Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Re-Reading Walter Benjamin on Photography

Confession time: it has been a while since I last encountered them, but I found it totally delightful to re-read "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (from Illuminations) and "A Short History of Photography" (from Classic Essays on Photography, ed. A. Trachtenberg, p. 199-216). I had forgotten how interconnected—and overlapping—these essays are; yet, each has its own curious aperçues and discontinuities.

After several readings in past weeks (esp. Barthes and Bazin) that make no meaningful engagement with the technical processes of photographic image-making, Benjamin's attention to more of the nitty gritty was very welcome. Consider his notes in "Short History" on the interplay between posing and exposing in the 1850s. "The procedure itself," he writes, "caused the models to live, not out of the instant but into it; during the long exposure they grew, as it were, into the image." (204) Poses and photos alike were "set up to last"—forged in the 1850s to endure long exposures and then to last thereafter. Hence, Benjamin claims, the props and supports found in these pictures (the stools, columns, and so on) are not only the iconographic markers of stability as they had been through the portrait tradition descending from Van Dyck, but they were also functional objects that register the conditions of the protracted making of the pictures themselves. (205-6) Equally interesting is his note early on regarding the fact that Daguerre's photos may have been mechanical, but they were hardly reproducible: "They were unique and they cost, on average, 25 gold francs per plate." (201)

These notes are interesting as they remind us how Benjamin knew full well that photography was not a monolithic entity that eradicated aura from art via its reproductive function from the get-go. Indeed, as he observes in "Short History," early photographers themselves created a kind of aura, casting the sitter into a shadowy world of darkness and mystery. (207-9) Thus, the function for photography diagnosed in "The Work of Art" needs to be seen as a historically-evolved one. That withering of the auratic, cultic dimensions of the art-object achieved only once Atget and others had come to practice photography as a tool of demystification—so they could "suck the aura from reality like water from a sinking ship." (209) (Further comparison could be made as well between the highly dialectical presentation of interaction between photography and other hand-made pictorial productions in "Short History" versus the far more oppositional conception of photo and painting in "Work of Art").

But, in what sense is photography meaningfully understood as "reproductive"? And exactly what is at stake for Benjamin in conceiving it in those terms? In "Short History," he claims things like this: "While it is possible to given an account of how people walk ... we know nothing definite of the positions involved in the fraction of a second when the step is taken. Photography, however, with its time lapses, enlargements, etc. makes such knowledge possible." (202-3) Following on from Josh Ellenbogen's piece, we might well say that, in such cases, the photographs enabling these insights are productive—not re-productive at all. "Because Marey's devices charted displacements that humans had never observed on their own," Ellenbogen argues, "the data his devices produced were simply free standing relative to observation by human scientists, not better or more objective substitutes for it. Marey's data exist beyond human sensibility and so 'cannot be characterized as especially accurate visualizations of what might otherwise have been registered by an illustrator or scientist.'" (Ellenbogen, 91)

So, why shouldn't we say that photography doesn't make new objects of inquiry rather than reproducing familiar ones, albeit in new ways? I think this is where Benjamin's class story comes in. First, he wants to claim that embrace of reality even through reproductions is a defining factor of working classes in the industrialized world who, of course, have been defined historically through relations to the factory and the machine. "The desire of contemporary masses to bring things 'closer' spatially and humanly ... is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction." Further, historically forged through their interface with the machine, the masses also gain critical self-consciousness through the reproductive media by which they encounter reality. Since the film actor can't adjust to the whims of an audience before him, Benjamin claims: "This permits the audience to take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor. The audience's identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera. Consequently the audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing. This is not the approach to which cult values may be exposed." Reading, say, Marey's images as reproductive—rather than as productive creations of new domains of scientific inquiry and expertise—thus enables a story whereby industrial workers laboring in factories producing mechanical replications come to forge class-consciousness through identifying with the mechanical medium by which they view the world and to adopt that medium's iconoclastic criticality.

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