The theme of my contribution to Still Searching is inspired by Walter Benjamin’s famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’ (1935-36). Or, rather, it is inspired by the striking absence of discussions of reproduction and its effects in the literature about photography since this essay first appeared. So I guess I am searching, in the first instance, for the reasons for this absence, given that Benjamin’s essay has been made compulsory reading for a generation of students and is one of the most cited in serious texts about the photographic experience. But I am also interested in beginning to explore the ramifications of photography’s relationship to reproducibility for our understanding of this medium’s history. How has reproducibility manifested itself in photographic practice and experience? What have been the effects of these manifestations? What kind of history would have to be written to encompass these questions? The invention of this history—of a mode of representation capable of doing justice to these questions–is ultimately what I am ‘still searching’ for.
When Benjamin reflected on these issues, he chose to equate the reproductive capacities of photography with the processes of mass production, and thus with the most basic operations of capitalism itself. For Benjamin, these processes are fraught with an inherent contradiction, an alienating inversion of social and commodity relations, such that reproduction is simultaneously capitalism’s lifeblood and its poison. Photography, he suggested, contained within it this same contradiction, being equally capable of sustaining capitalism and of destroying it. Reproducibility is, in short, a political capacity that can be either exploited or suppressed but should not be ignored. Of course, most commentaries on Benjamin’s famous essay are content to try and define what he meant by ‘aura,’ perhaps the most misunderstood word in the photographic lexicon (with the possible exception of ‘punctum’), thereby displacing attention from the essay’s larger political concerns. I see the conjuring of aura—“a strange tissue of time and space: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be”—as Benjamin’s attempt to account for the effects of commodity fetishism, such that unequal relations of power are experienced by individuals in very real, if invisible, phenomenological and psychological terms. The endless reproduction of the Mona Lisa brings this painting close to us, but at the cost of the commodification of our relationship to it; in reproduction form it is near, physically and temporally, but its cult value has been exponentially enhanced by this same reproduction, this preventing us from having any kind of authentic relationship to it. In other words, the waxing and waning of aura is but one of the (political) effects of reproducibility.
Benjamin tends to equate photographic reproduction with the ability to make thousands of exact photomechanical visual copies of existing images (such as works of art). But we need to recognize that photography’s reproducibility encompasses many more practices than this. Photographs are images that are indexically induced by the thing they represent, reproducing that thing, through a reaction to light, as a two-dimensional image. This privileged relationship of original and copy is what has fascinated so many commentators on the photographic medium. Frequently, what we think of as a photograph is in fact a reproduction from a negative, in which forms and tones have been reversed from that original imprint. Many positives can be made from such a negative, some of them seemingly identical to one another, some looking quite different (witness the many different versions of Ansel Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico). In other words, photography’s reproducibility includes its capacity to reproduce itself.
But the theme of reproducibility also encompasses forms of photography that result in unique objects, such as daguerreotypes. Commercial portrait studios promised their customers that they would look much like their neighbors, endlessly repeating certain poses, backdrops and props to ensure that social conformity was part of what one purchased (we bring the same expectation to our professionally-taken wedding pictures today). Aspects of industrial mass production had to be adopted by these studios if they were to compete in the market place; only a rote repetition of certain actions and settings would allow as many as 40 daguerreotype portraits per day to be produced. In any case, some daguerreotypes were quickly distributed in other media. Daguerreotypes of public figures, for example, were likely to be translated into lithographs or wood or steel engravings and distributed through the illustrated press, allowing a daguerreotype image made in London to be seen throughout the British Empire. This kind of reproduction exponentially increased the audience for certain photographs, thus securing photography’s presence in the culture at large. The price for this was a disconnection of the photographic image from photography itself, blurring any firm distinction of form and substance, and introducing the post-medium condition that digital technologies have since only exacerbated and prolonged. In other words, once it was harnessed to the engine of reproducibility, photography could not help but be haunted by ghosts of its own making.
But this is true even of individual images that were never copied. A Cascade of Spruce Needles, a photogenic drawing made by Henry Talbot in 1839, the year of photography’s announcement, is the perfect embodiment of the kind of haunting I’m talking about. Not only does this picture show a fertile scattering of seeds, of spruce needles to be precise, but it also demonstrates the dividing of identity that constitutes all acts of reproduction. The image looks as though the needles are cascading through space in front of the camera, falling from top to bottom of the picture plane, as if caught in an instant of light-sensitive exposure. But in fact this is a contact print, produced when Talbot scattered some needles across his horizontal sheet of prepared paper, so that they lay there statically in the sun long enough to leave an impression. Having given the play of chance full rein, he then fixed whatever image happened to result, thereby reproducing the unpredictable operations of nature’s own mode of reproduction. What we see now as the presence of needles are those places where there was an absence of light on the paper, resulting in a reversal of tones such that the black needles are represented here by white paper. Both nature and photography, Talbot seems to be saying, are generated through an economy of repetition and difference.
For a photogram to be made, object and image, reality and representation, must first come face to face, literally touching each other. The photogram’s persuasive power depends on a lingering specter of the total entity, a continual re-presentation of this coming together and separation of image and object on the photographic paper. This is the prior moment, that something other than itself, to which the photogram must always defer in order to be itself. This photograph therefore marks the spacing, the temporal and spatial movement, of these needles and their imprint. The photograph, which is in fact a negative posing as a positive, represents both them and its own convoluted conditions of production. What we are witnessing here then is a surprisingly complicated, almost self-contradictory, maneuver that simultaneously circumscribes and divides the identity of the things being represented, whether that be nature and its processes of reproduction, or photography and its.
Although still part of the political economy of reproducibility, my discussion of this picture has taken on an ontological aspect, a concern for the question of being itself. Indeed, I propose that, if we are to truly grapple with all the ramifications of our theme, then we have to try and think Benjamin’s work through that of Jacques Derrida. We have to address ourselves to ‘dissemination’ rather than just ‘reproduction.’
As Derrida has demonstrated, dissemination is a dynamic that simultaneously circumscribes and dissipates; it enacts “an erasure which allows what it obliterates to be read,” “making possible the very thing that it makes impossible.” Simultaneously a verb and a noun, both a mark and the act of marking, dissemination allows for an examination of a diverse array of photographic practices without dislodging us from the context of consumer capitalism and its processes of mass production in which those practices have taken place. It allows us to question what photography is even while investigating what photographs do and what is done to them. It allows us to pursue a history for photography from the inside out, unconstrained by the limited interests of art history or by value judgments based on innovation or originality.
This, at least, is what I hope to demonstrate over my next few posts, through reflections on the medium of photography (of what does it consist?), on the capacity of photographs to shift shape and size, on the effects of multiplicity (wherein photography issues multiple copies of itself), on the complication of a photograph’s authorship, on the distribution of photographs (such that they can appear in many places at once, or can reappear at different points in time), and similar issues. I’m hoping that such posts can both generate some discussion (including disagreement) and set the foundation for a new way to consider the representation of photography’s history.