For this lecture we looked at how Walter Benjamin’s work covers the themes and ideas that are relevant to contemporary photographic practice and how photographs are ‘read’ or interpreted.
Walter Benjamin was a German philosopher who was interested in the new technology of photography and filmmaking. Benjamin’s work was a lot different to the work of John Berger; as Berger had more of an established career with art, whereas Benjamin’s work was more scattered and his essays were here and there.
Born into a wealthy Jewish family in 1892, Walter Benjamin was a German literary theorist who was writing in the late 1920s-1930s. He studied philosophy in Berlin and Freiburg, Munich and Bern and worked as a translator who wrote for newspapers and journals –Frankfurter Zeitung and Die Literarische Welt. Marxist cultural/literary critic and philosopher, his writings associated with the Frankfurt School of social theorist such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.
‘Critical Theory’- how we dealt with society, society as a whole and how it operated. Critical Theory treats society as a whole and is not just economic. It covers culture, ideas, writing, philosophy, and is fundamentally critical; meaning that things in the world could be done better. It also means to reveal how contemporary capitalist society deceives and dominates, and its ideology being that we’re doing everything good. Benjamin’s writing and ideas are often presented as fragments in sections which reflect his thought processes and interdisciplinary approach to all forms of culture, history and experience in terms of time, place and memory. This was a time when it was necessary to rethink ruined traditions following World War I and the devastation that had been wreaked across Europe. There were key essays of Benjamin’s that we looked at for this lecture that influenced the development of photography theory, which were:
- News About Flowers (1928)
- A Small History of Photography (1930)
- The Author as Producer (1934)
- The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)
In 1933, Benjamin left Germany and settled in Paris, where he continued to write essays and journals for literary journals. However, after the fall of France to the Germans he fled with the hope of escaping to the US; unfortunately he passed away on the Spanish border whilst getting across to the US, meaning this his essay’s didn’t manage to get out in time. “In a situation with no way out, I have no other choice. My life will end in a little village in the Pyrenees where nobody knows me.”
News About Flowers 1928
Karl Blossfeldt was a teacher of sculpture who wrote a book plant photographs (Art Forms in Nature) known at the time as Urformen der Kunst (translated for English language publication as Originary Forms of Art). The article suggests that photography can reveal to us entirely new things about the most ordinary objects, meaning that the camera allows us to see the world in this way; which leads to the idea of transformation of human perception. “whether we accelerate the growth of a plant through time-lapse photography or show its form in forty-fold enlargement in either case a geyser of new image-worlds hisses up at points in our existence where we would least have thought them possible.” The article contains indications of an important theme that frequently reappears in Benjamin’s later texts on Photography:
The transformation of human perception through photography
“the person who created this collection of plant photos can eat more than bread. He has done more than his share of that great stock-taking of the inventory of human perception that will alter our image of the world in as yet unforeseen ways.”
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 1781:
There are 2 necessary forms to Human Perception: three-dimensional space and one-dimensional time (the understanding of space and time, Kant’s idea of what human perception was). The human sensory and cognitive ‘equipment’ follows these forms regardless of what the world outside the mind is like. This holds for all human beings always and everywhere and Benjamin’s writings in general, including his texts on photography, can be read in terms of the following claim:
the very form of human perception, the form that Kant thought of as ‘eternally valid’, is changing.
How was it changing?
The camera has enabled us to see things that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Space is now bigger and photography has given us the ability to stop time, however we still remain to carry on after it. We can slow down and speed up time via moving image or film, as well as photography allowing us to go beyond what is fundamental in the world.
A Short History of Photography 1930
This presents the way photography has emerged over time and our perception is transformed by our experiences with photography. But Benjamin’s treatment of the subject, despite its simple title, goes beyond a simple chronological account of developments in photographic chemistry, optics and practice. It develops Benjamin’s ideas of the cognitive and political potential of photography and introduces his concept of the ‘optical unconscious’.
This photograph by Eadweard Muybridge named, ‘Animal Locomotion: Plate 44 (Man Taking Off Hat)’ breaks down the ideas of movement. Looking at Muybridge’s work; through images he made a bet that horses ran with all 4 hooves in the air, with the use of photography being able to prove or disprove this theory.
“ […] we have some idea of what is involved in the act of walking (if only in general terms), we have no idea at all what happens during the fraction of a second when a person takes a step. Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.”
Another way in which photography changes our perception is that we can use it to ‘time travel’. Because the photograph depicts a particular moment in time, we can refer back to the image itself and travel back to that moment. It also stops the individual in their tracks and preserves them in that moment, making them a mystery. By examining photographs, we are now able to go forward and back in a way that we weren’t able to before.
“Human time, for Benjamin, is not necessarily one-dimensional and sequential, as Kant had tried to establish. Rather, through the action and potential of photography, it is a “complex formation of past, present and future” Howard Caygill (1998) Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience.
Benjamin introduces the concept of ‘aura’ in this essay, a concept he will return to, and refine, in later writing. “What is aura? A strange web of time and space: the unique appearance of distance, however close at hand.”
