Other People’s Memories

Peering at the tiny, slightly out-of-focus snapshot in the middle of an expanse of thick green carpet, I experienced a wave of nostalgia and fondness. during a trip late last year to New York, Leslie Hewitt’s understated series Riffs on Real Time evoked a sense of familiarity that drew me in over some of the bolder pieces in MoMA’s display of contemporary photography. It was hard to tell if Riffs on Real Time was recent work, as it seemed as though it could have been produced at any time in the past two or three decades.

Each composition is carefully constructed of three layers of items. A small photograph of a family scenario, a piece of ephemera presumed to be from the same time period, with the backdrop being the floor covering onto which the items are placed.

I vaguely identified the items as belonging to the 1970s, but really, the specifics didn’t seem to matter. It just had to evoke an era that the viewer remembers, whether from experience, or a reconstruction of family stories and even today’s appeal for the analogue aesthetic. They are contemporary yet vintage in the same peculiar way as a Wes Anderson film.

The feel of authenticity lies in the materiality of the composition. What looks accidental is in fact carefully assembled by Hewitt, before being photographed. It is vital that we see the central snapshot as an object in itself, with the scale, the shadows and the texture of the background almost inviting the viewer to reach in and pick it up. I had to look closely to ascertain that it wasn’t in fact a collage.

From magazine clippings of civil rights-era riots, to scribbled notes about Parliament & Funkadelic, the personal, pop and political seem to coexist in one broad narrative. Give or take a few years, it all seemed to blur into my own distorted recollections, lodged in my mind from my father’s stories of disco and post-colonialism, brought to life by his own sepia snapshots. Whether the memories are ‘real’ or not doesn’t really matter, it’s about the suggestion that they could be.

Leslie Hewitt’s work can be seen in the Museum of Modern Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem.

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