Jeannene M.Przyblyski

Afterimage, Sept/Oct 1998, Vol. 26 Issue 2, p8-13

In a New York Times Book Review essay on Jay Parini's 1997 historical novel about the last days of Walter Benjamin, Benjamin's Crossing, the critic made annoyed reference to Benjamin's "leonine status in the eyes of many academics today." He complained that despite Benjamin's failure as both an academic and a features writer, his imperfect grasp of the relation between theory and praxis and his inability to finish much of anything, citations of the German philosopher's work have become virtually obligatory in trendy American academic books on cultural studies.[1]

Such sentiment is hardly new. In a 1979 essay, "Walter Benjamin on Photography," Heinz Puppe lamented the transformation of Benjamin into just "another fashionable authority to be cited ipse dixit." In a deathless 1988 essay in the New Criterion, Roger Kimball diagnosed an "October syndrome" infecting that high-profile academic journal, as well as a host of others, with a weakness for opaque theoretical proclamations, radical politics and a fine disregard for "the very idea of high culture." One of the chief vectors of obfuscating imported"Continental theory" and a lowbrow love of cultural detritus was none other than Walter Benjamin. Among the books and articles referenced here, Linda Haverty Rugg makes apologetic reference to a"Benjamin cult" as does Susan Buck-Morss. This is an essay about some reasons, both good and bad, why Benjamin has come to be perceived as a required reference point in critical studies of the history of photography. I'll make my own, unapologetic position clear from the outset: this is also an essay about why I continue to find Benjamin's views on photography and history indispensable. Perhaps the "cult" should begin issuing membership cards.

Benjamin's ambivalent but persistent position as a chief theorist of the relationship between "photography and society," to echo the title of a book by his contemporary, Gisele Freund, began to coalesce in the 1970s.[2] English translations of some of his "theoretical essays" first appeared in the late '60s, including several fragments on Baudelaire, "The Storyteller" and the oftanthologized "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," which continues to be a staple of introductory courses in the history of photography. Translations varying in quality of "A Short History of Photography" appeared in the'70s, and citations of Benjamin's work became increasingly frequent in the pages of influential art periodicals such as Artforum, several dissident editors of which would found October in 1976. (In comparison, Siegfried Kracauer's equally important 1927 essay, "Photography" did not appear in English translation until 1993.) John Berger's Ways of Seeing (1972), itself based on a television series of the same name, and Susan Sontag's On Photography (1977) represented significant attempts to bring Benjamin's views to a wider audience. But as Charles Rosen observed in 1977, "Benjamin's work has been less an influential force than a quarry: he has been pillaged but not imitated" adding that "for those who are interested in Benjamin and who do not read German, the situation is gloomy."[3] With certain significant exceptions, his comments hold true today. The three-volume collection of Benjamin's writings announced by Belknap/Harvard has stalled at one published volume. Publication dates on the other two volumes have been pushed forward to 1999 and 2000, although these dates are by no means certain. The English translation of the Origin of German Tragic Drama is out of print. Try to find the lone battered copy of One-Way Street, and Other Writings in your local university library. But despite the scatter-shot access to his work, and despite the notorious difficulty of his prose style, Benjamin became a touchstone for the most influential photography critics and historians of the 1980s. Drawing on the insights of the "Work of Art" essay, John Tagg emphasized the withering away of the "aura" associated with unique works of art in favor of a photographic "democracy of the image." While the Modernist history of photography would be marked by various, increasingly elaborate attempts to distinguish art photography from commercial and amateur productions, the real pictorial revolution effected by photography concerned the ease with which individual likeness could be systematically recorded, giving photography a key role in bureaucratic institutions, including the police station, the insane asylum, the school and the prison.[4] Tagg's analysis of the institutional uses of photography was complemented by Allan Sekula's increasingly historical deconstructions of the documentary authority of the "instrumental realist archive." Benjamin's famous proclamation about photographs as "scenes of crimes" Sekula argued, demonstrated the need to balance Benjamin's avant-garde interest in montage and its possibilities for provoking visual "shock" with a recognition of his rearguard investment in an empirical model of photography premised upon the "telling detail."[5]

Rosalind Krauss read Benjamin back into the milieu of Surrealism (where the likes of Sekula and Tagg would never want to follow), while also exploring the indexical value of photography as a sign that, like a trace, a fingerprint or a shadow, was capable of verifying authentic presence. In both its mundane concreteness and its haunting, spectral power, this characteristic of photography, to which Benjamin was no less susceptible, is the necessary other side of the medium's assault on "cult value."[6] Abigail Solomon-Godeau invoked Benjamin's spirit of tendentiousness, his conviction that intellectual analyses of the past would be inevitably tempered by perceptions of the most urgent issues of the present, as a pedigree for her own analyses of "the aesthetic discourse of photography, its institutions, its canons, its histories, its values, its investments, and its exclusions" during the Reagan years of growing cultural conservatism. Most importantly, Solomon-Godeau read the leftist critique of photographic documentary practices instituted by Benjamin and his colleagues in the 1930s through the lens of feminist theory in the 1980s.[7] On the one hand, these interventions intersected a broader academic trend toward a social history of art that could embrace Marxist analyses of the institutional structures of artmaking and viewing, the structural analysis of visual representation as language, and, to a lesser extent, feminist analyses of art's corporeal politics. But, as Solomon-Godeau further remarked, they also coincided with a burgeoning collector's market in photography, a growing sense of the centrality of photography to postmodern art practices, and a heightening of photography's prestige-value within the art museum. Such circumstantial pressures also rendered Benjamin a "hot commodity" to the degree that (ironically) his writings provided not only the prop of a high critical pedigree for photography as an exhibitable art form but, more generally, legitimated it as an object of serious intellectual inquiry.

