Verna Posever Curtis’s book Photographic Memory (Aperture/Library of Congress) is an intimate look at some of the oldest and most historical photo albums found within the Library of Congress’s collection. The book starts out by recounting the historical and philosophical value of the photo album. While albums were around before the invention of photography, they were transformed into something more once the photographic prints were introduced. In fact, once the Kodak Brownie was invented, albums became more prevalent as a way to document people’s travels and momentous occasions in their lives.
From the burlap cover of the book, to the chapters inside, it’s apparent that the content within is something special and unique. Just short of looking at the actual albums themselves, this book does a terrific job at portraying the importance and intimacy that the makers poured into their albums. The albums range in style and content- while some are direct, only showing pictures and dates, such as the album Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, other are more ornate, depicting photos, drawing and various stories, such as Alaska. Posever Curtist introduces each album with a brief summary and historical recount of its origin.
Alaska is a scientific recount of what was called “The last great scientific exploration of the nineteenth century.” As per doctor’s orders, Howard H. Harriman set out on a journey to Alaska to hunt the Kodiak bear. He brought with him photographer, Edward Curtis and a team of various scientists. The album is thought to be compiled by George F. Nelson, however, many contributed to its content. While Harriman’s journey was described as a scientific exploration, the actual album is somewhat whimsical with its poems and drawings. In particular, the story of catching an octopus is a two page layout with a poem about the tale on the right and photos on the left, completed with a watercolor painting of an octopus weaving between the pictures.
Ultimately, Photographic Memory shows the viewer why preserving photographic albums is as important to our culture. Unlike a printed book, the album has everlasting traces of the maker throughout it. Each element in the album was placed there with great intent of the maker. Also, the album connects us to the past in a much more emotional and visceral level that a simple book could ever do.