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  • Writer's pictureJohn A Lewis

A short history of photography

Benjamin explores the difference between painted portraits and the photograph in the first section of this essay. His comments relate to the notion of what a photograph adds to a historical record that a painting somehow does not. He says: Where a painting belonged to the family, one might from time to time enquire after the originals of the portraits. But within two or three generations the interest dies: the pictures, to the extent that they survive, do so only as testimony to the art of the person who painted them.

The interesting observation that Benjamin made now relates to photography by contrast. "In photography however one encounters a new and strange phenomenon: in that fishwife from Newhaven, who casts her eyes down with such casual, seductive shame, there remains something that does not merely testify to the art of Hill the photographer, but something that cannot be silenced, that impudently demands the name of the person who lived at the time and who, remaining real even now, will never yield herself up entirely into art". So according to Benjamin while painted portraits - considered art from the beginning, stay as art but their presence of the subject is lost over time. A further observation concerns the length of the exposure.

The images were taken in the Greyfriars cemetery of Edinburgh which required long exposures in the open.

Fishwife from Newhaven: Hill

The impact of the long exposure time on the expression of the subject is commented on and is the main reason why these pictures apart from their simplicity, resemble well drawn or painted portraits and have a more penetrating and lasting effect on the spectator than more recent photography. The procedure itself taught the models to live inside rather than outside the moment. During the long duration of these shots they grew as it were into the picture and in this way presented an extreme opposite to the figures on a snapshot.

This approach is now lost in the modern era of fast shutter speeds taken with DSLR's without even thinking about the impact on the sitter and the eventual viewer.

Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940) was a German philosopher, theoretician of culture, literary critic, writer and translator. His early works are devoted to German romanticism and German baroque drama. He became famous through the reception of his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ and his manuscript ‘On the Concept of History’, which was published posthumously.

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