The End, Secular Aura


Price, Mary. ‘The End, Secular Aura’ The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994) 173-177


Each of the metaphors used, whether the term is aura, mask, or language, illuminates the idea of the photograph.

Benjamin, Proust, Musil, and Barthes, as well as Keats with his negative capability, are all saying, in individual poetic and imaginative modes of expression rather than philosophic (aesthetic or logical) modes, that certain perceptions are originally oblique and private; they retain a penumbra of mystery and are conveyed to others in the languages of the imagination.


The aura of photography is the aura of the very temporality Benjamin recognizes in photography, the aura of reality, contradicting his first premise, that the phenomenal world does not have aura.

The aura of reality: no matter what the culture, intentions, predispositions, deceptions, or philosophical beliefs of the photographer, the camera, in some fundamental sense, does not lie.

Distortions and even ineptitudes are registered in a sane, optically logical system that can be understood. When the photograph shows a bowed side of a building, or a building prenaturally big at the bottom and small at the top, the viewer does not for an instant imagine that the structure curves or leans in that way but does not doubt for an instant that there was a building in front of the camera.

The viewer must interpret where interpretation will disclose the original state of affairs to good purpose.


In still photographs, the act of preservation, the historical seizure of the object in the moment, is itself both a tribute to worth and a defining factor in establishing worth.

Factual information about the contexts of photographs, about the persons, places, and circumstances involved in terms of both individual and society, will contribute the innumerable particulates that help constitute the secular aura of the subjects of the photograph.

Interpretation is necessary for the viewer. It is not accumulated documentation alone that constitutes aura, for after the critical process of gathering and offering the facts comes the language of interpretation itself. Looking, thinking, discriminating, and expressing characterize the investments in the language of secular aura.

Secular aura, as well as the traditional aura of the sacred, has to have something real to associate with itself. It cannot just float around like smoke.

Creations of the hand and mind which shape the world by art are admirable in invention and execution, yet at the same time a stubborn residue of skepticism exists about formulations that contradict or weaken apprehension of the world as real and solid outside the self.  This skepticism is not appropriate for photography because the photograph must be imprinted with what has been presented to the camera; it must literally receive something physical from out there, if only what can be described as interrupted light.

This is the factuality of the photograph. The photograph authenticates the objects. The objects authenticate the photograph.


To condemn photographs as trivial on the grounds that they lack the shaping power of imagination is to emphasize the threat of irrelevancy, to insist that only contingency governs choice of subject from the world of possibilities.That is one absolute. The other end of the continuum is the view that the photographer exercises such choice and discrimination that his work on paper has been entirely invented. Stated so, both are obviously false, yet often photographs are judged with implicit reference to one or the other.

[…] the answer to what [a photograph] means may be attempted even in the absence of other specific knowledge. Every bit of knowledge is useful, and every attempt at making a meaningful interpretation is useful. But some interpretations are more interesting than others, and among the most interesting I find those of writers who imagine a meaning.


Photography is essentially a way of making the world look back at the viewer.

The fascination of photographs consists partly in the knowledge that peering into a photograph, studying it closely, will result not in finding ideas but in recovering what may be identified as reality; then in an instantaneous process ideas will be constructed to account for the reality. Ideas may exist already prepared to seize the appropriate visual conformation. Research into who, what, when, where, how, and why might provide valuable information, but just as in the case of the sociological information about the Hill/Adamson photographs, the answers to these factual questions may not account for the interest of the photograph.

The secular aura of the photograph is constituted by investment and endowment, just as the aura of the sacred object is constituted.

Overlapping descriptions from different sources, words recognized as accurate in naming the qualities or depictions of the secular object, will establish the secular aura. The individual figure, photographer or viewer, enters a looking-glass land with eyes wide open, but cannot immediately interpret what he sees. To photograph is one way of arresting time in order to contemplate.

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