Photography as the inventory of mortality

On my journey through the archives of various public domain pages on the internet, hunting for high-resolution pictures of the past. A peculiar pandemic-produced hobby... I have spent a disproportional amount of time, consuming the past: assimilating my version of the past.

In a sense, we are constantly consuming the past. Whether we are reading a novel, written 100 years ago or listening to a song from the ’60s. However, what distinguishes, the novel or the song from photographs (as a way to process the past)?

In her collection of essays on photography, Susan Sontag argues that

“Photography is the inventory of mortality”, it “enhances the memory of reality.”

Two very interesting phrases. When looked at in conjunction to one another, a question arises: how has photography changed the way we perceive reality, especially a reality that is no longer reality, i.e. a past reality. Does the past become more real and present through photography?

Now one might argue that the past is still present everywhere around us; from the buildings that we live in; to the artefacts that we inherit from our family; to the trees that grow in our backyards etc.

However, the fundamental difference between any artefacts from the past and a photograph is the fact that artefacts are bearers of traces and marks. No material thing, whether human-made or naturally occurring, can escape the eroding marks of entropy. And yet it seems that photography, (especially digital photography) does precisely that: evade entropy.

Most photographs that I look at, on public domain sites, are not damaged by any outside factors that could harm the physical entity of the photograph itself. Yet, even more, significant is the fact that whatever has been captured in the photo, remains untouched by any changes. This distinguishes photography from any other relics of the past. And so, in a sense, even though Sontag claims that photography is proof of morality, it can only be such through comparison. Only through comparison, does morality become apparent; otherwise, without such comparison, locked into the ever-unchanging reality of the moment, a photograph actually encapsulates the opposite: not mortality, but immortality.

But what happens, when we combine these inherent effects of photography, with the second trait that Sontag mentions; the relationship between photography and memory.

Could one argue that photography bridges the gap between one’s own memories and those that technically would remain inaccessible to us? Reconstructing our ability to "remember" far beyond our lifespan...?

How has the invention of photography changed human’s perception of retrospective time? We live in a time, where we have more than enough pictures of ourselves; we can look back at our appearance at all the different stages, and as Sontag says:

“To look at an old photograph of oneself, of anyone one has known, or of a much-photographed public person is to feel, first of all: how much younger I (she, he) was then.“

This constant comparison, could it lead to increased awareness of one’s mortality? Are the selfies of today, our 21st Century form of memento mori vanitas of the 16th and 17th Centuries?