More recently, the critical study of the history of photography has been addressed by literary scholars who found in Benjamin one of the useful bridges between image and text required to position their work within the rapidly expanding field of cultural studies. One of the most successful of the current crop is Eduardo Cadava, whose Words of Light. Theses on the Photography of History carries within its title its driving conviction, namely that photography comprises a mode of writing with light and that photography and certain modes of textuality might be conceived as comparable forms of image inscription, whose relation to history is one of citation or quotation. Words of Light is an attempt to read Benjamin's writings on history (most particularly his "Theses on the Philosophy of History") through the implications of their engagement with the language of photography. For Benjamin, the modern perception of "history" is inevitably experienced in a way that can only be described as photographic, partaking of photography's instantaneity and immediacy, its flashlike character, illuminative powers, its appearance as a fragment or temporal shard, its ambiguous status as both an image suspended in an ever-present and a concrete artifact of the past. In one way, as Cadava observes, Benjamin's interest in photography was satisfyingly concrete: he frequented avant-garde photographic circles, regularly reviewed books on photography, worked avidly in the image archives of the Bibliotheque Nationale, among other places, and counted several photographers among his friends, including Freund, Sasha Stone and Germaine Krull. But more deeply and persuasively, Cadava claims: The questions raised by the links between photography and history touch on issues that belong to the entire trajectory of his writings--the historical and political consequences of technology; the relations between reproduction and mimesis, images and history, remembering and forgetting, allegory and mourning, visual and linguistic representation, and film and photography.[8] As Cadava so elegantly puts it, and as any reader of Benjamin will recognize, Benjamin left us a series of words "to learn to read."[9] "Death, corpse, decay, ruin, history, mourning, memory, photography." Words of Light puts each of these Benjaminian motifs through its paces to reveal not only its pervasiveness within Benjamin's writings on history and photography, but also on literature, autobiography and material culture more generally. Fragmentary encryptions within Benjamin's legendarily fragmented oeuvre, these words form the basis for a series of meditations that traverse the modern and the postmodern, the Marxist and the mystic, the apocalyptic, and perhaps even the redemptive.

Cadava's is one of the most searching and painstaking readings of Benjamin's writings on photography and history to appear in the last few years, and exemplifies one possibility for the continued address to Benjamin and his work: namely, the option of burrowing ever deeper into the Benjaminian cosmos, teasing out its intertextual and poetic shifts within the photographic and historic image-fields. Thoroughly immersed in the field of Benjamin studies, Cadava is also at some pains to locate Benjamin within his own cultural milieu. His interweaving of texts on photography by Kracauer and Ernst Junger, the right-wing Weimar author of several photographically illustrated books, are particularly welcome, as are the few moments when Cadava reads Benjamin as a point of departure for further thoughts on some of his recurring subjects, including the philosopher of memory Henri Bergson, and, most compellingly, the nineteenth-century revolutionary visionary Auguste Blanqui.

Also taking up the challenge of reading Benjamin's words, Rugg's Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography is an attempt to bring contemporary theoretical discussions of photography to bear on our understanding of how modern autobiography is written. A literary scholar like Cadava, Rugg sees photography as the defining modern mode of representation intervening in the construction of the self. Indeed this assertion is almost the mirror reflection of Cadava's observation that "that photographic technology belongs to the physiognomy of historical thought means that there can be no thinking of history that is not at the same time a thinking of photography"[10] Autobiographers, Rugg asserts, need to go head to head with photography in order to win control of their images back from a medium which, because of its dual position of privilege in both the bureaucratic archives of the police, government, etc. and the family photograph album, as well as its pervasiveness as a staple of modern biography and autobiography (what would the celebrity bio be without pictures?), threatens to co-opt the individual's authority to control the way his or her self is apprehended in public:

But by this I do not mean that all autobiographies must include actual photographs; rather, the autobiographer must come to terms with the existence of photography in creating a textual self-image, for the mere presence of photography challenges traditional forms of autobiographical narrative by calling into question essential assumptions about the nature of referentiality, time, history, and selthood.[11]

