Hansen on Benjamin and Dauthendey’s self-portrait

“Benjamin’s often-cited passage concerning the double portrait of the photographer Dauthendey and his fiancée — who was to slash her veins after the birth of their sixth child — evokes a complex temporality in which the past moment encrypted in the photograph speaks to the later beholder of the photographed subject’s future:

Karl Dauthendey, “Self portrait with fiancée,” 1857

No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the character of the image, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the theses of that long-forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.

The futurity that has seared the photographic image in the chance moment of exposure does not simply derive from circumstantial knowledge of its post history or that of its subject; it emerges in the field of the beholder’s compulsively searching gaze. The spark that leaps across time is a profoundly unsettling and disjunctive one, triggered by the young woman’s gaze off, past the camera and past her fiancé, absorbed in an “ominous distance.” It speaks to the beholder, and the later reader of the passage, not simply of photography’s constitutive relation to death but more insistently of a particular death — suicide — that links the fate of the photographed subject to the writer’s own future death.”

— Miriam Bratu HansenBenjamin’s Aura,” in Critical Inquiry 34 (Winter 2008)

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Azoulay on Benjamin’s reading of Dauthendey

“In his essay “A Short History of Photography,” Walter Benjamin analyzes a photograph of Karl Dauthendey and his wife. Dauthendey was one of the pioneers of daguerreotype photography in Germany. On viewing the photograph, Benjamin writes, the viewer feels an irrepressible urge to identify in it “the tiny spark of accident, the here and now… burned through the person in the image with reality.” Looking at the photograph is an occasion for capturing the present moment — that split second of the act of photography during which physical reality was imprinted on the negative, leaving the seal of the camera’s optical unconscious beside the bare facts. In other words, Benjamin is seeking what the photograph at once exposes and conceals, discloses and encrypts, opens and closes. Benjamin seeks out on almost unmediated intimacy with the moment, the “here and now” of the photograph. he contemplates the photograph mentioned above and describes it as follows:

Karl Dauthendey, “Self portrait with fiancée,” 1857

Karl Dauthendey supports his wife, who appears aloof, her gaze directed past him, as if mesmerized by approaching death.’

Benjamin, who is familiar with the particulars of Frau Dauthendey’s suicide, describes death hovering over the photograph in the same factual terms as he describes the presence of the man and woman. Both descriptions are posited as stemming from what is seen in the photograph. However, in a note to the recent French translation of this essay, translator André Gunther notes Benjamin’s mistaken identification of the woman in the photograph beside Dauthendey: she is not his first wife, who committed suicide, but his second wife. The traces of death hovering above her, which Benjamin sees in the photograph as an expression of an articulation of reality and the photographic moment, are only his own projection about a death that he’d read about in the biography of Karl Dauthendey written by his son, the poet Max Dauthendey.”

— Ariella Azoulay “The [Aesthetic] Distance: Benjamin and Heidegger,” in Death’s Showcase: The Power of the Image in Contemporary Democracy

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Hansen on Benjamin & Baudelaire

“If Benjamin sees the significance of Baudelaire in his having registered the shattering of aura and having given it the weight of an irreversible historic experience (Erfahrung), he finds in Proust a contemporary whose writing seeks to artificially reproduce, as it were, in the “deadly game” that was his life the ephemeral conditions of auratic perception. As someone well versed in “the problem of the aura,” Proust intimates that the ability of objects to return the gaze hinges on a material trace: “‘People who are fond of secrets occasionally flatter themselves that objects retain something of the gaze that has rested on them’”. This mystical assumption is key to Proust’s concept of mémoire involontairea sensorily and synaesthetically triggered embodied memory that can only be retrieved through “actualization, not reflection”. In contrast with volitional remembering, or the recounting of an Erlebnisthe data of involuntary memory are “unique: they are lost to the memory that seeks to retain them”. In this regard, Benjamin writes, they share the primary aspect of aura as “the unique appearance of a distance, however near it may be,” that is, an essential inapproachability and unavailability, related to an irrecuperable absence or loss.”

— Miriam Bratu Hansen “Benjamin’s Aura,” in Critical Inquiry 34 (Winter 2008)

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Smithson on The New Monuments

Ezra Stoller, “Looking from the Seagram lobby across Park Ave.,” 1958

“Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments, the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future. Instead of being made of natural materials, such as marble, granite, or other kinds of rock, the new monuments are made of artificial materials, plastic, chrome, and electric light. They are not built for the ages, but rather against the ages. They are involved in a systematic reduction of time down to fractions of seconds, rather than in representing the long spaces of centuries. Both past and future are placed into an objective present. This kind of time has little or no space; it is stationary and without movement, it is going nowhere, it is anti-Newtonian, as well as being instant, and is against the wheels of the time-clock.”

