The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

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| Editors: Jeremy Tambling

City Snapshots: Walter Benjamin’s “Little History of Photography”

  • Jeremy TamblingEmail author
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Early Photography

Photography comes into existence in 1839, as the daguerrotype, invented by Jacques Daguerre (1787–1851), and writing about it in his novel Cousin Pons 10 years later, (1847–1848), Balzac speculates on the occult sciences, in which he was interested, which are spurned by skeptics or materialist philosophers, “that is to say by those who cleave solely to solid, visible facts,” in order to explain how the criterion of apparent absurdity rules out many inventions, for example:

the most recent great discovery of our time, the daguerrotype. If anyone had come and told Napoleon that a man or building is incessantly and continuously represented by a picture in the atmosphere, that all existing objects project into it a kind of spectre which can be captured and perceived, he would have consigned him to Charenton as a lunatic. (Balzac 1968: 131)

Balzac seems to have conceived photography as a spectral record of what has been, which has been created out a sense that each person – and indeed all Paris – has a shadowy other, a picture or resemblance of itself, a trace remaining in the atmosphere and which is caught in the photograph after the phenomenon has disappeared, as a specter. And it leads Balzac into saying that each man’s destiny is imprinted in his physiognomy, “taking this word as applying to every bodily characteristic” (132), and that this is readable, as a photograph is readable. The person carries their own specter with them, a picture of what they are, and this makes him or her ghostly, because there is another reality which is captured in the photograph, or by those who can read physiognomies; the person is less than their representation. It is not far from that to argue that photographic representation has threatened to construct the character of the still living – as for example, in the 1870s, Charcot’s photographs of hysterics constructed the hysteric, created a way of seeing the living, making the prior representation have the power of dictating to what is living; fixing it, making it conform to itself in a Foucault-like “constitution of the subject.”

Benjamin’s essay “Little History of Photography” (1931), in a decade heavy with the threat of Fascism, which used photography and film for reactionary purposes, and which emphasized the cult of “art for art’s sake,” as Benjamin comments at the end of his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility” (Benjamin 2008: 42), looks at the political importance of photography, which historically, began with the daguerrotype in 1839, as the invention of Daguerre. Its political value, part of which is to attack art for art’s sake, links with what Benjamin considered to be the significance of technology in the nineteenth century, challenging, but also being challenged, by a concept of art which thought of itself as in opposition to technology, and so disregarding what Benjamin thinks of as its utopian possibilities in creating a society based on collective values rather than those of private subject surrounded by bourgeois images which enforce privacy and disconnection. He makes particular fun of one early German journal-article criticizing the capturing of “fleeting mirror images” in photography, as though seeing it as a kind of narcissism, and seeing the practice of taking photographs as a dependence on the machine, as opposed to using the God-given faculties of being able to paint: faculties which, of course, elevate the painter, and work in an anti-democratic, cultic, mode. In contrast, he cites the French physicist Dominique François Jean Arago (1786–1853), on the utopian possibilities of this “new instrument,” the camera, that what people expect of it “turns out to be a trifle compared with the succession of subsequent discoveries of which the instrument was the origin” (508).

Benjamin and Barthes

For a first “discovery,” Benjamin turns in a way which anticipates Barthes in Camera Lucida, by considering the picture of Dauthendey the nineteenth-century photographer, seen in one photograph with his fiancée:

from the time of his engagement to that woman whom he then found one day, shortly after the birth of her sixth child, lying in the bedroom of his Moscow house with her arteries severed. Here she can be seen with him, he seems to be holding her, but her gaze passes him by, absorbed in an ominous distance. Immerse yourself in such a picture long enough and you will recognise how alive the contradictions are, here, too: the most precise technology can give its products a magical value, such as a painted picture can never again have for us. No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future subsists so eloquently that we, looking back, may discover it. (243)

