Tag Archives: progressive

One-Way Street & Other Writings by Walter Benjamin

One-Way Street

Walter BenjaminOne-way Street and other Writings, (2009) London: Penguin. ISBN:978-0-141-18947-5.

On the critique of violence, (1921) is an essay considering the use of violence as a form of law enforcement and justice.  An interesting essay for studying documentary theory.

There is an essay on surrealism and an essay about a Czech writer that I had not heard of but who sounds interesting Franz Kafka. I shall look for examples of his work.

A collection of essays that include Brief History of Photography, (1931) that looks at the early development of photography and such influencing works as August Sanders.

Also included is The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, (1936) Benjamin examines how photography has made the great art classics more available to be seen by the mass public but by doing so he considers that there value has diminished in virtue of the rarity for public access.  He then goes on to look at cinema as a new art form and how this form of media is changing and influencing art both politically and culturally.

Notes of interest for, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)

  • Benjamin argues that recent technology has fundamentally changed the meaning of reproduction in art.
  • He argues that art has always been reproducible by limited technological means since the times of Ancient Greece by means of casting and embossing for bronzes, terracottas and coins.  Then much later came printing.
  • Until the development of photography and gramophone the reproduction of most art forms could retain their genuineness through provenance.
  • However photography and the gramophone has fundamentally changed the meaning of reproduction of art as a whole.
  • A piece of art holds its status of genuineness through provenance and provenance is beyond technological reproduction.
  • Something reproduced by manual means still holds its genuineness (even when branded a forgery).
  • Something reproduced by modern technological means does not.  For example a Brahms symphony reproduced in a concert hall 150 years after Brahms’ death still retains its genuineness.  However, if recorded and then played back the genuineness.  A painted copy (manual reproduction) of the Mona Lisa retains a genuineness.  However, a photograph (technological reproduction) of the Mona Lisa does not.
  • With the new technological reproduction of photography and gramophone, the reproduced works of art has now a new meaning: one that can go anywhere and be enjoyed by anyone. A symphony concert can now be enjoyed in a living room or a priceless Rembrandt painting from the pages of a book.
  • New methods of technological reproduction has also provided new ways in which to experience beyond the range of our normal senses for example slow motion and macro-photography.
  • Although technological reproduction does not physically alter or effect the original, it does alter the original’s value.  Its here and now is devalued.
  • The genuineness of a thing is the quintessence of everything about it since its creation that can be handed down, from its material duration to the historical witness duration to the historical witness that it bears. The latter (material duration and historical witness) being grounded in the former (the thing’s genuineness), what happens in the representation, where the former has been removed from human perception, is that the latter also starts to wobble. Nothing else, admittedly; however, what starts to wobble thus is the authority of the thing. (233).
  • The above passage suggests that when the genuineness has been removed the material duration and its historical witness becomes questionable.
  • ‘We can encapsulate what stands out here by using the term ‘aura’. We can say: what shrinks in an age where the work of art can be reproduced by technological means is its aura.’ (233)
  • Reproductive technology, we might say in general terms, removes the thing reproduced from the realm of tradition.  In making many copies of the reproduction, it substitutes for its unique incidence a multiplicity of incidences.  And in allowing the reproduction to come closer to whatever situation the person apprehending it is in, it actualises what is reproduced. (233)
  • Art’s meaning alters over time.
  • Within major historical periods, along with changes in the overall mode of being of the human collective, there are also changes in the manner of its sense perception. (234).  ‘A classical statue of Venus, for example, occupied a different traditional context for the Greeks, who made of it an object of worship, than for medieval clerics, who saw it as a threatening idol.’ (236)
  • ‘Works of art are received and adopted with different points of emphasis, two of which stand out as poles of each other. In one case the emphasis is on the work’s cultic value; in the other, on its display value.’ (237)
  • Much wisdom had already been thrown away on deciding whether photography was an art (without asking the prior question: whether, with the invention of photography, the very nature of art had undergone a change), but before long the theoreticians of film were asking a similarly hasty question. (240)
  • The fact that the work of art can now be reproduced by technological means alters the relationship of the mass to art.  From being very backward (faced with a Picasso, for instance), it has become highly progressive (given, say, Chaplin).  Yet this progressive response is characterised by the fact that in it the pleasure of looking and experiencing is associated, directly and profoundly with the stance of passing an expert judgement.  The link is an important social indicator.  In fact, the more the social significance of an art diminishes, the greater the extent (as clearly turning out to be the case with painting) to which the critical and pleasure-seeking stances of the public diverge. (248-249)

 

 

 

The Photographers Eye

The Photographers Eye by John Szarkowski is an illustrated book compiled from photographs collected for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1964 and the theme of this book is based upon the theme of the exhibition.

Szarkowski introduces his book by explaining that it’s theme, ‘is an investigation of what photographs look like and why they look that way. It is concerned with photographic style and with photographic tradition: with the sense of possibilities that a photographer today takes to his work.’  Szarkowski looks at how the art of photography has evolved through the period of 125 years from the earliest surviving pictures to the 1960’s.  Szarkowski looks at how photography has created and taught us new ways of seeing; how photography could make it’s own rules independent of the established art world partly through ignorance and from the practicality dictated by the camera and its view and enthusiastic experimentation.  Szarkowshi has selected a range of photographs to illustrate how photographers from different backgrounds all came to share the same photographic vision that was not taught but learned through years of practice and considers the history of this medium, ‘in terms of photographers progressive awareness of characteristics and problems that have seemed inherent in the medium.’