Among Rugg's four chosen autobiographical authors-Benjamin, Auguste Strindberg, Mark Twain and Christa Wolf--Benjamin would seem especially relevant here because, as both a student of nineteenth-century culture and a twentieth-century political refugee, he was most vividly aware of the consequences of the shift from early perceptions of photographic images as opportunities for self-fashioning to the consolidation of photography as a mechanism for regulating and overseeing the self. In addressing the relationships of autobiography to Benjamin's preoccupations with the connections between photography, history and memory, Rugg chooses to concentrate on Benjamin's lyrical account of his youth, A Berlin Childhood around 1900 (not yet available in translation), reading it in tandem with his more well-known essays on the philosophy of history and photography. Unfortunately, one has to endure a particularly painful episode of Derridean deconstruction (something to do with otters and water) in order to discover that Rugg's reading of Benjamin's strategies of autobiographical self-presentation closely follows Cadava's account of Benjamin's theorization of history through photography, which is directly invoked several times. Perhaps Rugg's book is most useful in dramatizing the degree to which photography's dual role in mediating both personal recollection (in the form of autobiography) and collective memory (in the guise of history), transforming them both into denatured, hermetic practices is equally linked to the quintessentially modern experience of a perceived loss of authentic connection to the past, which photography seeks to replace (but, inevitably, as a result of its own ontological slipperiness, cannot). But surely history and autobiography, even as they are screened through photography, ought to be inflected differently, at least at certain moments? If they are not--if history, individual memory, collective memory, biography, autobiography, and photography as modes of relating to the past have all come to mime each other's procedures so extensively that they are believed to be nearly indistinguishable--then this is itself worthy of further comment, for it represents a significant shift from Benjamin's historical moment, when novelists such as Proust, as well as fellow cultural critics like Kracauer, were at pains to distinguish between the workings of memory and photography, as well as between the different relationship of photography to history and to what Kracauer and Benjamin both termed "historicism."[12]

In comparison to Cadava and Rugg, the invocation of Benjamin in the recent work of yet another literary scholar, Marianne Hirsch, strikes me as largely ornamental, providing little more than an authorizing link between photography and the psychoanalytic methodologies that are much more to the point in her readings. In Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory, Hirsch proposes to bring Benjamin's notion of an "unconscious optics" to bear on the production of family photographs and their ability to confirm or complicate dominant "familial ideologies" and "familial narratives." She argues that photography's aptitude for showing us both more than meets the eye (Eadweard Muybridge's images of human and animal locomotion are mentioned here) and less (the exchange of glances right before a family portrait is taken, for example) render the dynamic economy of visual revelation and concealment at work in such domestic images analogous to the psychological dynamics of Lacanian "gazes" and "screens" through which individuals are bound not only by the narrower confines of the family circle but into broader structures of "race, ethnic, class, and sexual difference."[13] Like Rugg, Hirsch is interested in working through the implications of the recognition that "autobiography" photographic or otherwise, "is not necessarily self-revelation."[14] Instead, she locates her analysis in the gap between the apparent transparency of photography as a medium of self-presentation and, calling upon Benjamin specifically at this moment, the cryptic status of photographs as representations in need of decoding.

This last rhetorical move begins to touch upon one of the problems with the current citational authority of Benjamin. If one glances too lightly across the surface of Benjamin's aphoristic declarations, one risks the possibility of losing the particular force of his example. If we take Benjamin to be merely representative of the commitment to decoding images, does his example differ greatly from those of Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco? Do his preoccupations with the repressive potentials of technologies of mass reproduction set him much apart from Michel Foucault? Does his love of speaking through the most arcane procedures of allegory render him the inevitable accomplice of Jacques Derrida? The other, related side of this problem is the tendency for conclusions based upon broad ontological characterizations of "History" and "Photography" as "discourses" to lapse into sameness: the modern experience of history turns out to be almost inevitably about forgetting, autobiography is about concealment, photography is about death. To be sure, there is much truth to these observations, but they can only gain force by being put to particular tests. And these tests ought to amount to more than references to the existence of photography placed in contact with various, privileged textual case studies; they ought to give some credence to the specific resistances of photographs as they were and continue to be deployed in the historical field. Taken together, Rugg and Hirsch foreground another related issue with respect to the interdisciplinary study of photography and Benjamin's role in it. As Rugg admits, her own study did not consider what she terms "the 'naive' use of photographs as illustrations in popular autobiography, where simulacra of family albums for athletes, royalty, Hollywood figures, generals and politicians appear as a 'natural' and expected supplement to the autobiographical text"[15] Complicating matters, Benjamin's Berlin Childhood contained no photographic illustrations of its own. Instead, Rugg's chapter on Benjamin is sparsely illustrated with the usual suspects: Atget, Sander, the photograph of a young Kafka that Benjamin writes about in the "Short History of Photography" a studio portrait of Benjamin and his brother. It is perhaps particularly apt that as a literary scholar, Rugg concentrates on a Benjamin without photographs in order to discuss the relation between autobiography and photography. At its most extreme, this textual bias threatens to overwhelm photography entirely. In another recent reading of photography through Benjamin, Mary Price bluntly celebrates "the power of description," going so far as to declare that if the description and interpretation of a photograph are occasionally more interesting than the photograph itself, then "this is not a risk but an added benefit"[16] Such an appeal to description, and hence to captions as the mode of description most conventionally attached to photography would seem to place us at the end of Benjamin's own photography essay when, paraphrasing Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Benjamin observed that "The illiterate of the future," it has been said, "will not be the man who cannot read the alphabet, but the one who cannot take a photograph" But must we not also count as illiterate the photographer who cannot read his own pictures? Will not the caption become the most important component of the shot?[17]

