Making Contact: The Photographer's Interface with the World

By Kia M. Carbone
2009, Vol. 1 No. 11 | pg. 1/5 |

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), a key twentieth-century cultural theorist, has been influential in various fields, including art and literary criticism. He wrote “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1935 to examine revolutionary changes in the arts due to monumental advances in associated with modernity. He argues that in the age of mechanical reproduction, art becomes reproducible and thereby gradually loses its traditional and ritualistic value, causing it to lose “aura” and “authenticity.”1 About a century earlier, Karl Marx (1818-1883) wrote Capital, which alluded to how technology could be expected to affect the superstructure, including art, in the future. Benjamin uses Marx as a starting point for his own essay, saying that Marx has a sound argument, but that technology had been in its infancy in Marx’ time, and it was time to reevaluate the topic. The “Work of Art” was published in an effort to construct a theory of art that would be useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands on art. In other words, in the age of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin proposes—from a point of view most closely associated with Communism—that art should be based on instead of, as the Fascist view would have it, that politics should be based on art.

In the same way that Benjamin modernizes Marx, the purpose of my essay is to bring Benjamin’s own essay up to date. Benjamin wrote during a time when the process of manual photography was considered as quick as digital photography is today. Because the earliest photographic prints took at least eight hours of exposure, the thirty-minute exposure time in the 1930’s was seen as a technological leap into the future.2 The digital developments in the twenty-first century mimic this technological leap and force us to once again, redefine art and the laborious processes that art requires.  Benjamin focuses on the “aura” and “authenticity” of art as they pertain to painting and photography.[3] I will deal with this same issue, but will focus on the transition from traditional photography to digital photography and the effects the change has wrought on the concept of aura.

Benjamin believed that photography accelerated the destruction of aura, but the invention of the digital camera demands that we revisit this assumption. It can be argued that the traditional camera, which Benjamin believed destroyed the aura of the artwork, has become an authentic form of art since the invention of the digital camera. Indeed, the question of which art forms have “aura” therefore changes with the introduction of new technologies. As a result, “aura” is a historically relative concept, dependent upon technological change.

The growing popularity of photography and in the early 1900’s influenced Benjamin’s essay. The invention of the camera and the intrusion of machinery into the process of creating art, as opposed to the “hands-on” technique of painters and sculptors, is the basis upon which Benjamin argues the aura and authenticity of the work of art have eroded in the age of mechanical reproduction.4 Now, about eighty years later, the digital camera has taken the place of the manual camera, and the manual camera has become the new paintbrush. In a sense, traditional photography, it can be argued, maintains the same relation between the artist and his work of art that painting in Benjamin’s time did, whereas the digital photographer is as disconnected from his photographs as the traditional photographer once was. With the introduction of new technology, the status of the work of art changes. The introduction of new forms of technology into art means that Benjamin’s original concepts of “aura” and “authenticity” must be redefined.

Section I: “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

In the first section of the essay, Benjamin briefly explains the history of the reproduction of art going back to the coins of Ancient Greece. Following the reproduction of coins, the techniques of engraving and etching were introduced in the Middle Ages. These in turn laid the foundations for the art of lithography in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Lithography was important because it was the first form of reproduction to keep pace with the printing press, but was surpassed in this respect only a few decades later by photography.5 The swift from lithography and printing to photography was an exciting change for the public, as photography marked the first form of art to accelerate the transference of what the artist sees with his eye to what he presents in his work of art: “The eye perceives more swiftly than the hand can draw, the process of pictorial reproduction was accelerated so enormously that it could keep pace with speech.”6 The brief timeline Benjamin lays out helps to explain how photography had such a profound impact on art and perception.

It is in the second section that Benjamin introduces two crucial concepts: “aura” and “authenticity.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (2008) defines “aura” as: “a subtle sensory stimulus (as an aroma), or a distinctive atmosphere surrounding a given source.”7 Benjamin’s understanding of aura is more aesthetic in that the word is used with reference to the awe and reverence that is experienced by someone viewing a unique piece of art. The aura of a work of art is first introduced as the element that is eliminated when an original work of art is mechanically reproduced. Benjamin states that aura is the first element of art to wither in this age of mechanical reproduction, which in turn contributes to the “shattering of tradition.”8 This “shattering of tradition” is both mourned by Benjamin, and is seen as opening political possibilities not previously available to art.

Benjamin’s notion of aura, as opposed to the dictionary definition, connects it not only to the work of art and the viewer, but also to the environment and to the history of the art. For Benjamin, the history of ownership of a work and its exhibition and cultural value are also factors in determining the aura of a work of art; mechanical reproduction takes the viewer so far from the original work that its aura dissipates. Film and photography erode aura since, because of their infinite reproducibility, there is no such thing as an original version. In addition, technology also causes the connection between the original setting in which the work of art was created and the work itself, to be ruptured.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (2008) defines “Authenticity” as: “a: worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact; b: conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features; and c: made or done the same was as an original.”9 Benjamin takes this definition a step further. The history of the work of art, its physical conditions, process of creation, and the tradition if its ownership are all considered by him to be elements that contribute to the authenticity of a work of art. The authenticity of a work of art simply means that quality of the work is genuine and not corrupted from the original. In the early pages of the essay, Benjamin uses the concept of authenticity to prove that the reproducibility of a work of art takes away from the work because it destroys its authenticity.10

Art Critic, John Berger (1926) wrote Ways of Seeing forty years after Benjamin’s “Work of Art.” Berger discusses Benjamin’s essay, elaborating on the differences between the original and its reproduction. He also points to the new potential opened up by technology:

In the age of pictorial reproduction the meaning of paintings is no longer attached to them; their meaning becomes transmittable: that is to say it becomes information of a sort, and, like all information, it is either put to use or ignored… It is not a question of reproduction failing to reproduce certain aspects of an image faithfully; it is a question of reproduction making it possible, even inevitable, that an image will be used for many different purposes and that the reproduced image, unlike an original work, can lend the reproduced image itself to them all.11

Like Benjamin, Berger understands that uniqueness belongs to the original and that the copies lack aura. Technology allows an object that was once unique to be reproduced and thereby to be made accessible to people otherwise unable to have access to this object. It also permits new uses not open to the original.

Benjamin believes the erosion of aura is due in part to people desiring to bring things closer—in both a spatial sense and a human sense—in an attempt to connect to elements of the world:

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