Book Review: On Photography

  By John Veldhoen

Reading Walter Benjamin again many years after reading “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, I am at the same time strangely accumulating readings that seem to correspond to that text, and I am sure writing this I cannot parse it. I was working through William Ivins’ “Prints and Visual Communication”, and some snippets of Günther Anders’ writings (who incidentally was Walter Benjamin’s cousin). I go through these periods when I read heavily, more or less trying to ask a question to myself, without really expecting to arrive at any answer. I was also reading a biography about the great Genevan theologian John Calvin, who is described as a “humanist” in that book, although I convey that with reticence given what that word can conjure up to different people (not to mention how Renaissance humanism differs from whatever that title might mean today). When I first read Benjamin, I read him with a humanistic spirit. Later, I came across Friedrich Kittler’s writings about media. Probably somewhere at the same time, I read some Marshall McLuhan, too.  Now, I read these sorts of things, and I can’t really understand what I am reading, most of the images I see are made by friends around me, often of people or places that I know, and it seems ultimately natural to pick and choose what media I consume on the basis of what affects me where I live (I am trying to avoid the ballyhoo about naturalization and politics at the same time as using the word natural, just because it is what it is). Needless to say, I find the contemporary dialog of privileging the physical, material photograph over the digital artifact too anxiety ridden by half. When a publisher, or a bookseller for that matter, frets about the disappearance of the printed book, is that because it is really that likely, that the physical world is vanishing, and being replaced with a digital universe of virtual objects, or is it that these people merely know what side their bread is buttered on? What can I say about the world, about the way that we use cameras, or about why anyone should read this book of writings Walter Benjamin completed about photography? 

I felt a shock at a moment in the excellent introduction to this volume that corresponds to a photograph of Benjamin dressed up as a four or five-year-old boy, taken at the turn of the last century. He is dressed in a patriotic uniform, vaguely in intimating military dress. It was that this child grew to be a man who felt forced to commit suicide instead of being deported from Spain to the gas chambers in Germany that shocked me. I knew Benjamin’s famous writing about a photograph of Franz Kafka as a child and remembered it as being touching, but this photograph of Benjamin as a child to me felt tragic and all too familiar.

Reading Benjamin is difficult now, inasmuch as the Marxist underpinning of his project has just as much (if not more) auratic equivalence to death and failure as Fascism. Yet, at the same time… At the same time, I feel sympathy when I read him… His “Short History of Photography” reprinted here is still essential to understand what led to the cast of mind that saw the photograph as an expressive art. Just like “New Things About Flowers’, about photographer Karl Blossfeldt’s amazing photographs, carries with it a power of understatement and authority. Walter Benjamin had a gentle intelligence, and subtlety of mind that I still can’t help but admire. This is a useful edition or a good place to begin if you are interested in the critical writing around photography, and it may be useful to a reader who wishes to photograph knowing that cultivating a little doubt can be productive when looking at photographs, and trying to articulate what it is they might mean.  

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.