Benjamin concludes by opposing the profound silence of nineteenth-century daguerreotypes to the modern form of the photo essay, and would seem to have co-opted Moholy-Nagy's assertion of the primacy of speaking through photography in favor of a demand that photographers learn to explain themselves through text. But in his essay on "The Author as Producer" the terms of this equation are reconfigured when Benjamin also demands that writers "transcend... the barrier between writing and image" and "take up photography."[18] Clearly, Benjamin saw the relation between image and text as contested ground, not a world-made-text easily elided into a field of discourses, but an experiential and descriptive arena so saturated with both likeness and unlikeness that it would require new skills of both photographers and writers. This sense of a "battlefield of representations" to borrow a useful phrase from T. J. Clark, is made to disappear when reference is made to postmodern "imagetexts" (an ungainly term credited to W. J. T. Mitchell that would probably sound better in Benjamin's own German), and seems much more productive when read, as Cadava does, through Benjamin's thoughts on the complex and slightly out-of-register alignment between image, inscription, and the phenomenal world in baroque allegory in The Origin of German Tragic Drama[19] Among recent scholars, Buck-Morss has shown herself to be one of the most adept practitioners of the Benjaminian project of a"materialist pedagogy" in which visual images are not elided with texts, but collided in order to produce "afterimages" whose meanings might exceed the ability of "description" to contain them.

Hirsch's approach is no less a function of the well-established biases of her discipline. In the chapter on "Unconscious Optics," Hirsch describes family photographs as "commonplace visual Images" but her real objects of analysis turn out to be self-consciously deconstructive, family-themed projects by the novelist Sue Miller and photographers Jo Spence and Carrie Mae Weems. Other chapters address works by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Sally Mann, and, de rigueur these days, Cindy Sherman, among others. If Hirsch pays lip service to the mundane, she invests the bulk of her interpretive energies on photographic projects that are anything but. To be sure, this bait-and-switch has certainly been one of the Modernist strategies of coping with the persistent avant-garde engagement with low culture, and it is still widely practiced in disciplines like the study of literature and art history that are deeply attached to their canons. But as a connoisseur of children's books and toys, and a reveler in all sorts of mass-produced "trash" (Benjamin's word), glamorously banal celebrity images and anonymously conventional family snaps are precisely the categories of biographical and domestic photographs that Benjamin himself might have found most revealing.

It seems in keeping with such distinctions between high and low, the self-consciously relevant and the blissfully banal, that throughout the introduction to her book Rugg sets observations about the "sophisticated" understanding of photography against assertions about its "naive" consumption. These rhetorical moves are not only suggestive of the larger historical situation of photography, that spans both the most forgettable of commercial imagery and a fine art of photography determined not to be eclipsed from view, but they also begin to point to Benjamin's importance as a central participant in the theoretical discussion of the medium. Nowhere does the problem of naivete and sophistication come more to the fore than when raising the vexed question of what Benjamin meant by "aura" and photography's role in its supposed death or resurrection.

As Miriam Hansen has aptly observed, "Benjamin's attitude towards the decline of the aura is profoundly ambivalent, just as the concept of "aura" itself displays an "irritating ambiguity:"[20] Benjamin's definition of this concept is most often derived from "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in which "aura" is described in reference to natural objects as "the unique appearance of a distance, however dose it may be."[21] Related to Benjamin's preoccupations with both memory and history, the "aura" of cultural objects is commonly understood to refer to the traditional mystique of the work of art as singular and enduring. As such, it is with some excitement about its revolutionary potential that Benjamin announces the dismantlement of "aura" by the processes of mechanical reproduction that are able to replicate artworks into infinity. But he also seems to mourn its passing as one of the last vestiges of habits of naturalized memory. In this way, Benjamin's equivocal theorization of "aura" relates to larger issues of photography's ontological instability, its perceived relation to mortality and to the displacement of immanence by mere information. As John Durham Peters suggests in "Beauty's Veils: The Ambivalent Iconoclasm of Kierkegaard and Benjamin" the particular inflections of this relationship between photograph and death come into clearer view when Benjamin's working through of "aura" is read in the context of his discussion of "Schein," or "beautiful semblance" in his essay on "Goethe's Elective Affinities" only recently available in translation and so not yet widely considered in American scholarship on Benjamin. Benjamin focuses on Ottilie, the beautiful young woman who becomes a strangely static object of desire in Goethe's novella. Her immobility is such that one is tempted to call her a pre-photographic image which, as Peters observes: is most beautiful when most frozen. Ottilie, who dies in anorexic penance for the inadvertent death of the child who resembled her, is buried in a glass-covered coffin so that her appearance may remain. Before photography, Goethe... recognizes a complicity between the desire to capture an image and the fixity of death.[22]

In the end, photography's own complex relation to a Spatial-temporal dynamic of proximity and distance, presentness and recession into the past, its "aura" if you will (which indeed it has), has nothing to do with its artfulness (with a cultural fetishization of skill, unique vision and original productions). Rather photography's aura seems to reside in its apparent artlessness--its ability to appear to place us closer to an original object of desire precisely on the basis of its claims to a wondrous verisimilitude, its ability to form a "glass coffin" around those people and places most dear to us, to shelter a core of mortality (and here is the contradiction again), even as it leaves behind nothing but dead matter. Photography provides the treasured keepsake. It also provides the image in the newspaper, here today, gone tomorrow.

