“Just as people make their own history, they also make their own memory-practices”: A conversation about Marked, Unmarked, Remembered

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West Virginia University Press’s Marked, Unmarked, Remembered, about the commemoration of challenging episodes from the nation’s past, is one of the most talked-about books of the fall. It’s a collaboration between award-winning photographer Andrew Lichtenstein and his brother Alex, a historian at Indiana University and editor of the American Historical Review. Andrew and Alex talked with Jeremy Wang-Iverson about their book.

Andrew, can you discuss the process of making this book of photographs?

ANDREW: I was thinking for a long time about this project before I finally decided to embark on the work that became this book. History is such an important part of the photographic process. What that is happening now will be meaningful in the future? As a photographer, I often think of myself as some kind of archivist for the future, and it is an essential part of the job to separate visual moments of long-term importance from those that have little meaning afterwards.

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Andrew Lichtenstein signs books at the International Center for Photography.

I wanted to dedicate some time to a body of work that played with this idea of consciously using the camera as a tool to describe a place as it exists now. I also wanted to take myself away from the short term and temporary tasks of photography, what I call feeding the beast. All I knew was that I was going to return to film for this project in the digital era, to both slow the process down and to return to the roots of the medium.

At first I thought I’d try to document obvious historical moments with a large view camera. But those moments are more about access than anything else. Either you’re working for the Associated Press or Time, or you are not. Then I was only going to visit historical sites that are actively remembered and memorialized for one reason or another. But in my journeys looking for some of these places, I was equally, if not more, fascinated with sites I came across where there was nothing, no sign, no marker, no candle lit vigil, no men running around in period costumes. Making a photograph at a place where there was nothing was a difficult challenge that intrigued me.

The first image that I made where I said yes, this might work, was of an anarchist visiting the Haymarket monument at a Chicago cemetery on May Day in 2009. I photographed historical sites, on and off, for the next seven years. I definitely visited over 100 sites. And there are definitely 100 more I’d like to still visit. It is the nature of work like this that it is open ended.

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Marked, Unmarked, Remembered at the bookshop at MoMA.

Alex, can you discuss the title and organizing principle behind the book – “marked, unmarked, remembered”? How are the essays woven in?

ALEX: As I discuss in the introductory essay, we spent a lot of time debating how best to organize the photographs – by historical theme? By visual form? By chronology? But quite naturally we came to realize that what interested us both was this continuum of memorialization, from completely forgotten (like the death site of Karen Silkwood) to remembered obsessively, like the Kennedy assassination. But we also realized that just as people make their own history, they also make their own memory-practices. To me, the most powerful photographs capture the collective efforts of individuals and communities to refuse to let memory rest.

This might be a quiet contemplative moment of a former internee at a Japanese-American internment camp, the miners’ insistence that they, and not the coal companies, should commemorate their fallen brothers, or the impromptu, vernacular memorial to Mike Brown thrown up like a barricade in a street revolution that closes the book. Thus the active, forceful, insistent practice of “remembering” – not merely an internal process, but one that takes shape in the world – provides hope and possibility.

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Martin Luther King Day parade at the site of the Tulsa Riot.

As for the essays, these were chosen much more with an eye to finding scholars who might have a particular interest in a site, and thus be able to say something interesting about it. We gave them very little instruction; as a result, we have twelve very distinctive contemplations, which do not fall neatly into our three categories. They thus offer an intriguing counterpoint to the visual narrative, and that’s all to the good.

Did anything surprise you in how the contributors responded to their photographic prompts?

ALEX: As best we could, we tried to match historians with sites that they already knew intimately or had written about in depth. Thus, for example, I knew that Gary Okihiro had written a wonderful book about Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Manzanar, that Kevin Boyle knew the history of the UAW Inside-out, or that Michael Honey himself often returned to the Lorraine Motel on April 4, in the course of writing about the 1968 Memphis strike.

Still, I wasn’t aware of some of the more personal connections that emerged from the essays. I had no idea, for instance, of Julie Reed’s direct connection to the site that we asked her to write about. Those were happy coincidences – but of a piece with the book, because part of the point is that much of the history that lies around us as physical remnants, and thus remains unnoticed, is in fact deeply intertwined with the lives of those we encounter every day.

Read the rest of the interview at the book’s website.

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