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A short history of photography – Walter Benjamin

[Recreated from pdf after blog crash]


Benjamin’s renowned essay is often cited in writing on photographic theory (for example, Sontag’s On Photography) and referenced in the academic study of photography. It was first published in Germany in 1931, but was not published in English until 1972. So, it was written approximately 100 years after the invention of photography and I am reading it 85 years after it was written. An 85 years in which the world has changed beyond all recognition, socially, politically and technologically. This is important to recognise when drawing any message from the essay, since Benjamin rooted it in the social and political context of the times – when mass media was young and the prospect of World War II was looming, which had disasterous consequences for Benjamin. He took his own life at the age of 48, while endeavouring to escape Nazi Germany (European Graduate School).

The essay examines the social and psychological a”ects of change brought about through the technology of photography. I summarise what I read as the main aspects of the essay:

It opens with a seemingly nostalgic reference to the ‘pre- industrialisation’ of photography, which he describes as a ‘prime’ period. He means the time when photographic equipment was slow, technically challenging and inaccessible to the masses.

He discusses the tensions between art (paintings) and photography, initially in the context of portraits.

” However skilful the photographer, however carefully he poses his model, the spectator feels an irresistible compulsion to look for the tiny spark of chance, of the hear and now, with whic reality has, as it were, seared the character in the picture …

This is reminiscent of Barthes’ puntum. Benjamin likens photography’s making us aware of the ‘optical unconsciousness’ to psychoanalysis.

He proposes that the length of time required for a sitter in the early photos was similar to sitting for a painting and that through this intense sitting more of the moment is captured than in snapshots. That there is a greater aura around the subject. This seems to be at the root of his nostalgia.

As photography took over the work of painters of miniature portraits, Benjamin discuses the absurdities of the props and scenes in photographers studios as they tried to mimic portrait paintings. And further, once advanced optics became available to capture fine details in photos, how details were then removed by retouching to recreate the look (or aura) of early photographs.

Benjamin celebrates the work of Atget as a forerunner of surrealist photography, helping to ‘disinfect the stuffy atmosphere spread by conventional portrait photography … He initiated the liberation of the object from the aura, which is the most incontestable achievement of the recent … photography.’ Benjamin values this as an achievement because of Atget’s ability to reflect the changing world around him – ‘the sense of sameness of things in the world has grown to such an extent that by means of reproduction even the unique is made to yield up its uniqueness.’ So Benjamin is not celebrating the lack of aura/uniqueness, but Atget’s ability to capture it – ‘a salutary estrangement between man and his environment’. Benjamin described it as a ‘new way of seeing’.

He describes how the then-new way of seeing was least at home when people were paying for portraits, but notes that photography cannot do without people. At this point, the work of August Sander, Face of Our Time, is introduced as an alternative model for portrait photographs; ‘Sanders work is more than a picture book, it is an atlas of instruction.’

On the subject of photography as art, Benjamin observes it as the most contested area of debate, ‘… the question of the aesthetics of photography as an art, while … art as photography scarcely received a glance.’ He draws a parallel between the development of reproductive techniques (photography) and how great works of art were no longer created by individuals, but by collectives, and on huge scales. So, art as photography becomes a practical necessity to share the art. Benjamin proposes that when photography strays outside the context established by Sander and frees itself from politics and science, it then becomes creative. He is not in favour of this:

” The world is beautiful – that precisely is its motto. Therein is unmasked a photography which is able to relate a tin of canned food to the universe, yet cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which that tin exists; a photography which even in its most dreamlike compositions is more concerned with eventual saleability than with understanding.

Benjamin concludes by discussing the possibilities that come from the authenticity of photography – capturing transitory and secret pictures with shock value. Arguing that this type of image requires a caption for it to be clearly understood. He seems to be making an argument in favour of what we might call the paparazzi, ‘… is not every corner of our cities a scene of action? Is not each passer-by an actor? Is it not the task of the photographer … to uncover guilt and name the guilty in pictures?’ In this context he then reiterates, ‘will not the caption become the most important part of the shot’. Remember that this statement was made in the context of the social upheaval and unrest in Germany in the approach to WW2.

The overall message of the essay is that photography should look for something other than recreating what has gone before in paintings. It should work with its quality of authenticity to uncover truth.
My personal perspective at this time, is that photography can serve many purposes. Intention and integrity are therefore important. But with the political imperatives at the time of Bejamin’s writing, I may well of had a di”erent view.


Benjamin W. A short history of photography. London, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 2011.

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