Thus it seems especially significant that Benjamin appears as both a "sophisticated" theoretician of nineteenth-century visual culture and a "naive" consumer of early twentieth-century visual spectacle in Stephan Oettermann's The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium. Oettermann's use of such dialectical motifs as the nineteenth-century fad of hot-air ballooning and the eras morbid fascination with dungeons and prisons, or the dual nineteenth-century invention of both the panorama as a form of entertainment and the panopticon as a mechanism of social discipline, owes a clear debt to the Benjamin who wrote so compellingly on Paris and Baudelaire in the Second Empire, as does his conception of history as the mythic dimension of "collective fictions" that demand excavation for their underlying "truths."[23] However, Benjamin is also present in Oettermann's account of his childhood enthusiasm for the pleasures of the Kaiser Panorama in Berlin that seemed, Benjamin exuberantly claimed, to offer the possibility for children around the globe to "[make] friends" (one mourns the lost opportunity to accompany this Benjamin to Disneyland)[24] The book's major flaw is that, although new in translation, its scholarship is already almost twenty years old (It was originally published in German in 1980). More up-to-date, the call to historicize theory contained in the preface to the collection of essays edited by Dudley Andrew, The Image in Dispute: Art and Cinema in the Age of Photography, appears especially timely. These essays, written predominantly by specialists in film studies, range widely across Benjamin's terrain of flaneurs, world's fairs, cinema, the street and the phantasmagoria of commodity culture, at times delving deeper into Benjamin's historical moment, and at times extending his critical into the realm of the Nouvelle Vague in cinema, pop art in America or Francis Bacon's abject Crucifixion Triptychs. Particularly useful is the section entitled "What Did Walter Benjamin See? Image Cultures, 1890-1933," which includes Sabine Hake's compelling reconsideration of Benjamin's interest in both the old-fashioned realist portraiture of Sander and John Heartfield's edgy and topical photomontages. Hake's essay yields the insight that physiognomy, as not only a discredited pseudo-science but also a mode of reading difference within and across series of images, provides a crucial point of entry into the progressive projects of Sander and Heartfield, in pointed contrast to the reactionary invocations of physiognomic archetypes under Nazism. Tensions between the historicization of nineteenth-century visual regimes and twentieth-century experience are equally important to Anke Gleber's essay on "Women on the Screens and Streets of Modernity: In Search of the Female F1aneur" While the material on the absence of the flaneuse on the boulevards of nineteenth-century Paris largely summarizes past arguments (most notably those by Janet Wolff and Griselda Pollock), Gleber goes on to question why Benjamin failed to register his awareness of the numerous female spectators he himself would have seen on the streets of Paris and Berlin. Certainly acknowledging the experiences of these women, some of whom, as Benjamin well knew, were even photographers, might have complicated the paradigmatic masculinity of the flaneur in interesting ways. But, as Gleber points out, perhaps only cinema challenged the blindnesses of male Weimar cultural critics toward the habits of visual consumption of their female companions on the street, and then only in a limited way. Lauren Rabinovitz's essay on "The Fair View: Female Spectators and the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition" suggests that the great world's fairs, precisely in their character as ersatz, and thereby less social proscribed cities-within-cities, might have provided another habitat for female looking. Certainly these extravaganzas needed the presence of female as well as male spectators in order to succeed as consumer spectacles. As this necessarily brief resume suggests, its attempts to read gender concerns into the applied study of Benjamin and his theoretical texts constitutes one of the most important contributions of this volume.

