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.

I.  In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. 

Benjamin begins by outlining a history of artistic reproduction.  Even the ancient Greeks had technologies to reproduce art, like founding and stamping.  The principle difference between earlier forms of reproduction and photography, argues Benjamin, is speed.  Photography, which allowed the artist to create with his eye rather than his hands, eventually developed into moving picture able to contain speech.  This is the point from we might begin to consider mechanical reproduction an artistic form in its own right, rather than a way to reproduce pre-existing art forms. 

II.  “The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.”

Before photography, a piece of art’s authenticity resided in the original copy. This is because the original work of art occupies a particular time and space, handed down from person to person since its creation, bearing evidence of its own provenance.   Any copy that comes after an original work of art was a “forgery” of the original, and therefore, practically worthless. 

Art created via mechanical reproduction doesn’t fit into this old model for two reasons.  We can’t call the scene captured on film the “original” like we can do with a painting, because the camera lens creates art from its subject matter—the subject matter alone is not art.  In this way, the camera can even surpass what the eye sees in the original scene, because the lens can see slower, faster, or closer than the human eye under the right adjustments.  Secondly, mechanically reproduced art does not occupy a single time or space like a painting does.  Photography and sound recording are forms of telecommunication because they allow us to see and hear things from a different time and place.

Because mechanically-reproduced art has no claim to authenticity by means of singularity or originality, Benjamin posits it loses some of its connection or essence.  He coins the term “aura” to encompass that which the painting has but the photograph lacks—the aura is all the contexts a thing gathers since its inception.  Photographs, by contrast, exist in multiple places simultaneously, and each viewer experiences them within a distinct and separate context.  No longer can we trace a provenance of photography.  Thus, we lose the artistic object’s relationship with tradition.

III.  “The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope.

Benjamin talks here about the relationship between human senses and the media that humans use to communicate those senses. The way we perceive and process information has two causes: “natural” and “historical.”  Our natural way of sensing is biological and grows with us innately.  But our historical way of seeing is shaped by our culture—but the modes of art we understand and become familiar with.  Benjamin claims that classical cultures did not realize this distinction, but wiser now and more modern, we might.

The tension between natural and historical sense is also the tension between experiencing something and seeing it represented in a mechanical representation. He uses the example of a mountain vista.  We like the idea of seeing mountains on a warm summer day, and because we seek the “aura” of the real experience, we consume endlessly reproductions of it in photographs and magazines.  And because the public desires equality and accessibility in the industrial age, photographic representations of the mountain become a more stable reality than the mountain itself.  But the photograph can never have the aura of the original experience.

IV.  “…for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.

Art’s function, Benjamin argues, is historically tied up with ritual, and ritual depends on the existence of an original, authentic piece of art.  Even though the same piece of art might get tied up in several different rituals over time, ritual remained an important way that viewers made sense of art.  However, as mechanical reproduction increased, artists needed to find new justifications for art outside of ritual—“art for art’s sake.”  This attitude toward art denied that art had any social function.

This is the biggest hint that art in the age of mechanical reproduction has an even clearer social function than ever before.  Freed of “parasitic” ritual (in which the piece of art is the authority), art was now free to be a form of communication built from new contexts and orders.  Art was produced not for ritual then, but for reproduction.  In this sense, art can only be political when it breaks free from the “aura,” and this process is only possible via mechanical reproduction.

V.  Works of art are received and valued on different planes.

While works of art in the past were the center of ritual and therefore were primarily of “cult” value, mechanical works of art are the center of exhibition.  When works are created for ritual, they function as a type of magic and can only be recognized as art over time.  However, when works are created to be exhibited, they are considered works of art from the start.

VI.  “The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture.”

Benjamin recounts a brief history of photography.  The first popular photographs were portraits that allowed loved ones to become cult objects, especially after their death.  However, soon, photographs became visual evidence of certain places at certain times.  Soon, people need captions for photographs to tell them what they are seeing.  Rather than being cult objects, photographs become new centers of meaning; therefore, they take on special political significance.

VII.  “Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary question – whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art – was not raised.”

Benjamin discusses how photography made possible a language of pictures that “transformed the entire nature of art,” and uses this section to transition into a discussion of film as a new site of artistic meaning.

VIII.  “The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera.

Benjamin dissects the difference between a stage actor’s performance and a screen actor’s performance.  The film actor performs differently than the stage actor because his audience is not present, putting them in a position of “critic” rather than spectator.  The camera forces the perspective and position of the audience, and this becomes a crucial tool in establishing the relationship between actor and audience in the medium of film.  Because the audience’s perspective is fixed by the camera’s lens, there is no possibility for the kind of “cult value” Benjamin ascribes to earlier forms of art and portrait photography.