This photography created by Eugene Atget presents the importance of distance in making something. The new uses of photography now gives us the ability to see the world in an objective way, which is what is shown through images like this one by different artists. Atget makes art in a different normal way to Benjamin, as Atget’s work are seen more as documents (images documenting the world in this way). Atget’s photos “suck the aura out” of the scene because they focus on the ordinary, the everyday, the unremarkable. They are not ‘art’, they are documents. Atget’s images were particularly remarkable to Benjamin because the main focus of photography at the time had been on the portrait with its ‘cult of remembrance’ and the ‘painterly’ or constructed image. This essay also highlights Benjamin’s attention to the importance of how we relate to photography politically and socially.
“For the situation, as Brecht says, is complicated by the fact that less than ever does a simple reproduction of reality express something about that reality. A photograph of the Krupp Works or of the A.E.G. reveals almost nothing about these institutions.”
Author as Producer 1934
In this essay Benjamin the production of art work and images from a political perspective as he is very interested in the cultural outcome. He also looks at how writers and artists should work in order to be properly committed to the aims of socialism. Benjamin believes that holding the correct political opinion is not enough and artists and writers must intervene actively in transforming the forms and institutions of culture.
“Many aspects of this revolutionary attitude have made their way into photomontage. You only need to think of the work of John Heartfield, whose technique made book jackets into a political instrument. But now follow the path of photography further. What do you see? It becomes more and more subtle, more and more modern, and the result is that it can no longer photograph a run-down apartment house or a pile of manure without transfiguring it.”
This quote talks about what a photo montage could do that a painting couldn’t; making the views of content of photography quite random.
Benjamin is critical of photographic practices, which only comment, but do not transform. He singles out Albert Renger-Patzchs’ book The World is Beautiful for criticism: “It has even succeeded in making misery itself an object of pleasure, by treating it stylishly and with technical perfection.”
“For the ‘new objectivity’, it is the economic function of photography to bring to the masses elements which they could not previously enjoy—spring, movie stars, foreign countries—by reworking them according to the current fashion; it is the political function of photography to renew the world as it actually is from within, in other words, according to the current fashion.” Photographers must become writers––and vice versa. Interdisciplinarity is Benjamin’s idea of how cultural production (art) can actively participate in social transformation.
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)
This essay is an examination of the effects of modernity on the work of art in particular. Here Benjamin talks about mechanical reproduction through the lens and image with a high level of accuracy. Benjamin’s’ key work on the transformation of sense perception is brought about by new technologies of photography and film. He gives an extensive discussion of the concept of the ‘aura’ of an art work and associated ideas of tradition and authenticity and how mechanical reproduction upsets this tradition.
“If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch.” Aura is the sensation of being in the world and Benjamin discusses in his essay the idea of aura as being distance between you and me.
Benjamin observes that in contemporary life there is a “decay of the aura” and he gives two reasons for this:
“Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.”
This is achieved through photography. The photographs on the left present an example of landscapes of hills and mountains. This follows with the quote from where it says how the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object, stating that these images are examples of how the objects in photographs are always somehow out of our reach.
Art works used to be rooted to a particular place and time. You could only view them where they were. You had to go to them. These images (on the right) allow us to think about the idea of bringing objects closer with photograph shadow and the connection between time and place; you have to physically go to it (idea of distance). Pictures are 1 thing and pictures of art work are another. There were certain rituals and expectations associated with looking at art. These rituals and the need to be in particular place, made viewing art works an almost ‘religious’ activity.
Aura of the Art Work
The ‘aura’ of paintings is its distance from us, its unattainability, its uniqueness from which derives its importance and value. Photography’s ability to copy and reproduce an image reduces the distance between us and art works, making the art work accessible in all times and places. Instead of being an object of contemplation the reproduced art work entertains; i.e. images become something of entertainment to us and so the aura of art work gradually withers away.
“…that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.”
The processes by which the aura is diminished and even destroyed leads to “a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. The processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements.” The idea of the ritual of art work is problematic, however the aura of art work is a good thing.
Due to the ability that we now have to copy a photograph, we are able to do whatever we want to do with that photograph and its significance is severely diminished.
Image searching now becomes a lot more sophisticated and the idea of being able to produce multiple copies of one photograph, it becomes difficult to say which is the authentic image. Reproduction is completely out of control, making us confident that painting exists. “By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.” We can engage with the culture that we share and we don’t need to go to a gallery unless we necessarily need to.
“…for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.”
Summary of Benjamin’s Key Ideas
- Photography is a medium which transforms us psychologically, culturally and politically.
- The transformation of human perception –by means of the camera, we can perceive the world beyond the capacity of our own senses.
- The optical unconscious proceeds from photographs which have an unsettled relationship to time: they are both of the past and the present.
- Aura as a quality of art works which is undermined by reproduction: the destruction of aura (distance) through mechanical reproduction such as photography removes the ritual function of the art work and places it in the hands of the people.