Cadava, Eduardo. ‘Mimesis’ Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Chichester: Princeton University Press, 1997) 13-15


The forgetting of the photograph’s ghostly or spectral character, of its relation to a death that survives itself, corresponds to what Benjamin refers to as “the decline of photography.”


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

Advances in the photographic apparatus, in the optical system formed by the lenses that transfer photographed images into an image recorded on a plate or film, and, finally, in the chemical process whereby the object of the optical system is revealed, seem to make possible a coincidence whereby the object of the optical system is revealed, seem to make possible a coincidence between the moment of the act of recording and the moment of the referent.

Yet it is precisely the conviction in this coincidence, in the photographic possibility of faithful reproduction, that for Benjamin marks the decline of photography.

[…] the photographic light that “overcomes darkness entirely” fails to illuminate the photograph, and fails precisely because it forgets what a photograph is, because it dissimulates the photograph’s inability to represent.


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 one, the least mimetic one – the photograph that remains faithful to its own infidelity.

Immobilizing and interdicting the passage between the photograph and the photographed, the decline of photography names both the involuntary conjuring of a distance, of an aura, and the forgetting of this ghostly emergence.

The photograph, the medium of likeness, speaks only of what is unlike. It says “the photograph is an impossible memory”.

Because this forgetting is inscribed within every photograph, there is history – the history of photography as well as the history inaugurated by the photograph.


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