Little History of Photography (Kleine Geschichte der Photographie, Petite Histoire de la Photographie, Short History of Photography)
by Walter Benjamin
Benjamin states in the introduction that the first decade of photography was its best. In the decade that preceded the industrialization of photography, it enchanted. Later, photography liberated itself from a non-technological conception of art, and, in fact, enlarged greatly its domain of applicability.
The precision of portrait photography, Benjamin claims, magically passes on the individuality of the person photographed. We look for the coincidence, the visual subconscious laid bare by the photographic paper. Early portrait photography was mysterious, timid, detailed, vivid, impressive. The long exposure forced models to be at rest for a long time and impressed a sense of duration on the photography. Early photographs were meant to last.
Soon, photography replaced some landscape painting, and a lot of miniature portrait painting. Portrait photography rapidly became a business, accesorizing, adding unnecessary elements and 'retouches'. The aura of early portrait photography (- the young Kafka -) originated in the long posing, the often bad lighting, the obscure, and the obscurity of the model. These were soon replaced by the faithful mirror photography held up to the rising middle class.
Photography (- Atget -) replaced the aura of the early image by the emptiness of the city view. Man and the reproducible image became strangers. Sander no longer photographs individuals, but classes of people.
The mechanical reproducibility of art and photography has given rise to a different mode of perception, in which we have reduced objects and made them manipulable. Photography made objects beautiful, suited for creative sales, but fails to portray human relations. The photograph of a factory does not portray the human relations within. It is necessary to create something artificial to represent the real.
Not only do the viewers need to learn the visual language, photographers themselves need to learn how to read their proper images better. A visual legend needs to be constructed to elevate photography above the approximate.