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Walter Benjamin and the Case of the Abuse and Misuse of Photography: On Benjamin and Technological Determinism

When reading the works of Walter Benjamin, I am always apprehensive. I fear that his claims are technologically deterministic. One example is in is discussion of painting. He states that a painting can never be received by a large group of people; instead, painting innately allows only small group or lone person to consume it (36). This is one reason why paintings contain an “aura.” In this essay, I grapple with this issue by examining his reflections on photography in his pieces “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” and “Little History of Photography.” By doing this I will draw out what Benjamin states about technology as a force and the role of photography in the age of reproduction.

First it is important to briefly discuss the difference between the time before and the time after technological reproduction. Before technological reproduction, people created art for eternity since it was an original that could never be replicated fully. It additionally meant that people received art in particular places outside of the everyday. This created an aura, the space that separates the artifact from the masses, around art (27). Mass reproduction frees art from aura because it is no longer tied to specific rituals, spaces, or ideas of uniqueness. This lack of aura allows the viewer to get closer to the artwork and find pleasure in it. The mechanically produced artwork entertains. Viewers uncritically allow it to become part of them (as opposed to objects with aura, which are distanced from subjects) (39-40). This is dangerous because politics becomes aestheticized and uncritically absorbed (41). The aura’s demise allows capitalism to invade the lives of citizens. This is not however the only possible result of the demise of the aura. The aura’s demise allows people to get close to photographs, which can expose the phantasmagoric (the artificial and traumatic world of capitalism).

It is important to note that photography at first did not break away from traditions of art. Photographers sustained the aura in two ways: the process at first was slow and not mechanically reproducible and the tradition of the portrait was carried on by photography. These bourgeois portrait photographs held on to conventions of remembrance and the sentimentality of painting. Portrait takers were simply perpetuating old ideals of art in their production. According to Benjamin, Eugene Atget emancipates the aura from photography when he broke away from portraiture and took photography to what Benjamin calls its “objective principle.” Atget establishes what photographers should be doing and the true potential of photography (284).  Since Benjamin elevates the photographs of Atget, we must ask, “What is Atget doing that is different?” and “What are his reasons for elevating Atget?” to discover what the objective principle is.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Atget does not focus on the human being in his pieces; this could cause a “cult of remembrance.” Instead Atget, for the most part, photographs the deserted streets of Paris and the discards of Paris (27). Atget photographs are not of the official spectacular places, but the everyday and typical spaces. His photographs allow a different view of something that people believe to be already understood or common sense. His photos “suck the aura out” allowing people to feel close to the artifact and let it become part of them. Atget’s photographs are not the commodities that cause indoctrination into the phantasmagoric, like images of the spectacle are. They instead unmask and reveal what is beyond the surface (284).

Benjamin compares Atget’s photographs of Paris to photographs of a crime scene; the purpose of shooting a crime scene is to collect evidence (27). Benjamin makes the comparison because he believes photographs have the ability to do something other mediums cannot (photographs can “record images which escape natural optics altogether”) (21). Photography has a potential to access what experience cannot. It has the option of being objective and capturing the “fleeting and secret images.” When one is living out their life they are not using a critical eye, which the photographic camera has. This objectivity allows capitalism’s impact on society to be captured. Atget “wiped off the mask [off the bourgeois profession of photographer] and then set about removing the makeup from reality too” (284).

Atget’s photographs do not please, cause remembrance, or have an aura, but upset the viewer. These photographs upset the viewer because they reveal the phantasmagoric, which in everyday life appears natural, as socially constructed and destructive. Therefore, the crime the photographs capture is the phantasmagoric that causes alienation, and the criminal is capitalism. With the proper (objective and aura-less) photograph in hand, the observer becomes close to the photograph and sees what he or she experiences everyday in a new light. They see the façade of capitalism and realize that the world they experience is a construct that capitalism and commodification has built. It is in this moment that photography reaches its potential; it can show the world objectively.

I end in an odd space, Walter Benjamin is and is not a technology determinist. His discussion allows culture, the social matrix, and the historical their proper place. He traces how they have all impacted the uses and expectations of photography. Photography can be used for many things including the perpetuation of the phantasmagoric and the aura. However, photographs that incorporate the political and lacking aura can be dangerous because viewers allow the images to be closer to them. Benjamin believes that photography has a potential latent within it; it has the potential to be objective (284). The potential of photography is to place the viewer in a position to see the social construction of the world and reveal the damages that capitalism has brought. It is the job of the photographer to facilitate this process and act as a liberator. In the last paragraph of “Little History of Photography” he states, “but mustn’t the photographer who is unable to read his own pictures be no less deemed an illiterate? Isn’t inscription bound to become the most essential component of the photograph?” (295). If the photographer who cannot critically read his own photographs is illiterate than there must be something latent or special within the photograph. The photograph does not automatically do anything because people can misuse photography and destroy the objective and revealing potential latent within the technology.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008. Print.

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Filed under Frankfurt School, Mass Culture