He has divided his book into five sections examining five issues that he believes are characteristics inherent and problematic in photographs and understanding these five sections will help in the understand of the language for the ‘reading’ of a photograph.

The thing itself.

Outside of the studio the photograph, unlike a painting, is captured not created therefor the photographer has fewer choices in composition, he can only choose what to and what not to include in the frame.  However, instead of limiting what photographers would choose to make pictures of the camera’s ability to capture anything in an instant making a permanent record of it opened up opportunities to create images of the ordinary and bland subjects that artist would not have drawn or painted and make them interesting .  However, black and white images would leave out certain details and exaggerate others and yet the final image would still be accepted as a true representative of the subject.  Holgrove wrote, “The nineteenth century began by believing that what was reasonable was true and it would end up by believing that what it saw a photograph of was true.”  The almost lifelike reproduction of the black and white image helped raise the naïve notion that the camera doesn’t lie for which many photographers  were happy not to discourage.  George Bernard Shaw wrote that this was a double edged sword, “There is a terrible truthfulness about photography. The ordinary academician gets hold of a pretty model, paints her as well as he can, calls her Juliet, and puts a nice verse from Shakespeare underneath, and the picture is admired beyond measure.  The photographer finds the same pretty girl, he dresses her up and photographs her, and calls her Juliet, but somehow it is no good – it will still be Miss Wilkins, the model. It is too true to be Juliet.”

The detail

“If your pictures aren’t good, you’re not close enough.” Robert Capa.  Outside of the studio, unlike drawings and paintings, photographs can only record what is actually in from of them and in the real world of photography it is usually impossible to alter the position and distance of various subjects to simply improve the composition of the picture.  Therefore often a photographer can only position himself in a place that will only capture a part of the image.  Unlike drawings and paintings photography is unable to produce a story type narrative, as successful painting will often combine several events that have occurred over a period of time and the artist has combined them into one scene that can tell the whole story.  Photography can only capture one scene at a time and when a selection of images are put together to tell the story these images still require text in order to explain the connection to each picture and the event itself.  However, it was soon realised that the photograph could use symbols instead to represent the intended narrative, therefore photographers focused on detail some that may have seemed to ordinary and trivial or dull to the painter but when photographed could symbolise the scene / event / for the narrative that the photographer could not otherwise be so easily produce.  An example of this is a photograph of cannon balls scattered across a road symbolising the recent ferocious battle and bombardment.  The chosen detail is the spent and discarded ammunition on a deserted road symbolic of the recent action.  In this style of imagery few words are needed, the photographer is taking advantage of the viewers own imagination to complete the story for the picture.

The Frame

Where as in drawing and painting the frame is conceived, in photography it can only be selected forcing the photographer to choose what to include or not to include.  In this way what ever the photographer includes in to the frame will now have a relationship with one another that they may not of done in real life for example, two strangers photographed standing together on a platform waiting for a train can now appear to be companions simply because both were selected to be in the frame.  The painter begins with a blank canvas, the draftsman from the centre of his sheet the photographer from the frame.  The photographer must learn how to edit the real world, to isolate and juxtapose when unexpected elements come together within his frame.  The frame contains, what is inside the frame is subjected to close scrutiny but a photograph can also imply beyond the frame.

Time

A photograph is a moment of time captured by the camera this moment can be 1/1000’s of a second in length or up to several minutes or more.  A photograph captures this moment and freezes it in to an image describing a parcel of time which may allude to the past or future can only ever be viewed in the present.  This can mean that an image’s meaning can change or be re-interpreted by future generations of viewers.  Early photography required longer lengths of exposure time for the slower chemicals, often resulting in images never before seen, dogs with two heads babies with two faces transparent or elongated people as they moved during the exposure period.  Often theses early images have been regarded as photographic failures which ironically as film and cameras have improved and become faster modern photographers are now being deliberately replicating the affects for modern artistic styled pictures.  As the exposure time became faster images could be captured never before seen by the human eye, how the horse gallops, a bullet in flight, droplets of water thrown out from a splash as a stone hits the water, and many more sights invisible to the human eye due to the speed of the moment.  Cartier-Bresson defined the expression “The decisive moment” a visual climax a moment when the camera has captured a moment when all the elements came together to capture that image at the right moment.  Thanks to modern cameras with fast shutter speeds and fast continues shooting these decisive moments can be more easily captured providing of course you are prepared for them.  For example, sports photographers positioned to see and focused on the spot he or she will predict the moment will occur.

Vantage point

Unlike a drawing or a painting the photographer has limited choices when choosing a vantage point and so the photographer has sometimes been forced to use unusual view points such as very low level worm eye views, views from backstage seeing only the backs of the actors, birds eye views looking down, distorted and strange views created by lens distortion or patterns of light.  Through the necessity of moving his camera to see his subject clearly or to see it at all the photographer learned that the appearance of the world was a lot richer and less simple than he would have first guessed.  He also discovered, ‘that his pictures could not only reveal the clarity buy also the obscurity of things, and these mysterious and evasive images could also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful.’