— Robert Smithson “Entropy and The New Monuments” (1966) in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings

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Phillips on the Realities of Landscape Photography

“The intellectual control of the land, our mastery of it, appears to be coming apart at the seams. The idealization of individualism and of corporate enterprise, so vividly optimistic in nineteenth century photographs and so important to the word of Ansel Adams, has become despairing, and reveals a flawed and damaged landscape that is only occasionally brightened by an appreciation of the fragile beauty of what remains. The optimism that energised Dorothea Lange and her colleagues to rally for change has been transformed into a weary acceptance of what exists and what we have done.

Untitled (United Arab Emirates, 2011) by Jason Koxvold, from “Everything and Nothing“.

Curiously, the minimalist uninflected aesthetic of contemporary photographers bears a closer relationship to the nineteenth-century photographers’ desire to document the changing, developing landscape and unearth its geometric, intellectual order than to the impassioned approach of photographers of the 1930s. But perhaps this recently achieved “realistic” objectivity reveals the very same conflicts that informed the work of their predecessors: a resignation to the exploitation of wilderness as an inalienable right, and the attendant mythology of a frontier of individual promise.”

Sandra S. Phillips “To Subdue the Continent: Photographs of the Developing West” in Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 – To The Present

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Arnold on Space after Photography and the Railroads

Alexander Gardner, “Westward the course of empire takes its way” – Laying Track 600 Mile West of St. Louis, MO, 1867

“The expansion of the railroads across the American West during the 1860s and the related influx of would-be settlers coincided with the rise of photography as a mass medium. The development of the wet plate collodion process and the albumen print in the previous decade allowed for the production of an almost unlimited number of relatively large prints from a glass negative that could reproduce subject matter in extremely fine detail and generated new forms through which photographs could be circulated. The ability to accurately render images of remote places and disseminate them to a broader public directly corresponded to the potential to access distant regions of the country held out by the construction of an intercontinental railway, which eventually reduced the time required for a coast to coast journey from eight months to a week. Thus advances in photographic technology and the westward expansion of the railways both carried the promise of a new technological era that could bring “distant vistas into view and [connect] time and space in unprecedented ways.””

— Grant Arnold “The Future’s Remains: The Photographs of Mark Ruwedel,” in Mark Ruwedel Mark Ruwedel: Scotiabank Photography Award (2015)

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Adams on Space and Freedom

“Although presumably the photographers who took the early landscapes did not intend such an analysis of our country, since they witnessed no more than the opening events, their pictures do lead us now to reflect on a tragic progression. They remind us of the opportunity the openness provided for the confusion of space and freedom, an understandable but arrogant mistake for which we all now suffer.

Timothy O’Sullivan, Browns Park, Colorado (1872)

Space as we see it in the early pictures was not just a matter of long views, but also of distance from people. Many of the scenes are completely unpopulated, lacking any signs of man at all. Where there are figures they seem mostly to have been drafted from the photographer’s party. And when there are buildings or railroads they often appear to have gotten the photographer’s attention precisely because their presence was unusual.

In front of such landscapes it is easy to sympathize with those who lives out the early acts of our national misunderstanding of space. Little wonder that Americans said so confidently and unqualifiedly that they were free. How could they be otherwise – they were alone, or so it seemed. And they had gotten there as a result of their own effort.”

Robert Adams, Introduction,  in The American Space: Meaning in Nineteenth-Century Landscape Photography (1983)

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Kracauer on Photography and History

“…the photographic media help us to overcome our abstract­ness by familiarizing us, for the first time as it were, with “this Earth which is our habitat” (Gabriel Marcel)they help us to think through things, not above them. Otherwise expressed, the photographic media make it much easier for us to incorporate the transient phenomena of the outer world, thereby redeeming them from oblivion. Something of this kind will also have to be said of history.” 

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Arnold on Ruwedel

“The difficulty in reconciling caption and photograph, together with the alien appearance of the landscape, turns speculation toward the extent to which the act of naming signalled the arrival of the frontier and the process of displacement it initiated, in which the transformation of space into an object of calculation supplanted any preceding conceptions of the land as something communal and sacred, traces of which remain in the ancient footpaths worn into the stony ground of Ruwedel’s Ice Age photographs.”

Grant Arnold “The Future’s Remains: The Photographs of Mark Ruwedel,” in Mark Ruwedel Mark Ruwedel: Scotiabank Photography Award (2015)

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Donato on The Museum

Jeff WallRestoration,” 1993 © Jeff Wall, courtesy of Marian Goodman gallery.

“The set of objects the Museum displays is sustained only by the fiction that they somehow constitute a coherent representational universe. The fiction is that a repeated metonymic displacement of fragment for totality, object to label, series of objects to series of labels, can still produce a representation which is somehow adequate to a nonlinguistic universe. Such a fiction is the result of an uncritical belief in the notion that ordering and classifying, that is to say, the spatial juxtaposition of fragments, can produce a representational understanding of the world. Should the fiction disappear, there is nothing left of the Museum but “bric-a-brac,” a heap of meaninglessness and valueless fragments of objects which are incapable of substituting themselves either metonymically for the original objects or metaphorically for their representations.”

— Eugenio Donato “The Museum’s Furnace: Notes toward a Contextual Reading of Boulevard and Pécuchet,” in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism (1979)

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