Price, Mary. ‘Metaphor’ The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994) 134-149


Before photography, according to Ivins [William M, Ivins, Jr.], the syntactical analysis of a picture preceded the handmade reproduction, which became a symbolic representation of its original. references for reproduction are the woodcut, etching, or lithograph that reproduce a work of art. But the reproduction of the work of art by means of photography becomes equivalent to the reproduction of the syntaxless world of real objects in any photograph.


A picture is seen first as a whole and then analyzed in any order of parts, unlike the sentence in which each word has a place, in which the order of words may have meaning, and in which every part is related to a whole statement unintelligible until the sentence is completed. Verbal statements, Ivins reminds us, can be exactly repeated, but until the invention of photography visual statements could not. His use of the grammatical term syntax is a metaphor for the ordering of parts.


The point to emphasize is that photography as language is either a metaphor (a comparison) or it is nonsense.


[Price discusses Berger’s opposition of painting and photography, and reproduction of paintings]


[Price discusses photographic ‘metaphors’ – the mirror, skin]


The imagined retention of an image, that is, the memory reenacted , preceded the the possibility of securing an actual image.

Just as you cannot step in the same river twice, so you cannot take the same photograph twice, and for the same reason. That which may seem the same is different precisely, even if not only, in being literally different in time.

Benjamin calls this recording of objects “the perpetual readiness of volitional, discursive memory”, which, “encouraged by the technique of mechanical reproduction, reduces the scope for the play of the imagination.” Volitional memory, as Benjamin uses the term, is conscious memory. But it is not only that which we wish to remember; it is our identity as well as our past; it is the extent of experience and learning and the limit of self-knowledge. When a record of a particular state of affairs, say a photograph, is accepted as evidence that such was the state of affairs, flexibility is reduced or corrected, and there is little play of memory as invention, fancy, or even recovery.

Memory plays an important part in Benjamin’s metaphor of aura […] Benjamin’s ostensible purpose in elaborating the metaphor of aura is to reinvest original works of art with aura and to strip aura from the upstart photography. I now wish to claim boldly that aura is a concept applicable, despite Benjamin, to photography.

Despite Benjamin is only partial truth; although Benjamin denies aura to the photograph, the language of his description of actual photographs tends to supply it. The aura of photography consists in more than a century and a half of recognition, familiarity, and incorporation into culture; articles of clothing have as much as that.


The aura of photography becomes manifest in figures of speech in which two aspects are assumed. One is the existence of the external world which is registered by means of the camera and film. The other is the puzzle, mystery, and magic of such registry.


To imagine that an object returns a look is to activate the memory of what has been forgotten and distant from consciousness, so that, according to Benjamin, the volitional memory is not the whole of memory.


The reciprocity of the relation between object and conscious (volitional) or unconscious memory can be expressed in various ways, but Benjamin is intensifying the connection between object and response by insisting that the investment of the object is first an act by the responder and then by virtue of that investment, which creates aura, exists as an entity capable of returning the glance.


The metaphor is complex; in this expression of it, the object invested with aura need have no intrinsic value, or no reference to systems of value outside the intensity and expansive power of personal response. It need not be a work of art. One such object is the madeleine that released Proust’s memory.

An object that is a work of art also has an aura. This time, instead of being the activator to an individual memory, it is the historical tradition, the cultural memory, in which all can participate.

The idea of investment is continued through all the uses of aura. Furthermore, in Benjamin’s continuing explanation, not only objects but words have an aura, which neatly moves the argument back to the question of language.


Benjamin’s conclusion is that “if the distinctive feature of the images that rise from the mémoire involontaire is seen in their aura, then photography is decisively implicated in the phenomenon of the ‘decline of the aura'” The photograph has no aura itself; it can have no tradition, no place of being, no associative thickness, and individually it can have no history in Benjamin’s view. The fact of reproducibility, understood as vitiating or even entirely dissipating the aura, means there is no unique object for the accumulation of associations.


The photograph has contributed, according to Benjamin, to the decline of that great nebula of association, inheritance, investment, or endowment, emanating from object and word, the aura.

[Price discusses two examples of aura]


[Price discusses Benjamin and Baudelaire’s ‘unreturned glance’]

The figure of the broken glance between one person and another, the glance directed like a beam but received nowhere, is, for Benjamin, a figure of man’s disconnectedness, illustrating the social alienation he believes characteristic of modern society.

In a passage from Proust, a surprising reversal occurs in the metaphor of interaction between object and viewer: “Some people who are fond of secrets flatter themselves that objects retain something of the gaze that has rested on them.” Instead of an object’s losing an invisible layer, it gains an invisible layer, again the accretion of memory, history and tradition that Benjamin calls aura.


The image of the past must be imperfectly understood, ambiguous, and indeterminate in order to sustain its constant renewal; the photograph, depicting some aspect of the past which is both evidenced and determined by the existence of the photograph, falsifies it in fixing it because such fixing is partial and limiting. The frame excludes more than it includes.


[On the shock as discontinuity between object and gaze, breaking the aura]

The shock is individual, wounding, and isolating; man is no longer able to assimilate the world around him. The world changes so rapidly, and crowds man so closely, buffets him with so much information, that it constantly distracts him from that wholeness achieved in an earlier age when objects had auras.


Even before the data has so piled up, all the time knowledge was proliferating, man was peering at the world with the same old eyes and processing information in the same old brain. Man’s eye and brain never comprehended the whole of the world.

What there is to be known has grown so great in range and so specific in detail that we seem to know less simply because what there is to be known has increased so much.

Invention of the several parts of the photographic process was participant in the disastrous proliferation of those inconsequential bits of information. The camera records an instant, a fragment of time. The camera is a factor isolating, perpetuating, and conveying a moment of shock according to Benjamin.

Against the world’s increase in speed Benjamin wished to oppose and praise the slowness of tradition, the stillness of revered objects, the quiet of expectations daily fulfilled.


Benjamin turns the word aura in his writing as if he were turning a crystal ball, intent on the image forming within the center but speaking from various points of view in turn, none of which excludes the others, each of which in turn, and finally simultaneously, illuminates the center that holds them all at once.

No Responses Yet to “Metaphor”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s