Where to go from here? Based upon the books under consideration, a few thoughts come to mind. First, we need to continue to grapple with the tension between what draws us to Benjamin and what we perceive as useful; what is worth repeating and what he has already done. If Hayden White approached the historical works of Jacob Burckhardt, Karl Marx, Jules Michelet, Alexis de Tocqueville, etc., as literary genres, then such approaches as Cadava's seem conceived in a similar spirit. What draws us to Benjamin, as White put it and as Cadava so elegantly explores, is "the consistency, coherence, and illuminative power of [his] respective vision of the historical field."[25] Never mind the small errors of fact that readers of his photography essay love to point out. All histories worth their while contain, if not errors, at least deliberate skewings of the data. And never mind Benjamin's notorious inconsistencies that are rooted in his commitment to a dialectical way of thinking. But what we should also take from him is the desire to return to the historical field in the same illuminative, ethical spirit. White sees this project as only possible when full credence is given to "the preconceptual and specifically poetic nature of... perspectives on history and its processes," that is, self-consciously formalist explorations of historical images are one means by which an image of history might become visible. But there is more to it. For in order to conduct those explorations within the history of photography what is also needed is work that will de-totalize the conception of photographic formalism, whose reification has been blamed for too long on John Szarkowski and his crowd. Just as the populist moralizing tone of Sontag and Berger was a product of '60s-style activism, formalism, as it was bartered by the Photography Department of the Museum of Modern Art, had acquired such a bad name by the mid-1980s that institutional analyses became one of the few acceptable choices for politically-conscious photography historians and critics. There remains good reason for this skepticism. Certainly there is a formalism that has been deployed to occlude photography's complicity in dominant structures of power and to render its products palatable to a largely middle class and obstinately complacent audience. (One need only to have observed the looks of happy aesthetic contemplation on the faces of visitors to the profoundly unsettling "Police Pictures" exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to get a sense of the degree to which even ostensibly revisionist, socio-historically-informed presentations can have trouble mounting any real resistance to this paradigm.[26] But we all know that by now. Its very durability means that we can no longer afford to surrender formalism to this constituency. Just as we are now comfortable speaking of photography's many histories, or of the histories of many photographies, we should also explore the notion of its many formalist guises rather than seeking, ad nauseam, to define its ontological specificity. Benjamin's example may well help us with this, for his work is meant to be nothing if not tendentious and, simultaneously, nothing if not sensitive to formalism's infinite variations.

And this is where literary studies, steeped in its own formalist methodologies, can continue to be of greatest use. But as Meyer Schapiro, speaking from the same historical moment as Benjamin, observed, there is no formalism outside of history, for even the most abstract (or willfully obtuse) of aesthetic projects "built up out of other objects, that is, out of other interests and experience, would have another formal character"[27] Thus when Cadava writes that "photography does not belong to history; it offers history. It delivers history to its destiny. It tells us that the truth of history is to this day nothing but photography" I can't help but worry that he retains the flavor of Benjamin's project, but risks losing sight of its possibilities for radical critique.[28] These possibilities are rooted in Benjamin's self-consciousness about speaking from within a particular historical moment that encompassed not only the proliferation of technologies of mechanical reproduction in the golden age of the illustrated press and classic cinema, but also the rise of Fascism, the first glimmers of the flaws in the promise of revolutionary Marxism and the near decimation of the tradition of enlightened German Jewish intellectual endeavor that had produced him. Not for a moment would I wish a comparably tragic experience of history upon Cadava and other contemporary scholars, but I do think it is appropriate to ask what history is being referred to here? As Carl Schorske has aptly observed, cultural studies has a tendency to ask questions around "History" while seldom allowing history to determine the questions.[29]

Finally, then, it is not only the historicization of theory but the conditions of a revitalized practice of history through Benjamin that remain at issue. In a recent review of the first volume of Belknap/Harvard's collection of Benjamin's writings, Arthur Danto remarked that Benjamin seemed suited for only two jobs: a cloistered academic or a rare-book dealer. While Danto lumps Benjamin's failure to achieve his doctorate (his dissertation, The Origin of German Tragic Drama was rejected as inscrutable by his committee) together with his apparent lack of interest in setting up a secondhand shop as equally typical of "Benjamin's gift for the self-defeating" this dichotomy need not be as dismissive as it might initially seem.[30] In his book on history, itself profoundly influenced by photography, Kracauer wrote what is difficult not to read as a defense of his friend, who had committed suicide on the border between France and Spain in 1940:

So the question as to the meaningfulness of "technical history" would seem to be unanswerable. There is only one single argument in its support which I believe to be conclusive. It is a theological argument, though. According to it, the "complete assemblage of the smallest facts" is required for the reason that nothing should go lost. It is as if the fact-oriented accounts breathed pity with the dead. This vindicates the figure of the collector.[31]

To repeat Kracauer's words again, "It is a theological argument." The collector is not a mercenary but a missionary, not merely an accumulator, but a curator of the past, whose very zest for acquisition might be enough to propel him or her across the boundaries between conventional disciplines. Nothing less is argued in Benjamin's essay on "Edward Fuchs: Collector and Historian": Fuchs the collector taught Fuchs the theoretician to comprehend much that was barred to him by his time. He was a collector who strayed into border disciplines such as caricature and pornographic representation. These border disciplines sooner or later meant the ruin of a series of cliches in traditional art history.[32]

Thus the hopelessly minor Fuchs appears as not only as the arch foe of art history, but as a possible ancestor figure for the contemporary practice of cultural studies. If Benjamin's essay reminds us that the collector is equally as important a figure as the flaneur and the detective to his project of a redemptive historical materialism, then methodological approaches to Benjamin may well change in the wake of the long-awaited translation into English of his monumental Passagen-Werk (see sidebar). The Passagen-Werk, or Arcades Project was Benjamin-the-collector's curiosity cabinet, an unfinished and perhaps unfinishable compendium of scraps from which his essays on Baudelaire and Paris in the nineteenth century were drawn. Meant to be a "materialist philosophy of history constructed... out of the historical material itself" it may well lead to a perception of Benjamin as even more aphoristic, fragmentary and impressionistic.[33] But more different and careful readings could also produce a view of his work as much more historically concrete. It could thus change the history of photography as well.

