Photographs: Reminders of Our Mortality

Wellington, April 19, 2011 /Photography NewsVictoria University Professor of Art History Geoffrey Batchen says it's time to rethink the significance of all those old photographs in family albums, in boxes under the bed-or posted on our Facebook page.

Photo: Veronica Roth
"Why is it that if our house is burning one of the few things we would run back to get is that old shoebox of photos we may not have looked at for 10 years? Given that 99.9 percent of photos are boring and repetitious-what is it about photography that we cling to with such tenacity?" 

In his inaugural lecture on Tuesday 3 May, Professor Batchen will address the effects and implications of photography's relationship to reproduction in order to understand photography in a way that matches the "extraordinary complexity of the photographic experience".

Professor Batchen says that while most photos are banal and repetitious, they offer a rich and untapped source of study for art historians-and are of near theological importance to their owners.

"Photography continually reminds us of the passing of time-this makes our relationship to photographs especially complicated. I argue that one of the things that makes even the most boring photograph a thing of fascination is our desire to transcend death, because the same photographic image that confirms the imminence of our death (by reminding us that we are getting older) also confirms the possibility of our transcending that death by leaving a trace in time."

Professor Batchen says that art historians have tended to focus on photographs as if they are unique objects. "But photography as a medium undercuts the traditional art historical values of originality, because most photographs can be reproduced thousands of times."

"My interest is not in the great innovators, the originals, as much as it is in everything else, for most photography is exactly the opposite-banal, repetitious, predictable, and conformist-and the history for that hasn't been written yet."

Professor Batchen says the act of looking at an old photograph is a kind of time travel-and one that reminds us of our own mortality-and ultimately our death.

"People are often uncomfortable looking at photos of themselves from the past, precisely because it reminds them that they are getting older."

"The photograph is a very intriguing thing-it does not just record a moment in time-it calls on our greatest fears and anxieties as mortal human beings. Our relationship to photography is vested not in its truth but in our belief and desire-against all logic we want to believe that the photograph can help us transcend death."

Geoffrey Batchen has curated art exhibitions all over the world. His writing on photography has featured in numerous journals, books and exhibition catalogues and been translated into 19 languages. He was appointed Professor of Art History at Victoria last year.

Victoria Vice-Chancellor Professor Pat Walsh says Victoria's Inaugural Lecture series is an opportunity for professors to provide family, friends, colleagues and the wider community with an insight into their specialist area of study.

"It is also an opportunity for the University to celebrate and acknowledge our valued professors," says Professor Walsh.

Professor Geoffrey Batchen's inaugural lecture will be held on Tuesday 3 May at 6pm at Victoria University's Hunter Council Chamber, Level 2, Hunter Building, Gate 1 or 2, Kelburn Parade, Wellington, New Zealand.


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