Walter Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Walter Benjamin states in the first lines of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that anything that is man made is reproducible. Therefore the concern in photography is nothing new. For me photography itself is perhaps guilty of misrepresentation and even mis-translation. The word itself photos (light) and graphe (literal meaning representation by means of lines or drawing) is often referred to as ‘painting with light’. Being seen as a replacement to painting, presented as an objective medium, thus deeming it superior, caused perhaps unnecessary resistance to its utility. Benjamin acknowledges that the process of photography came after other reproducible mediums such as wood engraving, etching and the lithograph. And it is perhaps here that photography could be more accurately compared.

The comparisons lie in such processes as crafting a template (or negative) with a mix of art and craft operating mechanical tools. From which copies of varying degree of quality and volume can be distributed for social, political and financial means.

While much is made of the "aura" that Benjamin refers to in replica-table (or original) artworks it is this quote that most resonates with me. "Even with the most perfect reproduction, one thing stands out: the here and now of the work of art - its unique existence in the place where it is at this moment." (Benjamin, 1936/2008, p.5).

I used the quote to articulate my Documentary assignment on James Turrell. Photographing a Skyspace I noted the experience of space and time in my interpretation of the artwork. It will always possible for another photographer to replicate my compositions, but it will never be a reproduction because it will belong to a different space and time. There will also be different intentions and motivations for the camera operator.

When Benjamin expressed that works of art are based on “cultic value” and in its “display value” (Benjamin, 1936/2008, p.12) the photograph has the opportunity to remain original in its sense of time and place, but also be ephemeral in its viewers experience. What Benjamin preludes to here is a democratic and even Postmodern view of multiple interpretations and contexts. In todays context, coming into visual contact with a work of art via the web on a smartphone or in person will each create a unique experience to the viewer in relation to ones space and time.

I feel as though it offers a limitation of Modernist theory. Viewing the world solely in mechanical or Newtonian terms of cause and effect and less to do with ecological and relative views. Modernism didn't take into account the potential variability of production and the human circumstance. Not every reproduction will be produced and displayed under exacting conditions. Perhaps there is a learning here for me. While I continue to see the utilitarian value of Constructivism, a more holistic view is something that can be nurtured.

Benjamin, W. (1936/2008). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. London: Penguin.