In the end, let me hasten to say that I hope it is clear that I would not seek to diminish in any way books such as Cadava's. I cherish his eloquence and insights, and value his obvious command of the material. Literary interventions in the history of photography have been extremely helpful in de-railing an old-fashioned (and hopeless) history of chronologically arranged photographic facts. But I must admit that I have difficulty seeing these books, if content to remain within the narrower realm of theory, as anything other than an end in themselves. If the question is, after reading such books as Words of Light and in confrontation with Benjamin's theoretical essays more generally, where do we go from here, then one possible answer is back to the arcades, back to the streets and back, with both the postmodernist's healthy skepticism for its inclusions and exclusions and the native zeal of the collector for the lucky find, to the archives.


1. Robert Grudin, "Everywhere an Exile" New York Times Book Review (June 29,1997), p. 12.

2. Gisele Freund, Photography and Society, (Boston: Godine, 1980). Freund's La Photographie en France au dix-neuvieme siecle; etude de sociologie et d'esthetique, (Paris: A. Monnier, 1936) was a frequently consuited source for Benjamin.

3. Charles Rosen,"The Ruins of Walter Benjamin" in Gary Smith, ed., On Walter Benjamin: Critical Essays and Recollections, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988), pp. 130-131.

4. John Tagg, "A Democracy of the Image," The Burden of Representation, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), pp. 56-59.

5. Allan Sekula, "The Body and the Archive" October 39 (Winter 1986), p. 60.

6. Rosalind Krauss, "The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism" The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), pp. 98-101; Krauss, "Tracing Nadar" October 5 (Summer 1978), pp. 29-47.

7. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

8. Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. xix.

9. Ibid, p. 130.

10. Ibid, p. xviii.

11. Linda Haverty Rugg, Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 231.

12. See in Proust the famous "photographic" encounter between Marcel and his beloved grandmother. Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, Remembrance of Things Past, C. K. Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, trans., 3 vols., (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), v. II, p. 141-143. On Kracauer, see "Photography" in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, Thomas Y. Levin, trans., (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 48-49 and Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 14-15. For more on Kracauer, memory and history, see Miriam Hansen, "'With Skin and Hair': Kracauer's Theory of Film, Marseilles 1940," Critical Inquiry Vol. 19, no. 3 (Spring 1993), pp. 454-456.

13. Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Post-Memory, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 117. For a brief but more usefully skeptical account of Benjamin's yoking together of a photographic optics and the psychoanalytic "unconscious" see Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), pp. 178-179.

14. Ibid, p. 149.

15. Rugg, p. 2.

16. Mary Price, The Photograph: A Strange Confined Place, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 36.

17. "A Short History of Photography" Screen Vol. 13, no. 3, p. 25.

18. Peter Demetz, ed., Edmund Jephcott, trans., Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), p. 230. Includes "The Author as Producer:'

19. Cadava, pp. 19-21.

20. Miriam Hansen, "Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: 'The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology'" New German Critique 40 (Winter 1987), p. 187. I have found Hansen's article, as well as Susan Buck Morss's "Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin's Artwork Essay Reconsidered" October 62 (1992) to be most helpful in addressing this issue.

21. Hanah Arendt, ed., Harry Zohn, trans., Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 222.

22. John Durham Peters, "Beauty's Veils: The Ambivalent Iconoclasm of Kierkegaard and Benjamin" in Andrew Dudley, ed., The Image in Dispute: Art and Cinema in the Age of Photography, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), p. 21.

23. Stephen Oettermann, The Panorama: History of a Mass Media, (New York: Zone, 1997), p. 40.

24. Ibid, p. 232.

25. See Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), p. 4.

26. For a review of this exhibition, see Giovanni Intra, "True Crime: Forensic Aesthetics on Display" Afterimage 25, no. 5 (March/April 1998).

27. Meyer Schapiro, "The Social Bases of Art" in The Artist in Society, (New York: Congress of American Artists, 1936), p. 34.

28. Cadava, p. 128. 29. Carl E. Schorske, Thinking with History: Explorations in the Passage to Modernism, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 219.

30. Arthur Danto, "Secret Agent" Artforum Vol. 36 (April 1997), p. 14.

31. Siegfried Kracauer, History: the last things before the last, (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1995), p. 136. Originally published in 1969 by Oxford University Press.

32. "Edward Fuchs: Collector and Historian" in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, eds., (New York: Continuum, 1982), p. 234.

33. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), p. 3. Buck-Morss's book remains the best analysis in English of Benjamin's Passagen-Werk

JEANNENE M. PRZYBLYSKI is an independent photography historian and critic living in San Francisco.



