And I ask: How did the beauty of that hair,
those eyes, beguile our forebears?
How did that mouth kiss, to which desire
curls up senseless as smoke without fire?
Thus Walter Benjamin breaks into poetry, citing the writing of Stefan George, in the 1931 essay “Little History of Photography”—this essay so strangely titled, sharing its self-stated size and density and intensity, we might say, with the object of its analysis, with photography itself—its images formerly miniaturized and condensed. What is a “Little History,” I’ve always wondered? The best I have come up with is that Benjamin’s is a text that wants to correspond with its object, an essay that wants to be like photography itself.
You do remember, I hope, that photographs used to be little things. Small images. Minor forms. They miniaturized the world and its objects. They weren’t always—nor do they always have to be—super-sized. Monumental. Tableaus.
The eruption of the “Little History” into poetry, the sudden profession of love and images of the same (the famous passage concerning the Dauthendey wedding portrait), the relational correspondence we sense in the text itself to its object of analysis, the collapse of “critical distance,” to use a Benjaminian term—all this contributes to the need for a relational theory of photography to return to Benjamin’s text. As opposed to more recent or obvious books, like Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, that elaborate a deeply affective theory of the photograph, Benjamin’s essay seems central to the task that I have set myself, and so I want to open up an entry on the essay here.
The relational haunts Benjamin’s text, structures it. You will remember this essay’s introduction of the central dialectic, for Benjamin, of aura and reproducibility, an opposition at times discussed in terms of distance and proximity, with photography attesting to an insistent drive within modernity “to bring things closer to us.”
And yet Benjamin waxes eloquent, repeatedly, about the gazes in old photographs that turn away from us, that refuse to look into the camera, that look awry—a kind of relationality that perhaps surprises us, as much as Benjamin’s ultimate interest less in the drive to bring things closer than the less self-evidently relational passion for distance this essay otherwise evinces.
Other relational surprises await us within the text. In terms of rhetoric, the text constructs itself around two recurrent metaphorical chains: fabric metaphors and liquid ones. The “weave” of space and time that Benjamin calls the “aura,” the “absorption” peculiar to the writer’s liquid metaphors—the first words of the essay describe the “fog” or mist that surrounds the origins of photography—both intimate an immersive space and experience that we are summoned to imagine as also central to photography (one thinks, of course, of Jeff Wall’s more recent essay on photography’s “Liquid Intelligence”). The metaphors that proliferate through the text undo the logic of photography as separation, alienation, fragmentation broached in my first entry.
In this vein, I want to focus here on two images, described photographs, of patriarchs that Benjamin offers up in his text—father-figures, old men like the Biblical patriarchs the writer once compares to the earliest photographers and their exceedingly long lives. Fathers, according to the familiar psychoanalytic story, embody the figure of the Law; they are the very principle of order, separation, the Oedipal logic of division we have long learned and with which we have struggled. But these two described photographs in Benjamin’s text are of philosophers, an otherwise neglected peculiarity of an essay that from its start asserts that it will focus on the “historical or, if you like, philosophical questions suggested by the rise and fall of photography.”
Benjamin’s essay, as is well known, wishes to explain “the charm of old photographs.” Written during the initial moments of the Great Depression, it argues for a return to the earliest potentials of the photographic medium, glorifying the obsolescent achievements of the pictures made in the first decade of photography’s history, before the onset of the medium’s ruinous industrialization. The kind of return imagined by Benjamin—a moment of industrial crisis prompting photography to turn back to its pre-industrial efflorescence—has become a deeply important dynamic for me, a situation that I believe it could be argued we have entered again, and that has recurred repeatedly for photography. It is the kind of repetition, or better, return, that photography in fact creates, constructs, enables. I have elsewhere called this dynamic a kind of photographic “atavism.” I believe it is a central aspect of photography that needs more exploration, more thinking. Benjamin’s essay amounts to its central text.
The philosopher images in the “Little History” have rarely been noted or discussed. But the philosophical mission of the text would suggest that Benjamin’s verbal descriptions of photographs of philosophers are a key to his ideas. Both images concern the philosophers’ relationship to their daily environment. On a deeper level, however, these images of philosophers and quotidian things allow Benjamin to open up a philosophical point of the greatest significance: the photograph’s mediation of the split between subject and object, or rather, photography’s role in crafting a potential new relationship of the one to the other.
Late in his text, Benjamin describes a photograph of Schopenhauer. He has just finished introducing the reader to the images of Eugène Atget, noticing that they are usually empty of people: “The city in these pictures looks cleared out, like a lodging that has not yet found a new tenant.” This photographic experience of a “salutary estrangement between man and his surroundings” emerges as the opposite of the qualities that Benjamin locates in the image of the philosopher. “To do without people is for photography the most impossible of renunciations,” Benjamin observes. Another relation to one’s surrounds can be imagined: “The generation that was not obsessed with going down to posterity in photographs,” Benjamin writes, “rather shyly drawing back into their private space in the face of such proceedings—the way Schopenhauer withdrew into the depths of his chair in the Frankfurt picture, taken about 1850—for this very reason allowed that space, the space in which they lived, to get onto the plate with them.”1Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in Michael Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, eds., Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927-1934 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999), p. 519.[i] Before the full onset of the self-alienation that the photographic image came to represent, the “depths” of the philosopher’s chair entered the photograph because the philosopher was attached to his objects, inseparable from them, immersed in them.
