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A Small History of Photography by Walter Benjamin

A Small History of Photography by Walter Benjamin


In essay ‘A Small History of Photography’ Walter Benjamin describes the history of photography, discussing past views on this art, connecting it with present, making some predictions and asking questions about the future. The work was written in 1931, almost a hundred years after the first photos taken by Nicéphore Niépce. The essay was published in ‘Die Literarische Welt’ and presented the ideas, some of which were developed in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936).

At that time there was already a possibility to take color and instant photos, therefore photography was considered to be an art form. However, there was another view that Walter Benjamin tried to express. The central argument of his essay ‘A Small History of Photography’ is that emergence of photography had a huge impact on art in general and this effect is often underestimated. It applies to the topics of ‘Photography and Science’, ‘Photography and Nature’, and mostly to ‘Photography and the Transformation of Art’.

Photography and Science

Actually photography was made for scientific purposes. Scientists have been experimenting with different chemical materials to fix the image for centuries. It took almost two thousand years for the humanity to go a long way from discovery of the phenomenon of the inverted picture to the invention of the camera. Those people who experimented with substances to take permanent and highly detailed photos were chemists or physicists – Johann Heinrich Schulz, Henry Fox Talbot, John Herschel, Edmond Becquerel and others.

Therefore, from the beginning photography was more to do with science, which gave her life and had a pragmatic purpose to fix the image. It could be used in medicine, history, archeology and other related fields. People are prisoners of their own bodies and physiological factors. The human eye cannot always see what the camera captures, and memory is not so perfect to record what a man saw in all its details. Thus, photography can develop science and discover previously inaccessible aspects of life. Benjamin W. (1979) stressed, ‘Whereas it is a commonplace that, for example, we have some idea what is involved in the act of walking, if only in general terms, we have no idea at all what happens during the fraction of a second when person steps out. Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret’. Later, since photography was considered to be an art form, the function of recording the smallest real parts is unique, one which sets it apart from painting. It made possible to show that nature itself is beautiful, often structured and patterned creation. This brings us to the topic of relationships between photography and nature.

Photography and Nature

Talking about art and nature, people must take into consideration the work of Karl Blossfeldt ‘Artforms in Nature’ that was published in 1985. The author сlaims that nature and art are closely related (Blossfeldt 1931). They are both creations with their internal laws and both of them are not permanent and stable over time. Nevertheless nature is cyclic, living things are born and die, their life and death is repeated continuously, without experiencing significant changes. At the same time art forms are constantly changing through centuries with the development of civilization and human thought. Art seeks eternity, looks for embodiment of the spirit in reality and, therefore, does not stand still. Each new style or direction borrows something from the past, but denies an existing one. It is a process of constant search for the truth through new technical developments and ideas. Modern techniques and especially photography also strives to discover something new in nature. There will always remain small structures in plants that people cannot notice, there is still a depth that can be investigated only with the help of technology. Moreover, their fixation requires a very sensitive and resistant camera.

As art in general, goals that sets the photography also varies depending on era, technical capabilities and views on beauty. For instance, some artists prefer to take realistic photos just to show the nature as accurate as possible and benefit the biological sciences. This corresponds to the technical nature of the camera. Jean Baudrillard (1999) wrote, ‘The photographic gaze has a sort of nonchalance which nonintrusively captures the apparition of objects. It does not seek to probe or analyze reality. Instead, the photographic gaze is “literally” applied on the surface of things to illustrate their apparition as fragments’. Some photographers are reflecting on the nature, trying to show it with non-standard side and angle, add a fantasy and mystery to it.

For instance, German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch was a representative of the New Objectivity. This style was an opposition to the late romanticism and expressionism. Therefore it aimed to show the world as it is without idealization and fantasy. Albert Renger-Patzsch was taking photos that looked like scientific illustrations and published them in a book called ‘Die Welt Ist Schön’ (‘The World Is Beautiful’).

