Art and Technology

Art and Technology

Walter Benjamin’s 1931 “A Short History of Photography” opens with a metaphor: “The fog which obscures the beginnings of photography is not quite as thick as that which envelops the beginnings of printing” (199). He observes that the rapid development of photography has prevented a long look backward; I would suggest that it is perhaps not the rapid development, but rather the ambivalent stance toward the technology assumed by the majority of intellectuals in the nineteenth century which retarded early reflections. I can see a parallel here between this and the relatively late blooming of theories of electronic discourse. Photography, like the web, was in the beginning a practice embraced by a limited few. It was only when it reached a broader public that “histories” began to be formulated.

Like most histories, they usually begin by recalling a “golden age” before the corruption of the present day. Benjamin is no exception: “The most recent literature seizes on the striking fact that the flowering of photography, the achievement of Hill and Cameron, of Hugo and Nadar—occurs in its first decade” (200). The translator notes that Benjamin has confused his dates, for most of his examples are from photography’s second decade. However, his basic strategy is to divide photography into a short “pre-industrial” phase and the current industrial phase, where photography is largely disseminated through publications.

Benjamin notes that photography was almost immediately commercial, and hence “a capitalist industry,” yet chooses to illuminate the practice of the early daguerreotypists as somehow different from the production of cartes de vistes. Benjamin sees the product of artists who used photography as an “aid for art” as more noble, though he quotes a passage from the Leipzig City Advertizer that seems strikingly coincident with my research into the illustrative practices in nineteenth century America:

“To fix a fleeting reflections,” it was written there, “is not only impossible, as been shown by thoroughgoing German research, but to wish it is blasphemy. Man is created in the image of God and God’s image cannot be held fast by a human machine. At the most the pious artist—enraptured by heavenly inspiration—may at the higher command of his genius dare to reproduce these divine/human features in an instant of highest dedication, without mechanical help.”

Here, with all the weight of its dullness, enters the philistine’s concept of art, to which any technical development is totally foreign, which, within the provocative challenge of the new technology, feels its own end nearing. (200-201)

Benjamin’s optimism regarding the transformation of art by technology seems misplaced. Art, in the traditional sense has continued unabated, complete with its “aura” of originality. Like most of the modernists who wrote about photography, Benjamin felt that there was an intrinsic quality to the medium that was libratory, and sought in “pre-industrial” photographs “insights into photography’s basic nature” (200). Benjamin’s most striking observation is that the long exposure times of early photographs, when contrasted with the more recent development of the snapshot “caused the models to live, not out of the photograph, but into it; during the long exposure they grew, as it were, into the image” (204). However, when Benjamin writes of painting he adopts the stance that it is already a technology, a technology with qualities all its own.

Benjamin explicitly compares painting with the violin and photography with the piano. This is a nearly an analog/digital comparison in itself. But in Benjamin’s eyes, the two instruments are not of equal stature: no pianist can ever reach the standards of virtuosity achieved by the violinist. A photograph is “limited” in the same way a piano is limited in the notes it can generate.

Benjamin uses a paradoxical concept of aura to explore the difference in character between early photography and “modern” photography. The “liberation” of photography from its pre-industrial state, particularly in the case of Atget—who Benjamin compares with a virtuoso pianist (Busoni) who has invented entirely new scales for his instrument— is in the removal of the aura.

When Bilfur or Variété, periodicals of the avant-garde, were showing mere details under the captions “Westminster,” “Lille,” “Antwerp,” or “Breslau,” a piece of balustrade, a bare treetop whose twigs cut across a gas lantern, a stone wall, or a candelabra with a life ring on which the name of the city is written, they are showing nothing but the refinements of motifs which Atget discovered. He sought the forgotten and the neglected, so such pictures turn reality against the exotic, romantic, show-offish resonance of the city name; they suck the aura from reality like water from a sinking ship.

What is aura? A strange web of time and space; the unique appearance of a distance, no matter how close at hand. On a summer noon, resting, to follow the line of a mountain range on the horizon or a twig which throws its shadow on the observer, until the moment that the hour begins to be a part of its appearance—that is to breathe the air of those mountains, that twig. Now to bring them closer—and closer to the masses—is a contemporary a trend as is the conquest of unique things in every situation by their reproduction. (209)

Here, Benjamin describes aura, not as a quality that surrounds something, but as a quality that emanates from within. He does not describe a misty morning, or a hazy evening—he describes high noon, where shadows literally become “one” with its object. In an earlier passage, he describes the aura of the daguerreotype:

Most group pictures in particular retain a fleeting togetherness which appeared for a short while in the plate, before it disappeared in the original subject. It is this breathy halo, circumscribed beautifully and thoughtfully by the now outmoded oval shape of the frame. Therefore these incunabula of photography are often misrepresented by emphasis on the artistic perfection or tastefulness in them. These images were taken in rooms where every customer came to the photographer as a technician of the newest school. The photographer, however, came to the customer as a member of the rising class and enclosed him in his aura which extended even to the folds of his coat or the turn of his bow tie. For that aura is not simply the product of a primitive camera. At that early stage, object and technique corresponded to each other as decisively as they diverge from each other in the immediately subsequent period. Soon, improved optics commanded instruments that conquered darkness and distinguished appearances as sharp as a mirror. (207)

Benjamin then continues to discuss the pictorialist movement of the 1880s as an attempt to recapture this “aura” as a halo, or obfuscation of the image. Thus there seem to be at least three usages of “aura” in this essay:

  1. Aura is an atmospheric quality of the subject (as in plein air painting and pictorialism)

  2. Aura is a quality impressed on a subject through technique

  3. Aura is a quality which emanates from a subject

What seems difficult to decipher about this concept of aura in Benjamin is the multiple and paradoxical uses he applies the quality to. Surrealists destroy the aura of proper names by attaching fragmented, contradictory images to them. Portraitists either impose or reveal auras of their subjects. In his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin heralds the dissipation of the aura of originality through reproductive practice, the loss of fetish value in works of art. And yet here, in the third sense at least, Benjamin notes that the aura of photograph persists even in reproduction. However, in this case, it is an aura of transience and reproducibility.

There are evidently “good” auras and “bad” auras. Benjamin celebrates both the revelation and smashing of auras. Interestingly, Benjamin also attributes an epistemic value to photography, even when it is used to photograph works of art.

Beyond this semantic confusion, there is an overarching linguistic bias. What gives the early pre-industrial photography its aesthetic value is its lack of captioning and the inward aura caused by the long exposure times. This gives the air of mystery to daguerreotypes. They have value as aesthetic objects. However, Benjamin is outspoken on the future of the image:

Not for nothing were pictures of Atget compared with those of the scene of a crime. But is not every spot in our cities the scene of a crime? every passerby a perpetrator? Does not the photographer—descendant of augurers and haruspices—uncover guilt in his pictures? It has been said that “not he who is ignorant of writing but ignorant of photography will be the illiterate of the future.” But isn’t a photographer who cannot read his own pictures worth less than an illiterate? Will not captions become the essential components of pictures? Those are the questions in which the gap of 90 years that separates today from the age of the daguerreotypes discharges its historical tension. It is the light of these sparks that the first photographs emerge so beautifully, so unapproachably from the darkness of our grandfather’s days. (215)