Walter Benjamin in translation This list includes major works as well as those most directly applicable to the study of photography. For a more extensive bibliography of English translations, see Gary Smith, ed., Benjamin: Philosophy Aesthetics, History, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982). "Edward Fuchs: Collector and Historian," The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, eds., (New York: Continuum 1982). Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, eds., Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 1, 1913-1926, (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1996). Includes the out-of-print One Way Street, as well as Benjamin's important essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities. The new, three-volume edition of Benjamin's writings underway at Belknap/Harvard should ease the scarcity of imprint sources of his work, The long-awaited English translation of the Passagen-Werk is currently scheduled for release in 1999. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, trans., One-Way Street, and Other Writings, (London: New Left Books, 1979). Out of print. Peter Demetz, ed., Edmund Jephcott, trans., Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, (New York: Schocken Books, 1978). Includes "The Author as Producer." John Osborne, trans., The Origin of German Tragic Drama, (New York: Verso, 1977). Out of print. Phil Patton, trans., "A Short History of Photography," Artforum Vol, XV, no, 6 (February 1977). Another translation by Stanley Mitchell appeared in Screen Vol, 13, no. 1 (Spring 1972) Gershom Scholem and Theodor Adorno, eds., Manfried R, Jacobson and Evlyn M. Jacobson, trans., The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940,(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). Lloyd Spencer, trans., "Central Park," New German Critique 34  (Winter 1985). Harry Zohn, trans., Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, (New York: Verso, 1983L Out of print. Hanah Arendt, ed, Harry Zohn, trans. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, (New York: Schocken Books, 1969). Includes the indispensable essays, "The Work of Art in the Age Of Mechanical Reproduction" and "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Benjamin and Photography As might be expected, citations of Benjamin's work abound in critical writing on photography. I include only those relatively recent essays and books in English which consider Benjamin extensively, as well as a few old stand-bys. John Berger, Ways of Seeing, (London: Penguin, 1972). Still a fundamental example of an attempt to bring Benjamin's work to a broader audience. Susan Buck-Morss, "Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin's Artwork Essay Reconsidered," October 62 (1992). Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, (Cambridge: MIT Press. 1989). Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History; (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). Reviewed in this article. Andrew Dudley, ed., The Image in Dispute: Art and Cinema in the Age of Photography, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997). Reviewed in this article. Rodolphe Gaschub "Objective Diversions: On Some Kantian Themes in Benjamin's 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Andrew Benjamin and Peter Osborne, eds., Walter Benjamin's Philosophy: Destruction and Experience, (London: Routledge, 1994). Miriam Bratu Hansend, "America, Paris, the Alps: Kracauer (and Benjamin) on Cinema and Modernity" in Vanessa Schwartz and Leo Charney, eds., Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). Many of the essays in this interdisciplinary anthology considering "new modes of technology, representation, spectacle, distraction, consumerism, ephemerality, mobility, and entertainment" engage with Benjamin's theoretical concerns and represent recent attempts in bridge "the divide between the history of cinema and the history of modem life." Miriam Bratu Hansen, "Benjamin, Cinema, and Experience: 'The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology,'" New German Critque 40 (Winter 1987). Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Post-Memory, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997). Reviewed in this article. Elissa Marder, "Flat Death: Snapshots of History," Diacritics 22 (Fall-Winter t 992). Marder's essay is part of a special tat issue of Diacritics titled "Commemorating Walter Benjamin." Annette Michelson, et. al., eds, October: the First Decade, 1976-1986, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987). A number of articles in this anthology drawn from the first ten years of October concern photography and film. It is a convenient place to get a handle on the overall approach to Benjamin by a number of frequent Contributors to this influential journal of art, criticism and politics. Mary Price, The Photograph. A Strange Confined Place (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994). Heinz W. Puppe, "Walter Benjamin on Photography," Colloquia Germancia Vol. 12, no. 3 (1979). Linda Havcrty Rugg, Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), Reviewed in this article. Susan Sontag, On Photography, (New, York: Fartar, Straus and Giroux, 1977). For a discussion of Sontag's role in introducing American audiences to an important range of European cultural critics, including Benjamin, see the reevaluation, "Sontag's On Photography at 20," Afterimage 25, no. 5 (March/April 1998). Samuel Weber, Mass Mediauras: Form Technics Media, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996). Works of Related Interest Rey Chow, "Walter Benjamin's Love Affair with Death," New German Critique 48 (Fall 1989). Chow's essay represents one of the more interesting recent attempts to read Benjamin in the contexts of feminism and psychoanalysis. David Frisby, Fragments of Modernity: Theories of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracauer and Benjamin, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986). A useful critical overview of major themes in the work of these three essential philosophers of modern life. Molly Nesbit, Atget's Sewn Albums. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992). Atget plays a key role in Benjamin's view of photography, and Nesbit's book thoroughly explores the implications of Benjamin's aphoristic observation that Atget photographed the streets of Paris as it they were "scenes of crimes." Stephen Oettermann, The Panorama: History of a Mass Media, (New York: Zone, 1997). Reviewed in this article. Shelley Rice, Parisian Views, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997). Rice's book is the most recent attempt to read the Paris of Baudelaire and Haussman through its photographic traces. Benjamin's example is key to Rice's project of interweaving cultural and photographic history. Michael S. Roth, et. al., Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed, (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1997). The catalogue to a recent: exhibition at the Getty Center begins with a passage from Benjamin's Origin of German Tragic Drama. It includes much photographic material and a useful bibliography. Michael Steinberg, ed., Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996). This anthology provides an extensive range of views on the question of historical practice in Benjamin's work.