The moment of reality which has seared the picture is like the punctum that Barthes (1982: 26) speaks of, with a piercing strangeness, even in a photograph which has been so posed as to leave out, apparently, the spark of contingency, of chance. It is an inconspicuous spot, and “spot” suggests something illegible in the photograph, resistant to being brought into representation. The spot is the punctum. And the photograph – the point is also made by Barthes – speaks of a then present moment which looks forward to perhaps four different futures: first, that of the marriage, yet to be; then to the point that Dauthendey is said to be the father of a poet, which implies a whole other form of life; third, of the woman’s suicide, which imprints the photograph with a sense of destiny of a future yet to be; and last, another future when “we” look at the photograph, and see two lives which have closed, and their difference from each other, or their “distance,” even though they are so close. The woman is even said to be “absorbed in an ominous distance,” held by something far off, to which she is turned. Looking toward the future? Or held by the thought of what “distance” means?

Her death is confirmed by the stillness of the photograph, and her suicide negates the conventional representational content of the picture, the stadium, for Barthes. If the fractionally discernible distance between the man and the woman is brought out, then it shows death within a marriage yet to be; it is a chronicle of a death foretold. The mark of difference in the photograph is that which makes it speak of death, as opposed to the conventionalities of life, as thought of in marriage. It aligns the photograph with history, in the sense that this, as a discipline, began 20 years earlier than photography, in 1819, in the establishment of history in the University of Berlin. Photography and history coincide, with the point that history too works from death; that its task is, especially as Benjamin sees it, to regard nothing as lost, from what has been taken away by death. When he writes, in the unfinished Arcades Project that to write history means to quote history (N11, 3), making it always a matter of citation, and that montage is “the art of citing without quotation marks” (N1, 10), the obvious analogue for this is idea of laying photograph against photograph, and we return to the place he gives to the image, to snapshots. The photograph cannot be thought of in terms other than those of death, which gives it its difference from art, which in ideology, is always thought of as on the side of life and becoming, and as giving, in art for art’s sake, a world separate from that which includes such contingencies as the woman’s death. The photograph puts death before life, death as that condition of which life is a special case.

And the photograph anticipates Benjamin’s own suicide, apparently contemplated at this time, and so speaks to him, and of him, allegorically. It links the photograph with the idea of catastrophe, always present in Benjamin’s mind, not as a disaster which might have the power of severance, but rather as an abiding quality. It is like déjà vu: the sensation of having been somewhere or done something before. Benjamin says that it can be thought of in connection with acoustics. In “Berlin Chronicle,” he says:

one ought to speak of events that reach us like an echo awakened by a call, a sound that seems to have been heard somewhere in the darkness of past life … the shock with which moments enter consciousness as if already lived usually strikes us in the form of a sound. It is a word, a tapping, or a rustling that is endowed with the magic power to transport us into the cool tomb of long ago, from the vault of which the present seems to return only as an echo. But has the counterpart of this entranced removal ever been investigated – the shock with which we come across a gesture or a word the way we suddenly find in our house a forgotten glove or reticule? And just as they cause us to surmise that a stranger has been there, there are words or gestures from which we infer this invisible stranger, the future, who left them in our keeping. (Benjamin 1999a: 634–635)

The future is the stranger which has already been there in the past: when the question which is the sound and which is the echo implies the impossibility of deciding whether the past brings on the future or the future brings on the past, and when life is full of clues, which are traces, in the sense that they are what a detective looks for, so that looking at a photograph is like detective work, like looking for the stranger. The photograph makes past and future inseparable and points to what Benjamin wants: reversibility, that nothing is lost to history – there is an equal dependency that the future must bring out the past and the past brings on several futures. The photograph belongs to a recordable moment, of the Here and Now, and draws a future toward itself, as it also opens up a past. In cutting into a moment, it breaks into many different possibilities all at once, into several times and experiences. Benjamin has spoken of the future of photography through Arago, and of the future of lives in the portrait of the couple being engaged. It is as if everything about photography is future oriented; as if a photograph is always taken to create a future, and having futural indiscernible fulfillments.

