One of photography’s most powerful abilities is its capacity to evoke nostalgia and a palpable sense of the ‘then and there’, in comparison to other media. As visual signs, its images function as the keystones of memory, both temporal and spatial, serving by turns as trigger and reminder. This is most clearly emphasised in the case of family albums or personal photographs that are largely viewed within the paradigm of autobiographical or episodical memory — where the images are seen as traces of a person, a moment, or a self, that has now passed by.
Tummalapalli’s Class of 2005, through its format — diptychs that showcase similarly constructed formal portraits of the same person, a decade apart — allows for a complex reading of how both the self and time is performed in photography. While enacting the temporality of the image (and subject), its past and its present, these diptychs essentially produce time as an object-narrative that can then be placed and displaced.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
– T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
The images presented as they are — inches apart in image, ten years apart in reality — draw our attention to the collapse orchestrated by photography of time. They function as two separated layers of a palimpsest manuscript, that in combination produces the self or the individual, and with that identification, facilitates the performance of time. This production of the self is also particularly heightened in the difference between the two images in these diptychs — with the older images on the left producing a ‘type’ rather than a specific subject, and the newer photographs on the right focusing on the individual.
Tummalapalli notes that for his portraits, he requested his old classmates to dress up as they would on a regular Monday morning in the present. From this perspective, his photographs represent not only the changes wrought upon their person through the passage of time, but also indicate elements of their personality and the individual paths they have undertaken in this time. The older photographs, within this framework, function on the one hand as a tabula rasa to showcase this transition. On the other hand, as Tummalapalli points out, they serve within the diptych, as a subtle commentary on the nature of an educational system that produces uniformity at the cost of individuality.
Using two levels of signification, these photographs are a reflection of both their subject, and of each other; the repetition and mirroring of Tummalapalli’s chosen form ultimately underlining the paradox of time — that has passed and yet stilled.