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If Memory Serves: Photography, Recollections and Vision | Honoring Aline Smithson

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Our hard drives may fail. Our phones might break. We may forget an image that was once cemented in our minds. Our relationships with images and devices that hold our memories define how we understand our position in the world. If Memory Serves emerges from the moments those devices fail us, our recollections betray us and our pictures refuse to bring back the people they captured. This exhibition emerges from the intersection of our haunting pasts, possible futures, and our connections to photographic images, technologies and the systems that ask to speak for our photographs.

In 1986, Vilém Flusser regarded digital images as a “cultural revolution.” A decade later, Geoffrey Batchen predicted that the rise of digital computation systems will embody the demise of photography, since they collapse the indexical characteristics of images. In other words, digital images, created and produced through a computational device, do not have any outside and cannot point at or attest to the existence of anything other than themselves. Decades after their approaches began to inform global discourse, the digital photographic image had become embedded in technologies of communication, in how we understand our position in relations to others, in how we capture and share our lives. In fact, we live our lives for the benefit of the digital image. Not the singular being that is the digital image, but for the benefit of the entire system that holds, speaks and distributes photography.

The artists participating in this exhibition observe the complicated meeting points of photographic technologies, our haunting pasts, possible futures, and our relationships with the systems that capture our position in the world. If Memory Serves begins with Aline Smithson, a mentor, photographer and educator, whose work with artists had been redefining the field of photographic practice. This exhibition celebrates her immense contribution to photography and further comments upon the reach of her stewardship and pedagogy. The participating artists have all been studying with and from her. Seen together, their works offer profound insight into our co-existence with photography, suggesting pathways that connect personal experiences with larger societal issues and conflicts – from privacy to grief, to representation and immigration. How do we treat our most vulnerable community members? How do we remember those who have no one to commemorate them? How does our technology tears us apart? How can we claim a space to be seen and heard? How do we share our histories with the next generation? And what are we leaving behind for them?

In her work, Smithson frequently returns to moments of photographic loss — images corrupt by failing hard drives, pictures lost to their original owners, captions that were separated from their photographs – all driven by an acute awareness of the tactile relationships between photographs, memories and our connections with one another.

During the pandemic, Smithson led an online class at the Los Angeles Center of Photography, which brought together 11 women who realized their creative projects share a concern for issues surrounding photographic practice and the pains of loss, mortality and legacy, exacerbated by a moment defined by global trauma and uncertainty. That class birthed the group Memory is a Verb, who has been exhibiting together since 2021.

Their projects that are included here, alongside works by other former mentees, invite the viewers to immerse in transitions and transformations, in discomfort, in the borderlines between vision and sense, knowing and unknowing. At the same time, these works refuse nostalgia in its depoliticized condition. These projects are defined by the viewpoint and lived experiences of their creators: female identified, immigrants, descendants of inherited traumas, caregivers, providers. Photography is key to efforts to claim visibility, capture narratives and elicit conversations about the lives of vulnerable bodies and communities. The works on view can then be seen as opening points, a threshold, for a conversation that should never be silenced, a conversation that is as concerned about the conditions of its production – the possible futures of photography – as it is concerned with its political, social and personal content.

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