Benjamin presses further in an earlier passage on a photograph of the philosopher Schelling. The passage is crucial, for in it Benjamin sets up the terms in which he will define the experience of “aura” that his text otherwise delineates. One of the most complex ideas in Benjamin’s lexicon, aura seems to refer to experiences of singularity that photography and its reproductive vocation come to betray, as well as to a temporal duration in experience that the photographic image also eventually disallows (Benjamin: “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 become part of their appearance--this is what it means to breathe the aura of those mountains, that branch”).2Benjamin, p. 518.[ii] But Benjamin often reverts to fabric metaphors when attempting to define aura, calling it “a strange weave of space and time,” and praising an old photograph for capturing “an aura that had seeped into the very folds of the man’s frock coat or floppy cravat.”3Benjamin, p. 518 and p. 517.[iii] (Aura and its “seeping” into the folds of coat or cravat combines of course the liquid and the fabric metaphors that extend throughout Benjamin’s text—I will also note at this point that the Stefan George quote by Benjamin with which I began is from the writer’s collection The Carpet of Life.) This is photography, it seems, prior to its own alienation from its innermost potential, as Benjamin describes this experience as one of “congruence” between the camera and the bourgeois subjects it initially represented (“subject and technique were as exactly congruent as they become incongruent in the period of decline that immediately followed”).4Benjamin, p. 517.[iv] But such congruence of photography and its subject emerges from a deeper congruence, a more intense escape from alienation: the photograph’s ability to imagine a form of connection between the realm of the subject and the object.
This is where Benjamin’s description of the photograph of Schelling becomes transformative. Fabric rears its head again: “Everything about these early pictures was built to last,” Benjamin asserts. “The very creases in people’s clothes have an air of permanence. Just consider Schelling’s coat: It will surely pass into immortality along with him: the shape it has borrowed from its wearer is not unworthy of the creases in his face.”5Benjamin, p. 514.[v] The passage is simple, but—I think—breathtaking, for Benjamin here seems not only to describe an individual photograph, but also to describe within Schelling’s image objects and qualities that are themselves “photographic.”
Wrinkles, aging, the passage of time: these are photographic qualities, and for Benjamin the “creases” in the philosopher’s coat are not unlike these, a second “skin.” But even more, the philosopher’s coat itself is “like” a photograph, which Benjamin thus seems to define in the most extraordinary way: A photograph is a “shape” that is “borrowed” from its subject. Or to state this another way: As philosopher and coat, the old man and his wrinkled skin, or subject and object “borrow” form from one another, so too the photograph participates in this intimate connection of subjective life and objective form, like a coat filled out by body of its wearer.
At its origins, and at the height of its potential, the photograph emerged as a model that allowed one to “think” the communion of subject and object, a concrete example of the analogy between being and appearance.
I first wrote about these philosopher photographs described by Benjamin’s text in connection to an essay on the photographs of contemporary artist Moyra Davey, an essay of mine entitled “The Absent Photograph.” The impulse was to invert the normative reading of Davey’s photographs, focused seemingly on domestic spaces and what seem to be still-life objects—inert things, images devoid for the most part of people, perhaps interiors to be paired with Atget’s emptied-out city streets. The impulse was instead to capture the images as concerned with what Davey in fact calls “the life of objects,” to imagine the force of this animation, the absent subject from which quotidian object and indexical photograph—analogs all—have “borrowed” their form.
I will end then with one more phrase—I want to call it a slogan—of Benjamin’s, from the “Little History.” He was describing the long exposure times of early photographs, a technical issue only one could argue, a “procedure” that “caused the subject to focus his life in the moment” (note the photographic language of “focus”) “rather than hurrying on past it.” And then Benjamin concludes: “During the considerable period of the exposure, the subject (as it were) grew into the picture...” The italics are my own. The subject grew into the picture: It sounds, at first read, like what a Marxist might call “alienation.” It sounds, with more reflection, like what a photo historian might call “development,” an echo or precursor of the processes that happen in the dark room. Subjective life and photography here, like Benjamin’s essay and the form it wishes to understand, are like each other, in some deep and misunderstood way. Perhaps more than like, the subject and the photograph are continuous with each other, one “growing” into the other. This is the dynamic that I am trying to think, an idea from the “Little History” that needs to be transformed, transvalued, extended in our thinking of photography today.
The philosophers point the way.