experience. As Steven Rose puts it, “Memory defines who we are and shapes the way we act more closely than any other aspect of our personhood.” Once we have learned to control the medium of photography enough to have reasonably predictable results, our images may speak from our hearts and say who we are more immediately and eloquently than any spoken words. The problem with a photographic memory is that it records and recalls only what’s out there, without any passion evoked from within.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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