The Optical Unconscious

Benjamin does not see photography as in continuity with what nature sees: “another nature” speaks to the camera than does to the eye of the painter, “other in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious” (510). Looking at someone walking we may know what walking means in a general sense, but, he says, we have no idea what happens “in the fraction of a second when a person steps out. Photography with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret.” In his essay on Kafka he discusses the alienation of people in industrial capitalism, which includes the alienation of the self from the body, so that “the invention of motion pictures and the phonograph came in an age of maximum alienation of men from one another … experiments have proved that a man does not recognise his own gait on film or his own voice on the phonograph” (Benjamin 1999a: 814). The film and the photograph are ways to self-knowledge which occurs in a time of maximum alienation. And everything happens in a fraction of a second: the “here and now,” which is also the moment of the “dialectical image,” which is the moment of potential reversibility of everything, or the explosion or the shock, so that he is fascinated by the idea of how an image which is frozen in time, as the photograph is, may also show a second of absolute change in time, indeed, may discover what triggers such a change. Benjamin calls this revelation coming from the camera the “optical unconscious” (512), thus intensifying the argument put forward about the unremarked spot, or detail, the contingency in the photograph, which indicates an unconscious at work. For the photograph knows more than the subject, or viewer, and is the royal road to the unconscious. Photography has a potentially healing character: showing that there was something which has been missed – the missed encounter being the subject of surrealism.

Further, the camera seems to function unconsciously. Having considered the detail that photography offers, and of the depth of vision that modern medicine requires, including the perception of tissue, which is different in intensity from what painting provides, but which photography does, he continues that photography brings about nearness, closeness, and reveals in this material of detail of structure and cellular tissue:

the physiognomic aspects of visual worlds [Bildweltern – image worlds] which dwell in the smallest things, meaningful yet covert enough to find a hiding place in waking dreams, but which, enlarged and capable of formulation, make the difference between technology and magic visible as a thoroughly historical variable. (512)

Image worlds suggest the complexity or the dialectic in what seems to be a single photographic image, giving a “physiognomy” (compare Arcades Project M10, 4). The study of physiognomy emerged as a prescientific discipline, not entirely separate from white magic in the Renaissance, and Benjamin does not exclude the sense of something beyond mechanical science haunting the photograph, because he wants to keep the sense of a double vision in it, and because he has argued already that early photography was invested in as having a magic charm within it, which he later discusses in terms of aura, a word he introduces when speaking about a boyhood picture of Kafka (515). In those early photographs, an aura appeared, called here “an atmospheric medium,” as light struggling out of darkness, making each picture, therefore, an illumination, as if like an epiphany. The suppression of darkness as the basic context for the photograph, he says, did not come until after 1880, with the use of a faster lens. But that did not lessen the aura: he speaks of “an aura that had seeped into the very folds of the man’s frock coat or cravat” (517 – referring to the person sitting for their portrait). The camera brings out things – clothing. And he shows the ambiguity of this aura which increased at the same time as it was “abolished from reality by the deepening degeneration of the imperialist bourgeoisie.” The bourgeois became more reactionary, as reactiveness, then called “impotence” (517), may be regarded as a marker of the second half of the nineteenth century. But the aura increased, at the same time that the bourgeois was more and more separated from technical progress as symbolized in the developments of photography. The photograph thus brings out a contradiction. On the one side an intensified aura, the product of technical skill, with ability to mock the pretensions of the subject. On the other hand, the recognition that this aura is inherent in the new technology, and not at all in any aspect of the person being photographed, who looks more tasteful as he also seems more impotently out of the picture. It is as if the camera has the power of irony in giving to what is lacking in the portrait, certainly a reason for the popularity of the portrait taken by the camera, for people already dead.

