A Short History of Photography

17Nov09

Benjamin, Walter., ‘A Short History of Photography’ One-Way Street (London: Verso, 1979; 1997) 240–257

p.243

Immerse yourself in such a picture long enough and you will recognise how alive the contradictions are, here too: the most precise technology can give its productsa magical value, such as a painted picture can never again have for us.

No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully he posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future subsists so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.

For it is another nature that speaks to the camera than to the eye: other, in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious.

p.250

What is aura, actually? A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close the object may be.

The stripping bare of the object, the destruction of the aura, is the mark of a perception whose sense of the sameness of things has grown to the point where even the singular, the unique, is divested of its uniqueness – by means of its reproduction.

p.255

[on fashionable creative photography]

Therein is unmasked the posture of a photography that can endow any soup can with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connexions in which it exists, even where most far-fetched subjects are more concerned with saleability than with insight.

Actual reality has slipped into the functional. The reification of human relations – the factory, say – means that they are no longer explicit.

p.256

The camera is getting smaller and smaller, ever readier to capture fleeting and secret moments whose images paralyse the associative mechanisms in the beholder. This is where the caption comes in, whereby photography turns all life’s relationships into literature[.]

But must not a photographer who cannot read his own pictures be no less accounted an illiterate? Will not the caption become the most important part of the photograph?

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