The photographer tends to be realist in his work and there is one thing that shows his attitude to nature. He tended to see nature as an aggregate of living beings and certain phenomena, because the author wanted to call his book ‘Die Dinge’ (‘Things’). Therefore, he put on a par his photos of plants, animals, people, landscapes and objects.

However, the published found this title inappropriate and changes it for ‘Die Welt Ist Schön’ (‘The World Is Beautiful’), which gives the book the opposite meaning. It turns out that the author considers the world and nature to be wonderful and unique. As a result, the photographer managed to combine both goals listed above – unite an accurate picture of nature together with the provision of its beauty and unusual look.

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The book was published in 1928 and photographs showed plants and animals the way they could not be seen by an average person. For instance, a photo (Renger-Patzsch  1928) that has a botanical name ‘Sempervivum Percarneum’ shows a plant in its smallest details – the fibers of leaves and combination of light and shadow. It also has an ideal geometric pattern that is very beautiful and that people cannot notice while looking at plant from distance. The same applies to pictures of animals. Few people would like to risk their lives in order to see the tiger up close. The Renger Patzsch’s  photo made it possible to examine the appearance of this animal carefully.  Returning to Benjamin’s work ‘A Small History of Photography’, the author briefly mentions Renger-Patzsch’s work when he writes about something that photography was inclined to in the early stages and explains that it was close to science. He devotes a lot of attention to description of photographed people. Benjamin W. (1979) wrote, ‘The real victim of photography, however, was not landscape painting, but the portrait miniature’. The presence of person on the photograph can provoke many questions. Is photography of a human a work of art or just a fixed image of man or woman in a certain period of life? The author encourages us to answer this question by revealing the connection between photography and art.

Photography and the Transformation of Art

As any invention, a method of fixing the appearance of images provoked many discussions and sometimes fears in society. Benjamin shows two dominant positions at the beginning of photography. One of them treated it in a negative way as blasphemy and destruction of ideals, while another considered photography to be a follower of painting. The second view was more influential because many artists became photographers at that time. Eventually biases were rejected for photo opportunities dominated all warnings.

Most of society accepted photography as an effective and innovating way to fix itself in a certain period of life. People were willing to stand motionless for a lot of time to get a photo with their image recorded on paper and put it in the album. Thanks to the emergence of photography we have many true images of famous people at different times of their lives. At the same time photographers took pictures of random people or personalities in their environment or labor. These photos are also valuable for our time. Sander, A. (1930) depicted,‘…The more securely the actual present is enshrined in a work the greater will be its value for eternity’.

Writing about portrait photography, Benjamin mentions the famous German photographer August Sander that was working in this genre. He succeeded to make thousands of images of people from different walks of life and put them in various collections, one of which was called ‘Face of Our Time’.

In foreword to this collection Alfred Döblin wrote about features of photos taken during human life and after death and identified three types of photographers. He ranked Sander as the third and the most talented type of photographer, because he was able to take photos of people in their environment, paying attention to their social class, job and leisure. Benjamin W. (1979) wrote,  ‘With his vision, his mind, his faculty of observation, his knowledge, and last but not least his immense photographic talent, Sander has succeeded in writing sociology not by writing, but by producing photographs – photographs of faces and not mere costumes’.

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In general, Sander was inclined to demonstrate the differences between social classes, show that people of one class have something in common. For instance, observers can guess that the person, who wears glasses, can be a pianist or a jeweler, and one that is wildly dressed could be an artist. Therefore, according to Benjamin, the most important thing in portrait photography of that time was to show realistic image of a person that demonstrated his or her lifestyle.

Another issue concerns still life on photos. These pictures allow us to see familiar places in unusual angle or that architecture, landscapes or city blocks, which we have never seen. Photographer do not have to pay attention to what is noticeable that allows us to call a certain phenomenon, but notices details. These details form an aura of a particular city or landscape. A French photographer Eugène Atget was very good at founding this aura. He was not recognized during the lifetime, but his work has inspired many photographers of the twentieth century. Walter Benjamin dedicated to Eugène Atget most of his work, but there is no need to transfer information about the work and photographs of this artist, that Benjamin wrote. It is necessary to concentrate on dominant idea that the author wanted to share with his readers. Benjamin is paying attention to the question how photography influenced the vision and expression of whole art.