The Aura: And Atget

The aura has a double nature, serving either the meretricious or the interests of the ruling class, to be discussed after noting how decisive for photography was the photographer’s attitude to his techniques. The photographer as a virtuoso with his camera leads him toward Eugène Atget (1857–1927), an actor and painter turned photographer, who was also crucial for showing the non-reactionary uses of photography (as opposed to its role in portraiture, where it can make the sitter appear better than he or she is). The word “cleansing” is used repeatedly of Atget’s work and it implies what photography is capable of. For Atget “was an actor who, disgusted with the profession, wiped off the mask and then set about removing the make-up from reality too” (249). Atget lived in Paris poor and unknown, and Benjamin sees him as a forerunner of Surrealist photography. He was the first to “disinfect the stifling atmosphere [the interior nature of the photographer’s studio is hinted at here: the photographer must step out] generated by conventional portrait photography in the age of [bourgeois] decline” (518). That was his cleansing the object from “aura”: he was not giving the photographed subject a glamor which was lacking. Whereas avant-garde photography tends to select only details of the city – “here a piece of balustrade, there a tree-top whose bare branches criss-cross a gas-lamp, or a gable wall, or a lamp-post with a life-buoy bearing the name of a town” – metonymic details likely to be taken up by aesthetic appreciation – Atget “looked for what was unremarked, forgotten, cast adrift, and thus such pictures too work against the exotic, romantically sonorous names of the cities; they pump the aura out of reality like water from a sinking ship” (518). The list of things Atget sought out sounds like whatever has been untimely, sorrowful, and unsuccessful in history, as described by Benjamin in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (Benjamin 1977: 166), photography must be on the side of what is marginal, or dismissed, or on the wrong side of history as “progress.” The earlier comments on the uses of physiognomy in photography as giving a sense of the varieties of fates and histories in different social spaces are relevant. Cities acquire an aura through their names (e.g., in how they are presented in advertising for weekend breaks) but this is the negative sense of aura: if this aura abstracts their reality, making cities glossy and cosmopolitan, it is essential to see the politics within Atget’s photography.

“Aura” has several senses, and Benjamin calls it:

a strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be. While at rest on a summer’s noon, to trace a range of mountains on the horizon, or a branch that throws its shadow on the observer, until the moment or the hour becomes part of their appearance – that is what it means to breathe the aura of those mountains, that branch. Now to bring things closer to us, or rather to the masses, is just as passionate an inclination in our day as the overcoming of whatever is unique in every situation by means of its reproduction. Every day the need to possess the object in close-up in the form of a picture, or rather a copy, becomes more imperative. Uniqueness and duration are as intimately intertwined in the latter as are transience and reproducibility in the former. The peeling away of the object’s shell, the destruction of the aura, is the signal of a perception whose sense for the sameness of things has grown to the point where even the singular, the unique, is divested of its uniqueness – by means of its reproduction. (518–519)

The “aura” may fetishize, giving a glamor and a uniqueness as in soft-focus photography, or a sense of imprecision and of something special and unique to the object under review, putting a halo around it: here it serves art for art’s sake. Yet that reading must be compared with one which sees distance, as either fake, semblance, or real, and if the latter, then as essential to the work of art. “Distance” implies that there are two positions in which to stand, and also alienation, disagreement, argument. It allows for otherness, and creates difference, as in the Dauthendey photograph. Awareness of distance means that the work cannot be regarded as an extension of the self. Modernity brings things near, reproducing them, not allowing them any status; making images lose their specific and privileged status by becoming part of a common currency. Benjamin links distance, and aura, with the ability to return a gaze, so disconfirming narcissism. It has to do with time, as much as with space; it gives a sense of another time, different from the subject’s, but holding the possibility of containing other times within it. Aura is what is breathed; like air, it possesses the subject. Benjamin speaks of “the aura as the aura of distance opened up with the look that awakens in an object perceived” (Arcades Project J47, 6). As an object is looked at, it intensifies and looks itself as something which becomes more intensely other; that is, it looks back from a distance. So, it “takes possession of us” (M16a, 4); it is not in the power of the subject.

A strange double effect is aroused in the photograph if we think that it brings something near, as with the optical unconscious, showing things that could not be seen by an ordinary inspection, revealing detail, revealing the unique physiognomy within all things, to the extent that it may be said that Benjamin identifies physiognomy with the aura itself; the physiognomy being what is indefinable yet real, and what makes the person different from the way that they are seen customarily. The “gaze” awakens the aura, which pulls the viewer toward it.

