Book Review: Memory by Bernadette Mayer

Memory by Bernadette Mayer.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

I’m a big fan of photobooks, and already have way too many in my collection, including books by Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Alec Soth, Linda McCartney, Martin Parr, Raymon Depardon, David Bailey, and many others. I wasn’t familiar with Bernadette Mayer’s work until recently, but as soon as I discovered the concept behind Memory, I knew I had to have a copy in my library.

On the first of July 1971, Mayer shot a 35mm roll of Kodachrome, and kept a written journal about the day. She repeated this process every day and continued for one month, amassing a collection of over 1100 photographs with accompanying text.

When she embarked on the project, Mayer considered herself a neophyte in terms of photography, but from the first day, her work appears accomplished, has remarkable depth, and feels emotionally charged. Perhaps the subject matter inherently drives this. In 1971, she was shooting pictures of what were everyday places and sights to her, but fifty years later these resonate with nostalgia. Couple that with the dramatic saturated colours and heavy contrast typical of Kodachrome, and there’s a compelling combination.

There are a lot of photographs, and there is some repetition, but that multiplicity and verisimilitude gives them a powerful snapshot aesthetic, almost as if she just lifted the camera and didn’t care what appeared in the frame. The work itself is reminiscent of early Shore and Eggleston, but Mayer’s pictures feel more heartfelt and authentic. More raw.

The text is difficult at times. The first day in particular is almost impenetrable, written as a jumbled stream of consciousness without punctuation, containing repeated lines and motifs. The second is easier, but still challenging. Then we have the third day, which is a startling juxtaposition, a beautifully written and evocative account of the day before Independence Day, describing Mayer’s travels around New York City as she helps Ed record sounds on his Nagra tape recorder. The other days follow a similar pattern: some confused, some clear.

I would recommend Memory to anyone interested in photography and photobooks, and especially those who appreciate Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces or William Eggleston’s Guide. The vast majority of the images are a little small to fully enjoy, but the body of work as a whole is impressive and haunting.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Memory by Bernadette Mayer

    1. Same here. I’d never heard of it either. I wonder if it influenced Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces to some degree. I think it’s possible. Memory was shown at SoHo Gallery in 1972, the same year Shore set off on his road trips.

      Liked by 1 person

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