Walter Benjamin on photography and film

The cover of Benjamin's collection of essays, Illuminations

To wrap up our semester on viz., our staff showcases new static content we've added to our "teaching" and "visual theory" sections.  Below is my discussion of Walter Benjamin's canonical essay on photography, film, and the politics of mass media, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."  Each day this week, we'll feature a new piece of static content on our blog.  We hope instructors, students, and persons interested in visual rhetoric will browse our archives (linked in the top bar) and find useful material for research, pedagogy, and all forms of intellectual inquiry.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Trans. Harry Zohn. Illuminations. 1955. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Reprint ed. New York: Schocken Books, 1986. 217–52. 

By Laura Thain

In this seminal essay, originally published in French in 1936, Benjamin outlines shifts in the way art produces meaning after the advent of the photograph.  His essay takes places in fifteen parts, which explore how film is physically produced, how that production influences the way that audiences interact with film, and how those audiences reconcile film with their pre-existing value structures and beliefs.  Benjamin ultimately suggests a method of reading photography and film that accounts for both their material production and how that material production supersedes or alters prior methods of criticism.  Central to critical practice in the age of mechanical reproduction is the establishment of critical distance between audience and media form, so that the audience can resist pure enjoyment and instead ask how photography and film can help us see differently, even as they attempts to perfectly replicate the way we already perceive the world.  Writing from Paris, Benjamin, a Jewish German expatriate disturbed by the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, explores the political implications of new, mechanized art forms in a rapidly-changing 20th century.

Jim Goldberg's Rich and Poor: The Impoverished Viewer

black and white photo of man, woman, and child. Handwritten text beneath photo says when I look at this picture I feel alone. It makes me want to reach out to Patty and make our relationship work. Cowboy Stanley. 

Image Credit: Magnum Photos



Jim Goldberg's Rich and Poor features photographs of the impoverished tenants of a San Fransisco hotel and of an affluent group of select individuals, also shown in their homes. As the most obvious dimension of the title suggests, the photos serve as a comparative essay on class and the disparity of wealth in America. Goldberg compiled this collection through the late 70s and early 80s and it was originally published by Random House in 1985. The Harry Ransom Center's current exhibit, Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age (September 10, 2013 – January 5, 2014), includes several images from Rich and Poor.


The Changing Face of Media Consumption

Media Consumption title graphic

(Image Credit: Ad Age, MBA Online, Magid Generational Strategies)

This cutesy inforgraphic from Ad Age and MBA Online presents the reader with a breakdown of media use by type, time and generation. The initial study was performed by Magid Generational Strategies. At first blush this seems to present a thorough overview of how different populations consume media, but on closer examination there are some signifigant issues. These issues aside, and in some cases because of these issues, this long image (I've broken it into several pieces for readability's sake. See the full image here) raises a number of questions about not which types of media we consume but how our methods of media consumption are changing to the degree that this infographic doesn't quite make sense. 

Two Sex-Scandals: Focusing in on the Problem

Arnold Schwarzeneggar and Maria Schriver

AP Photo/Chris Pizello via NY Daily News

Given the increasing hullaballoo surrounding this week’s two sex-scandal stories (Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger), this image of Schwarzenegger and soon-to-be ex-wife, Maria Shriver, strikes me as paradigmatic of how these scenarios seem to play out: focus in on brooding, somber (occasionally apologetic) male politician; blurry, out-of-focus female victim in the foreground.  While the impetus behind these stories is supposedly exposing  the men that “done them wrong,” it’s often the women who suffer most from the media backlash.

Sexy. Sputnik. Science.

Obama at science fair

Image Credit: Associated Press

Via Gothamist

In January’s State of the Union, President Obama called this “our generation’s Sputnik moment.” Since then, I’ve been curious about how the administration would visualize the core message of that speech, which foregrounded science, education, and innovation. Exhibit A: the Beatles-esque tableaux above, from last week’s visit to an NYC science fair.

Visual Budget

Image Credit: screenshot of Visual Budget,

Visualizations are a necessary part of the way the media interprets government spending for the average viewer. Those of us who are not math whizzes, who may have trouble keeping our own accounts, find a simple graph or pie chart to be a useful aid. However, those representations often present an oversimplified view.  Enter Visual Budget, a "cutting-edge data-visualization web site" that attempts to explain the nuances of government spending to the common citizen.

"What Exactly is Mediated Content?"

Image Credit: Jason Dockter 'Going Multi-Modal'

Click play, and you're smack in the middle of composing, as Jason Dockter, PhD student at Utah State University, creates a digital ethnography of skateboarding sub-culture. His website Going Multi-Modal documents, as Dockter writes, "the process that I went through creating multimodal composition similar to what I might ask students in my first-year composition course to create in a future semester." You can watch the digital iMovie take shape from the beginning, through several...different...stages of production, and through to the end. (The example piece is embedded after the break.)

Documenting Documenting a Tragedy

media at Fort Hood

Screen capture of

Emily's post this past week considers the ways in which many of the images of the shooting at Fort Hood reflect a "conflicted understanding of this event as both a military and a domestic tragedy."  Her insightful comments sent me searching through much of the photojournalism that surrounds this recent tragedy and I found that many of the collections of slide shows contain at least one, if not several, photographs of the media documenting the aftermath of the event.  Some of these photographs show the media set against the setting sun while others focus on a key speaker surrounded and almost swallowed by a sea of cameras and microphones.  While it is no surprise that, with the onslaught of the 24-hour news cycle and the need for news, the media likes to focus on the impact of the media, I wonder whether we might see these images of image-making as more than just meta?

Fort Hood in Images

Fort Hood

 Image Credit: The Guardian

As the memorial service for the victims of the Fort Hood shooting begins, I want to spend some time considering the visual representations of this event in the media.  Photographs representing the shooting seem to mirror our conflicted understanding of this event as both a military and a domestic tragedy.  In the absence of more information about the shooter and his motives, this ambiguity marks the photographs that appear online and in print.  Some photographs evoke Columbine, Virginia Tech or 9/11 by focusing on groups of mourners and the buildings where the shooting took place.  In so doing, these images emphasize the effects of violence on a place and a community.  However, other photographs more closely resemble traditional war photography in which the soldier is represented through metonymic devices such as a uniform or a gun. 

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