Popsicle #24: Photographic Memory

Since the family album is the progenitor of the photobook, I occasionally collect stranger’s albums to see what I can learn. I recently purchased an album of a Westerner named Frank traveling in Japan in the 1950’s. It is fascinating to try and read the visual clues and piece together his story. Is he a soldier who remained in Japan after the war? Is he on a spiritual quest (there are a number of pictures of a man he simply calls ‘The Priest’)? What is his nationality (he calls his pictures ‘Fotos’)?

In many ways, the lack of information, the freedom to imagine Frank’s story, is what makes the pictures come alive. If Frank were a family member whom I knew everything about, the same book would have an entirely different aesthetic engine.

I thought about Frank and the power of photographic mystery while watching Ross McElwee’s 2011 documentary film, Photographic Memory (available streaming on Netflix). Like all of McElwee’s movies, Photographic Memory is a first person autobiographical film that explores a number of big themes (parenthood, adolescence, creativity). But the central mystery that propels the narrative is this photograph:


This picture is of a woman named Maud who was McElwee’s girlfriend while he was a 20-year-old living abroad in France. McElwee was an aspiring photographer at the time, but he wasn’t the one who made this picture. In fact, he only took two or three pictures of Maud, all from a great distance. But this is the picture that he carried in his wallet for a year after leaving France. McElwee shows this photograph several times throughout the film, as though he is implanting it in the viewer’s own memory.

At the beginning of Photographic Memory, McElwee doesn’t even remember Maud’s last name. But over the course of the film, he returns to France and learns not only who made the picture but also the photographer’s fascinating back-story.

But will McElwee track down Maude? Late into the film, it is uncertain weather or not he will ever find her. Then, when he finally gets her contact information, he’s uncertain whether or not he really wants to see her. Will it destroy the mystery?

Having imprinted the beatific image of the young Maude into the viewer’s mind, the audience is left with a similar mix of curiosity and trepidation. Forty years later, will Maude’s skyward gaze have lost its buoyant, dreamy beauty?

Do you really want to know the story of Maude (or Frank), or do you want to imagine it? That is not only the central question of this film; it is one of the most vexing questions facing photographers and storytellers.

I still can’t tell you much about Frank. But if you want see what Maude looks like now, click here. But are you really sure you want to do it?

10 Replies to “Popsicle #24: Photographic Memory”

  1. Another great “Popsicle.” I love this place. It’s the most consistently satisfying blog I have ever found. I come back to read these pops more than once but I’ve never commented/said this so thought I would now. Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking entries.

    Also, Monday night movie now sorted.

  2. Having just seen the Kubrick exhibit at LACMA last week, Alec, I’m wondering if part of the great power of 2001 is that we’re never really sure we know the story, no many how many times we watch it. (Yet, what we get from the movie is of such great power it has carried me across decades of uncertainty).

    In case you’re counting, I am not going to click on the link.

  3. I’m really loving those “DON”T CLICK THIS LINK” warnings. I hope you got more of them coming.
    Can we really resist wanting to know more?
    Is there no romance without mystery?
    Yes, I DID say romance! And what?

    I saw Ross McElwee’s “Photographic Memory” a few months ago. I was the only person in the theater (not because of the film; nobody ever goes to that theater). Did you really not want him to find Maud? Even though he was trepidatious at times, his compulsion to find her proved irresistible. And perhaps a bit disappointing? Reality is never as transfixing as a photograph. But we are always drawn to want more, and more, like a moth to flame.

    How does seeing present-day Maud affect the memories imbued by that lovely photograph he did not take? I feel that what we find out about that photograph, unraveling its mystery, does not detract from the imaginings that we empower it with.

    Imagining the stories that a photograph can stir made me think of a book that you contributed to: Will Steacy’s “Photographs Not Taken”. Stories imagined by photographs versus photographs imagined by stories.

    FWIW, I cannot resist clicking on the forewarned links. But at least I DO read articles to the end!

    I am on my way to France next week, to brew up my own memories. Have fun at camp, Alec.

    Oh… you got me reading “Reality Hunger”. That book is pushing my buttons.

    1. So great to have you commenting on this blog Charles. I mean, watching a Ross McElwee movie alone in a theater…you should be the Rex Reed of Lonely Boy Magazine. And I’ll be eager to read your reality hungry reports from the very unreal world of Arles.

      1. Don’t you just love it when you are the only one in the movie theater? My feet are propped up on the seat in front of me and I’m very conscious of the projectionist in the chamber behind me. Hmmm… this sounds like the setting for a new fotonovela.

  4. Answering your question about Frank:
    What is his nationality (he calls his pictures ‘Fotos’)? He could be Dutch, we call our pictures Fotos.
    Anymore clues to this mystery?
    Can you post a picture from Frank’s book? If you really want to know..

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