At one point in Walter Benjamin’s A Brief History of Photography, the photographic medium is defined in terms of a surplus.1 Or, to put it differently, it is this surplus that is said to account for what is “new and particular” about photography. In a photograph, Benjamin suggests, there is always a remainder that cannot be integrated into whatever it is that turns this photograph into a work of art, into an artist’s work. Whatever testifies to the art of the photographer must exclude this other element, as if photography as art were as much the result of an achievement as the result of an exclusion, of a failure to capture what it is that makes photography into photography, and as if this failure were not the fault of the artist but constitutive of photography itself. Photography appears as an art that is supplemented by something that does not, and that cannot, belong to art.
But what is it that Benjamin means by “art”? The answer to this question can be sought in his usage of the words “skillfulness” and “methodicalness”. Photography is an art because the photographer engages in an intentional activity and because he does so as someone who has learnt the skills of photographic technique and has acquired a methodical talent when placing a figure in front of the camera. How does Benjamin explain the surplus or the supplement of photography? He speaks of a “tiny spark” that illuminates the photograph and draws the beholder’s attention to the dimension of the “here and now”, to what reveals itself to be “accidental” or “contingent”. In other words, in photography, there is something about the “here and now” that resists the transformation of the photographic image into the image of an artist, and it is this tension that defines photography, that allows us to see what is “new and particular” about it. In photography, there is always a tension between a space and time of invention, production, construction, fabrication and manipulation that can never be the space and time of the “here and now”, and a space and time of accidents that can never be the space and time of art. This tension, the tension between “reality” and “imageness” [Bildcharakter], expresses itself in a question which cannot not be raised, which cannot be repressed or “silenced”, as Benjamin puts it. The necessary, somewhat stupid question asked by the beholder addresses itself to the contingent. It seeks, for example, to know the name of a person photographed, a person who remains a perfect stranger to the beholder. Benjamin illustrates this point – the point about what it is in photography that resists its transformation into art – by quoting from a work of art. He reproduces a few verses from a poem by Stefan George in which the poet contemplates bathing and fighting figures on old reddish urns, but also angels, and reflects upon their former life: “And I ask: how did the beauty of that hair / those eyes, beguile our forebears [frühere wesen] / How did that mouth kiss, to which desire / curls up senseless as smoke without fire?”
If, in an art form such as a poem, the question about the contingent can become a thematic element of the poem itself, then, in photography, this is no longer possible. No matter how much the photographer may try to emulate the poet, anticipating the question and using the contingent and perhaps the asking of the question itself as thematic and even formal elements of his photograph, there will always remain something that he cannot anticipate. This can mean two things, namely that photography takes us to the limit or the end of art, and that photography, at the limit or the end of art, reveals something about art itself, something that up to the point where photography as an art form began to develop had remained unapparent or hidden – the tension that exists between art and non-art, or the fact that the limit or the end of art traverses art itself, is not external to it. In this sense, the newness of photography is not the newness of yet another art form or of yet another kind of image, since it is art itself that is at stake in photography, its appearance and its disappearance.
But there is also another aspect of Benjamin’s understanding of newness in photography that must be mentioned. For the point at which, in a photographic image, the real “sears” the image, is also the point where the technical character of the image, inseparable from its artistic dimension, touches upon, or is touched by, an element of magic. It is the point where the image acquires a “magical value” that a “painting”, for example, can no longer display. Benjamin speaks of an “inconspicuous spot where in the being-such [Sosein] of a long-forgotten moment [Minute] the future, even today, nests so eloquently that, looking back, we may still discover it.” Hence the reason why the tension that defines photography and its newness as a medium is relevant lies in that photography opens up the future to us – to us for whom this future has already turned into a present, a “here and now” with a different future: “For it is another nature which speaks to the camera rather than to the eye: other above all in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious.” The question about the contingent in photography is a question about the tension between the present and the future inasmuch as the future already informs the present while leaving it intact, at least on the surface of the eye of consciousness. Photography can be defined as the space and time of a tension between the presentness of art, of optic consciousness, and a future that resides in the blind spot of contingency and already subverts art, or that, in art, forms its very limit, its very end, an end to which the “optical unconscious” is receptive. Photography opens up art. It is the awakening of and from art, the moment when art becomes aware of itself and turns into something else, the moment of the most radical newness of art, of a newness that takes art outside of itself, into the visible’s invisibility. But who sees a photograph? When we see it in the present, we cannot detect its tension. When we see it in the future, we detect its tension only retrospectively, as the trace of the future has now become our own present. To see a photograph means to slide out of the saddle of the present by being attentive to its here and now.
The awakening of and from art that takes places in and as photography can be linked to the idea of “profanation” that Benjamin expounds in “Awakening of Sexuality”, a short text included in A Berlin Childhood. It can also be linked to the “synthesis” to which Benjamin alludes in his Arcades Project when he speaks of awakening as the gathering of the “dream’s consciousness” and the “consciousness of the waking state”. Whether a profanation of art or a threshold on which imageness and reality gather, every photograph proves to be the photograph of an awakening.
In truth, then, the appearing of the new in photography is neither simply the disappearing of the artist’s dream nor the recognition and conceptual determination of art. It is rather the rescuing exposure of art. Only in this way, by way of photography, can art become untouchable, precisely because, once photography emerges, it must no longer affirm and defend itself. With photography, art is not a thing of the past, something that has disappeared or is merely remembered, and it is not a thing of the present either, something dependent on its self-affirmation, but it is, and radically so, a thing of the future, something forever new.
- Unless otherwise noted, the text (as well as the title) of the following edition of Benjamin’s essay have been modified by the author: Walter Benjamin, “A Little History of Photography,” in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Brigid Doherty et al. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008). ↩