IX.  “[W]hat matters primarily is that the actor represents himself to the public before the camera, rather than representing someone else.”

While the stage actor constructs the narrative of the play, the camera constructs the narrative of a film.  Disparate moments are reassembled by mechanical means to tell a story, sometimes beyond the intentions of the film actor.  The film actor, then, is prized for his realism and the extent to which he can successfully provide the self-performance necessary to the film’s narrative.  The camera fragments and disrupts the actor’s “aura” through mechanical reproduction, replacing the presence of the actor with the presence of the camera.  This presents a new space for artistic reproduction similar to that which Benjamin ascribes to the photograph.  No longer must audiences believe in the reality of performance to understand that performance as artistic—now, audiences can celebrate the performance as constructed, and judge its artistic value based on that construction.

X.  “At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.”

Benjamin discusses the politics of labor involved in filmed performance.  Through the technology of film, the actor is able to translate his “mirror” image to the public, but this aura-less reproduction is a mere commodity to which the actor has no more connection than a factor worker to the products of his labor.  To replace the aura, film studios construct “cults of personality” which attempt to hide the film’s status as a commodity.  While film has revolutionary potential, the material conditions of its production in Western Europe limit its political value.

Film also has the potential to make its audience its stars.  Like other forms of mass media that precede it, specifically, print journalism, newsreels offer every day audiences the potential for filmic representation.  In addition, film audiences feel, like sports fans, compelled to critic and comment on the thing they watch, which makes them feel like participants in the film’s creation of meaning.  For this reason, Benjamin argues, the line between reader and writer in the 20th century has become considerably blurred.  There is enormous power embedded in an audience’s conception of themselves as co-authors of film, and for this reason, the film industry relies on spectacle and distraction to neutralize film’s revolutionary potential.

 XI.  “The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.”

Benjamin further elaborates on film’s creation of spectacle.  He explains that a spectator watching the process of filming (rather than the film itself) could only avoid seeing the tools of film production by looking through the lens of the camera itself.  Otherwise, being present during filming means seeing the tools of film production all around you.  This is a major difference between stage and screen that we might take a sign that technology has finally brought about its own invisibility. 

Benjamin reads this phenomenon in terms of rhetorical distance.  He contrasts painting and film using the analogy of the magician vs. the painter.  The magician increases critical distance to perform his magical healing, whereas the surgeon closes the critical distance between himself and his patient by literally penetrating his body.  Painting also relies on mysticism and distance to create aesthetic value.  Film, on the other hand, closes the distance between the real and the imaginary so completely that the imaginary appears real.

XII.  “The greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public. The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized with aversion.”

Benjamin now turns to a discussion of the implications of mass production to popular culture.  Paintings, he argues, could not have a mass audience because they could not be reproduced and publicly viewed.  But because films are manufactured via reproduction, we must consider how the mass public reads these objects.  Benjamin asserts that the public “uncritically enjoys” the conventional—the thing they are used to and familiar with—and responds with “aversion” to anything new. 

XIII.  “The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.”

Benjamin implicitly asks his reader to reject and resist the “uncritical enjoyment” of conventional film and instead look at how we can use this new technology to perform new kinds of critiques.  Because the technology allows us to rewind, revist, slow down, or speed up action, sound, and experience, we can use the film to “see” as we’ve never seen before.  Just as psychoanalysis asks us to think about and articulate the unthought and the unspoken, film asks us to see the unseen.

XIV.  “One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later.”

Benjamin argues demands for new forms of artistic expression predate the development of film, and that this is a pattern we can trace throughout history.  Artistic expression always demands more than technology can provide.  In fact, art can be seen to push technological developments as it provides the ideological context for them.  Art understands that new media eventually become normalized, and so art always strives to push the available means of technology beyond its present capabilities.

XV.  “The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one.”

Benjamin concludes by asking the public to consciously understand the processes by which they view film and “apperceive” or make sense of the film in terms of their pre-existing beliefs.  This, according to his larger argument, is what a larger method of film criticism should consider.  The chief danger of film is its ability to hypnotize its audience into acceptance via its hyperrealism.  Public attention to and interest in how a film constructs narrative, reality, time, and movement is necessary if film is to accomplish its revolutionary potential.

Further reading

T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919).

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944).

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (1964).

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1980).

Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation (2000).

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