Photography and Yearning After Permanence

As a childhood-to-present lover of photography who has experienced several dramatic shifts in the medium during my lifetime, but also one whose sensibility has ever been more medieval than modern, I found this brief excerpt of Walter Benjamin’s account of the image in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” refreshingly straightforward. It also, however, caused me to wrinkle my brow a bit (is that a phrase? I feel like it is) in both chagrin and, at times, hesitation over his statements. On one level it is certainly hard to argue with his assertion that print reproduction has dramatically altered not only the individually artistic endeavor but also many other aspects of (societal and political, he implies) life, especially as the ideal held within mass production has become not only possible but, in many cases, preferred (any mention of mass production or appeal reminds me that a great amount of US produce is discarded or at the very least considered unsaleable, although being perfectly healthy, just because it does not match the common perception of a perfectly shaped/colored supermarket Red Delicious).

Surely Benjamin’s words strike a chord in me when he claims that this thirst for sameness occurs due to “the desire of contemporary masses to bring things 'closer' spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent towards overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction” and declares that “Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unaided eye” because “Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former" (219). I have ever believed that the photographic image is, in some poignant way, an attempt (and only such, be it ever so joyful or desperate) to hold the moment within the permanent, to find “the still point of the turning world” and preserve a in instant eternally. So I appreciate his words on this subject very much, and yet I still wonder if this is unique to photography. Does not the Grecian Urn attempt permanence? And were there not likely many poorly made urns or statues of Venus that have not inspired reverence in the same vein as mass produced art today?

I am also curious about this statement: “If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch” (219). This is true, I feel, and it is not something to make light of—the value in the individual experience of any given mountain, stream, forest. I do wonder, however, if to view a photographic image created by another (even one that has been gasp reproduced) who themselves viewed and contemplated the scene is so very far removed from its “aura” as Benjamin implies. What of the “aura” of the individual photographer who has crafted the image? Although I know it is not always the case, I have long considered the intent of “real” photographers, for lack of a better term, to be something akin to providing the viewer with a depiction of his or her own unique perspective upon viewing of a scene. True, photographs must be made, but in being made they also, at times, bring into sharp focus one aspect of a scene (take a macro photograph of a leaf or an apple, for instance) and show it to the viewer in a manner so focused and pure that it causes one to reexamine their own reality with greater care. Is this experience truly utterly lacking in the “aura” of that scene?

I have quite a few more thoughts on this rather delightful reading this week, but have unfortunately run out of time to formulate them in writing.