An interesting example of the 1930's (1936) discussion if this sort of thing. A tough slog today though.
"There are a great many things I am in doubt about at the moment, and I should consider myself favoured if you would kindly enlighten me. Signed, Doubtful, off to Canada." (BJP 1914).
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is standard reading at any art school these days, it's referenced so much it's a little like an inside joke. John Berger's Ways of Seeing does a lot to digest it and bring it up to date. Benjamin's work is still the underpinning of a lot of the theoretical work on reproduction today, including digital reproduction, so it's well worth reading.
EDIT: And Berger's Understanding a Photograph is really wonderful.
Last edited by Alex Bishop-Thorpe; 10-20-2011 at 10:01 AM. Click to view previous post history.
its good to see it is still read today ..
i read it for class 20-25 years ago ...
thanks for the link!
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An interesting and familiar read that has received much less challenge than it deserves. Walter Benjamin did not do his own research on the ins and outs of photography and misunderstood it on the basis of received "wisdom'.
Firstly, the making of photographs is scarcely a mechanical procedure. To get another photograph one must go back to the start, expose new material, develop, fix, etc, from beginning to end; repeat for more and so on. The analogy with industrial scale production of printed illustration is plain wrong.
Secondly, the making of photographs is scarcely reproduction. Reproduction of what? A photograph of a tree is not a reproduction of a tree. A photograph of a negative (using paper-backed emulsion alias photographic paper) is not a negative but an entirely new thing, a singular positive that is not a reproduction of anything that existed before. Re-photographing the negative (popularly and erroneously called "printing") to get yet another positive again delivers something that is not a reproduction of the first positive, the negative, or the original subject matter.
Photography delivers original images or a succession of originals, similar or dissimilar according to the maker's discretion, if the production cycle is repeated.
Walter Benjamin's agenda was the social, political, and aesthetic consequences of millions of pictures flooding off printing presses. His allusions to photography do not serve his argument well.
Photography, the word itself, invented and defined by its author Sir John.F.W.Herschel, 14 March 1839 at the Royal Society, Somerset House, London. Quote "...Photography or the application of the Chemical rays of light to the purpose of pictorial representation,..". unquote.
It's been a couple of decades since I've read it, and I think it's time I reread it, but my recollection, however, is that his focus and interest was about painting. How does it affect us that we can see paintings mechanically reproduced in books before seeing the actual object? And then the idea that art can be made mechanically (photography) what can we make of that?
Originally Posted by Maris
And as others have said, it's the basis for a lot of writing on photography, certainly John Berger, maybe Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes. I'd venture to say that more contemporary writers owe some debt to Benjamin, too... similar issues that Robert Adams has written about, Philip Gefter, and even Errol Morris...
Last edited by SuzanneR; 10-20-2011 at 08:03 PM. Click to view previous post history.
The basis of Benjamin's paper is the mechanical reproduction of works of art. That is, photographing a painting and mass producing it. This is definitely mechanical reproduction (either through rotogravure or offset lithography), and he uses this model to talk about the context through which you view the image and the then uses that to talk about inherent qualities of the photograph itself. A lot of other writers have used this paper as the basis for a lot of theory, so words seem to be regularly put in his mouth...which I guess is what I'm about to do.
The camera reproduces what is placed in front of it (you can edit all you like, but you still have to place something in front of it - ignoring photogrammes), and it is a machine. In contrast to something like painting, this is clearly mechanical reproduction, and the hand of the artist has traditionally gone unrecognised in photography. It's just as important to understand the language of photography - that is, how a photograph is read and understood - as to understand how to do it. A great example of this is the Avante Garde photography of post-revolution Russia. In a country where the majority were illiterate at the time, massive exhibitions of photographs traveled the country and were used to show what was being done, the progress being made, and as a really remarkable tool of propaganda. The ability for the exact same image to be reproduced a thousand times over is one of photography's most incredible features, and is in stark contrast to other mediums like painting or even printmaking. Efforts to make photographs behave like art objects, through limited editions and so on, are relatively recent.
Benjamin had absolutely no interest in the technical aspects of the medium, just the social and cultural effects of it. He may not have ever taken a photograph.
Oh man, I just read that Berger thing and want to punch him. He'd have us believe that art is only such if it has rarity value and can act as property (emotion, expressiveness and the rest don't rate a mention). Apparently photographs don't celebrate any particular event or even the vision of their creator, and if you carefully arrange something in a studio (presumably for artistic, meaningful purposes) it is apparently "absurd".
Please tell me he's trolling...
No I don't think he's trolling
As I read it he is saying that photography should stand on it's own and of itself rather than be categorised with paintings or sculptures, for instance. To me he's celebrating the uniqueness of photographs/ photography. Try reading 'Looking at Photographs' or 'Another Way of Telling' by Berger - may put these words into some context.
I think Berger is one of the most important writers and thinkers alive today especially in his writing pertaining to the making of 'art' and politics - may not agree with all his ideas but he speaks with a unique voice.
Originally Posted by polyglot