Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History


Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History

221-244 in

Petro, Patrice. ed., Fugitive images, from photography to video (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996)


[…] Benjamin persistently conceives of history in the language of photography, as though he wished to offer us a series of snapshots of his latest reflections on history.

What comes to light in the history of photography, in the history that is photography, is therefore the secret rapport between photography and philosophy. Both take their life from light, from a light which coincides with the conditions of possibility for clarity, reflection, speculation, and lucidity; that is, for knowledge in general.


Photography prevents us from knowing what an image is. It is in fact no accident that Benjamin’s essay “A Short History of Photography” begins, not with a sudden clarity that grants knowledge security, but rather with an evocation of the “fog” which he claims surrounds the beginnings of photography and clouds both knowledge and vision.

From the very beginning, then, the fog disturbs the possibility of a linear historical account of photography’s origins.

If a fog encircles the childhood of photography, it is part because, in the experience of the photograph, it is as if we cannot see a thing. In the twilight zone between seeing and not seeing, we fail to get the picture.


[For Benjamin, Hill’s graveyard portraits] bear witness to the recognition that we are most ourselves,most at home, when we remember the possibility of our death. This experience of our relation to memory, of our relation to the process of memorialization is not at all accidental: nothing is more characteristic. Subjects of photography, seized by the camera, we are mortified: objectified, thingified, imaged.

Although what the photograph photographs is no longer present or living, its having-been-there now forms part of the referential structure of our relationship to the photograph.


The forgetting of the photograph’s ghostly or spectral character corresponds to what Benjamin refers to as “the decline of photography.”

[…] photography’s decline does not coincide, as one might expect, to a decline in the technical efficiency of the camera, to a decline in its capacity to register what is photographed. Rather it corresponds to the technical refinement of the camera’s performance.

The conquest of darkness by the increased light of photography conjures a link of fidelity between the photograph and the photographed. Yet it is precisely the conviction in this coincidence, in the photographic possibility of faithful reproduction, that marks the decline of photography.

[…] the decline of photography needs to be understood as a structural element of any photograph, rather than as merely a moment in a temporal process.

The decline of photography names the photograph’s own decline, its movement away from the schema of mimetic reproduction. It suggests that the most faithful photograph, the photograph most faithful to the event of the photograph, is the least faithful, the least mimetic one – the photograph that remains faithful to its own infidelity.

[could relate to forgetting]


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