“Rueful Reluctance:” An Unwitting Cat Owner’s Search for Meaning Among Memes

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.

The Most Democratic Selfie?


Image Source: eonline 

"By bringing together and posing a pack of rascals, male and female, dressed up like carnival-time butchers and washerwomen,  and in persuading these ‘heroes’ to ‘hold’ their improvised grimaces for as long as the photographic process required, people really believed they could represent the tragic and the charming scenes of history" -Baudelaire

After last week’s Oscar’s ceremony, a number of critics lauded Ellen DeGeneres’s performance as “warm,” "accessible,” and most interestingly, “democratic.” The gimmick, of course, which earned her the most attention was the big Oscar’s Selfie. After all, what could be more charming than everyone’s favorite celebrities acting like ordinary people; seemingly thrilled at the mere chance to be on television? Thinking about this selfie, and the comment that Ellen was so “democratic” brought to mind the oft touted expression that photography is “the great democratic medium.” In an interesting way, the Oscar’s Selfie is the perfect encapsulation of that saying.

“Walking in the Footsteps of Edward Sheriff Curtis”: Jimmy Nelson’s Before They Pass Away

Image credit:

In my last post I wrote about viral internet photo collections of people from around the world with their possessions. Perhaps because of these photos, or perhaps because of a general cultural zeitgeist, another much older genre of ethnographic portraiture has been receiving renewed attention on the web: portraiture of “tribespeople” from around the world. The most prominent series in the revival of this genre seems to be Before They Pass Away, a long-term project from British-born photographer Jimmy Nelson.

Documentation of Loss – Observing Failure in the Modern Olympics

Shin A. Lam, olympic fencer from S. Korea, cries in the arena after a loss to her opponent.

Olympic fencer Shin A-Lam of South Korea remains in the arena to contest an unfavorable ruling without the expected stoicism.  Image credit: Korea Bang

What does it mean to document loss?  What is its rhetorical function?  Rhetoric of Celebrity student Iva Kinnaird assembles an archive of defeat from several Olympic games, tracing the intersections of celebrity and sportsmanship.  The documentation of loss, she asserts, commodifies defeat and makes it available for public consumption.  The result is a strange rhetorical landscape where the lines between winning and losing become less easy to determine.

Texans as Ethnographic Subjects

Image Credit:

Recently one of my students came to class carrying a large mass of ribbons. With a central bow the size of a large sunflower, and gold and white strands trailing for several feet, it resembled a festive octopus. “I’m making fonts for my design class out of mums,” she explained, as she pulled out a chair for her artwork. The class then conferred the knowledge of the Texas tradition that is mum giving.

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.


Commercial and Cooperative Subjectivities: Does an Independent Lens See Differently?

A photographic portrait of Robert Capa

Image Credit: Hudson Valley Almanac

"If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough."--Robert Capa, founding member of Magnum.  d. 1954, landmine accident


Currently on exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center is a carefully curated selection of Magnum photos, drawing from the organization’s archive housed at the Center.  Magnum, an elite professional photographic cooperative, brings together some of the world’s premiere photographers in a collaboration resistant to the commercial demands of photojournalism.   This week on viz., we’ll feature the exhibit and explore issues central to visual argumentation and mass media.  This post will explore what possibilities arise when photographers become their own producers and distributors—what influence do the conditions of production have on the genre of photojournalism itself?


David Maisel and Beautiful Disasters

 American Mine (Carlin, NV 1), 2007

Image Credit: David Maisel

You must be thinking, "Gosh, that's marvelous! What is it?" Well, I'll give you some hints about what it's not. It's not a computer-generated image (so you can rule out "digital vat of candy for a Willy Wonka film"). And it wasn't captured by NASA on a trip to Neptune. If you guessed geode, then you're getting warmer, but you're still way off in terms of scale. Perhaps it looks to you like a place where a leprechaun might stash his gold? Well, strangely, that guess may be closest of all.

It turns out this absolutely mesmerizing photograph by David Maisel is an aerial view of a toxic manmade pond in Carlin Trend, Nevada, "the most prolific gold mining district in the Western Hemisphere" according to Maisel's website. The disorienting quality of the photo is a hallmark of Maisel's environmental photography, which explores the visually haunting, otherworldly transformations humans inflict on the Earth's surface. For decades, Maisel has been flying over and photographing sites of environmental wreckage, like the scored and chemically soaked basins of America's pit mines or the wasted lakebeds that once supplied Los Angeles with water.  Beyond increasing awareness about these environmental disasters, Maisel's photographs enact a terrifying tug-of-war between ethics and aesthetics. As viewers experience and take pleasure in their sublime beauty, they are forced into the uncomfortable knowledge that these environmentally ruinous conditions have an irresistably attractive dimension. 

Sources of Fame: Photographer or Subject?

An Arnold Newman "selfie" from 1987.  Image credit: The Jewish Museum

One of my favorite parts of the Harry Ransom Center’s current exhibition on Arnold Newman is the way it resists chronology.  Newman’s photographs are organizes by particular attention to one of ten elements of Newman’s photography as artistic practice: “searches,” “choices,” “fronts,” “geometries,” “habitats,” “lumen,” “rhythms,” “sensibilities,” “signatures,” and “weavings.”  What results is an exhibit that resists a notion of Arnold Newman’s transformation over time.  Instead, the exhibit suggests, audiences might read Newman by his unique manipulation of photography’s formal elements throughout his entire career.

The resistance to chronology is apparent, too, in the weaving, wandering nature of the physical exhibit.  Temporary half-walls throughout the exhibition space designate no beginning or end point for audiences.  Instead, the exhibit inspires audiences to accept Newman’s particular artistic practice across ten themes as definitive criteria for photographic excellence, and therefore evidence for celebrating the photographer himself.

Such a construction has encouraged me to think about the relationship between celebrated photographer and celebrated subject.  Are there ways that these two categories inform each other in the case of Arnold Newman?  Can we trace, even amidst the Harry Ransom Center’s achronological curation, a chronological shift in fame from photographer to photographed?  How does fame work as a mechanism for those who garner fame by representing it and perhaps cultivating it?  Can those who represent fame create it as well?

Recent comments