Atget and the City

Atget passed by monuments, but not signs of labor in the streets, however much these might be marked by signs of repetition – such as “a long row of boot lasts,” or “the Paris courtyards, where from night to morning the hand-carts stand in serried ranks” (a real indicator of migrant, or homeless poverty) or “the tables after people have finished eating and left, the dishes not yet cleared away” – signs of the ruin – or “the brothel at Rue … No. 5, whose street number appears, gigantic, at four different places on the building’s façade” (251): these are all signs of labor and of the oddity of street life, and in each, different forms of plurality suggest the compulsiveness of repetition. Benjamin notes that all the sites are empty, so that the city looks like an emptied lodging “that has not yet found a new tenant” (519): a strangely literary image, and one which implies a future, wondering what that will be. It is like surrealist photography: “it gives free play to the politically educated eye, under whose gaze all intimacies are sacrificed to the illumination of detail” (519) – close detail being the gift that photography confers.

Physiognomy returns when Benjamin cites the German photographer August Sander (1876–1964), whose sociological interest in German characters appears in his book Das Antlitz der Zeit (“The Face of Our Time”). Sander “has copied a series of faces that is in no way inferior to the tremendous physiognomic gallery mounted by an Eisenstein or a Pudovkin [again Benjamin is considering film], and he has done it from a scientific viewpoint.” The intensity of Sander’s work in itself a source of wonder, but “work like Sander’s could overnight assume unlooked for topicality. Sudden shifts of power as are now overdue in our society can make the ability to read facial types a matter of vital importance. … one will have to get used to being looked at in terms of one’s provenance. Sander’s work … is a training manual” (520). Here, physiognomy becomes political, even revolutionary. It becomes a way of reading someone’s history, or indeed a whole cultural memory, as Benjamin’s word “provenance” suggests: photography can see in the minute details of the face signs of hardship within the city – in saying this, the photograph is at its most intense in the anonymity of the city, where faces are seen briefly and in the conditions of shock, and the technology is aligned with the urban.

Benjamin does not see art as dislodged by photography (e.g., that photography ended portrait-painting); rather, considering the nineteenth-century battle between art and technology, he thinks that art has aspired to be like photography, i.e., that it has used photography (hence the value of reproductions of famous pictures which have allowed the latter to be seen better). He thinks that photography has suffered when it has become like art, as with the sense, in fashion photography, that The World Is Beautiful – title of a then topical glossy book on photographs, published in Munich in 1928, giving rise to a photograph which can catch the fetish-nature of an object but cannot give a sense of “the human connections in which it exists.” He quotes Brecht that in trying to convey the history of objects in terms of the conditions in which they were produced, something must be added, something of constructivism, as exemplified in Russian film, and he adds in “constructivist photography” which would include photomontage, developed around 1916. And he concludes with noting the way the camera is getting smaller and smaller, “even readier to capture fleeting and secret moments whose images paralyse the associative mechanisms in the beholder” (527) – that is, they force new perceptions, they defamiliarize. So he adds the caption, a word OED first cites from 1901, and whose etymology suggests capturing, seizing, as the image fleets by. The photograph is now not mere representation: it must be supplemented (which is the work of constructivism) – as through captions, “whereby photography turns all life’s relations into literature, and without which all constructivist photography must remain arrested in the proximate.” And he adds, “Not for nothing have Atget’s photographs been likened to those of the scene of a crime.” That is because they act as a mute witness, that imply emptiness (something has been here), or else signs, like the signs outside the brothel, or because they note that something has happened, as with the unwashed dishes. So “is not every square inch of our cities the scene of a crime? Every passer-by a culprit?” The language recalls Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd.” The photographer must reveal guilt and point out the guilty: the politics here are clear. Future illiteracy will mean not being able to read a photograph, and for the photographer not to be able to caption his/her own work, i.e., not to be able to see its political significance. In wanting a combination of image and writing, Benjamin responds to the visual culture of the city.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LondonUK