Firstly, photography changed the way paintings look. Photography and realistic approach to the depiction of reality contributed to hyperrealism in art. This is a kind of imitation of paintings; the main aim for hyperrealists was to make the picture very similar to photography.

Secondly, the development of photographic technique subsequently led to the emergence of cinema and it, in turn, influenced the literature, creating the effect of installing in the text.

Finally, it became possible to take photos of artistic masterpieces, so anyone can see a photo of famous painting, sculpture, play or a book edition.

A few centuries ago there was the notion of the genius and artistic gift was considered to be something divine and exceptional. Not everyone could create a painting or sculpture. Art was understood as creative activity of individual artists, so it had nothing to do with the masses. The invention of the camera and its distribution has changed the nature of artistic work, making it collectively. Everyone became able to press the button and if he or she had a minimal artistic vision it was possible to make a good photo. This change attributed to the emergence of the genre of reportage photography. Unlike portrait and landscape photos, this type was intended to capture the event and did not need artistic vision, just the ability to take pictures on the right time.

At the time when Walter Benjamin wrote his ‘A small History of Photography’ photography served the needs of art and science to a great extent. This century’s photography can be described in the same way. In another book the author mentioned the work of art in a day of technical reproducibility, but since then there have been many changes. Not every photo can be considered a work of art now. There are a lot of devices with camera function, every day people see hundreds or thousands of pictures on the Internet. Ordinary people in social networks post photos, especially on the Instagram adding any effects and using Photoshop and other graphics editors. Qualitative and not very creative photos appear at an incredible speed, being estimated quickly and disappearing forever. Nobody can claim that his photos will be properly evaluated and saved. It is difficult to find a person who does not have a camera, and many people have access to professional ones and master this technique. Therefore, there is a great number of professionals, as well as those who take photographs for personal purposes.

All genres of photography are popular and widespread, especially portrait photography. People are willing to pay big money to a professional to get fantastic own photos that can be shared with friends and followers. Nowadays people also have a self-portrait genre in photography – the so-called ‘selfie’. Reportage photography is still very valuable, as the flow of information has increased many times.Moreover, photographers became very operative. The only genre that has remained almost the same as was initially is  the landscape photography. However, only the most incredible photos of interesting places in the world can claim to be considered masterpieces.

Photography does not have the aura, which is inherent to other works of art. In the twenty first century, it ceased to be an end in itself that was predicted by Benjamin. It is likely to be called an informational tool. Human perception of a picture is often better than perception of the text. People see what happened by looking at photos;thus, there is no need to read a long description of a phenomenon or event. It resulted in the infographics, a large number of photos on the Internet from different users. Putting these photos together, people can get an idea of what happened.  In general, nowadays photography can be called a part of art in its rare forms.

In conclusion, Walter Benjamin not only makes a brief review of the history of photography, but offers different views on this type of art during its development. There have always been those who praised the emergence of photography and those who treated it with caution and prejudice. There were prophecies that photography will led to devaluation of art, or vice versa will fulfill its role. However, now the painting is more valued than the photo, because they have an aura of its creator.

The author also gives examples of artists who have proved that photography needs to be called an artistic genre. These creators were working in different genres, but they were united by the desire for making a realistic picture of the world, because it was an actual need for that time. In the essay readers can also notice established links between photography and painting, nature, science and art in general.

The author draws attention to the unexplored question. He wants to investigate how photography influenced the transformation of art and says that thanks to photography art had a collective character at that time. However, he did not put a dot in his essay and asks even more questions concerning the future. Benjamin is right that the issues associated with photography in the twentieth century are very different from those that were in the previous century. What people see nowadays is that photography is completely transformed since the time Walter Benjamin wrote his essay. It has become a mass phenomenon and universally recognized photographic masterpieces  can only be see in galleries.

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