Thursday, January 28, 2010

Photographs & aura

A while back on Twitter, I "microblogged" an observation/realization that I don't particularly enjoy photography exhibits in museums because photographs have no aura. This was met with shock and disapproval, as though I'd said photography's got no mojo, or power, or that, by god, it's not even art, which is not what I meant at all.

I like photography as much as any artform, certainly more than some. I was using "aura" in the "Benjaminian" sense: aura is the quality an original has that reproductions don't. Uniqueness as an object, a thing located in time and space. Aura isn't a necessary condition of art (poetry doesn't have any, unless you fetishize handwritten drafts), but it's the reason why you have a different experience when you see a Kandinsky painting in a book and then see the "real" one in a museum. With photos, there is no "real" one. Or the distinction is academic.

Really fabulous photographs are going to make for a worthwhile experience no matter what, but let's say it's just a pretty good photo vs. a pretty good sculpture or painting. 99 times out of 100, I'll appreciate the sculpture or painting more in a museum setting, and the photograph more if I see it in a book (or even online, gasp). If a photo is meant to be real huge, then yeah, probably seeing it in person is better, but that's usually not the case, and usually the effect is the same whether it's hung on a wall or not. In fact museums often wreck the effect for me (just shake your rump) by hanging them under glass and creating a bunch of glare from the lighting. For me this makes the experience less intimate, almost sterile. (Plus you're in a public place and there's this prescribed way you're supposed to look at it, ugh. Maybe I just don't like museums, as places to be.) But with the sculpture or painting, a picture in a book is not at all the same effect. I have similar feelings about film; I don't need to see a film in a museum, if it's not interesting in another setting then it's not an interesting film.

Obviously there are many cases where a museum is the only setting where you could see a film or a photograph; that's the distribution channel, it's how the artist's work gets an audience. I'm just saying, given the option, my personal preference ... (also leaving out of this discussion conceptual art that is perfectly reproducible but not easily distributed) ...

So my question is, is this really that wackadoodle? Am I being a dick?


  1. recently i've been looking closely at photos printed in books, and if you squint hard enough you can always see the little "pixels" or whatever they're called—i'm sure printers have a term—these little dots, sometimes sort of honeycomb-shaped, that make up the picture on the page. whereas the real photo wouldn't have those dots, i assume....

    i basically agree though. it's just that if i'm looking at it in a book, it better be one with pages so huge you have to use two arms and a knee just to hold it open.

    i love museums in general though...i want to live in one, and work in another. i heart sterility! (not for movies though—if the soles of your shoes aren't sticky when you leave, it's not a movie theater.)

  2. Wrechx n Effect!!! (Spelling confirmed by Wikipedia.)

    Oh, and word on the museum-glare, which also happens with paintings that are aura-riffic. I mean, isn't there exactly one thing that a museum is supposed to do, above all others? And they can't get that right?

  3. I want to love museums, but my rate of having a great experience in a museum or gallery is like 5%. Those experiences were transcendent, admittedly. I think it's mostly all the social pressure to behave a certain way, standards which are way more lax in movie theaters.

    C: True, but when paintings aren't under glass, it's not as bad, at least.

  4. For me, the aura of a photo isn't so much in the photo itself, but in the moment depicted in the photo. Those people are standing there in a relatively ordinary human moment, only the moment is from 1863--and they're still standing there. Photos often grab me that way-they were taken in an instant that was immediately over, but at the same time, the instant is never over. On some level the moment in the photo becomes more real than me, who am always disappearing from whatever moment I may be in, except when I'm in a photo.

    At its most powerful, the effect is quite compelling and creepy.

  5. In the essay in question, Benjamin writes that photography favors "exhibition value" over "cult value," and that portraits became popular precisely because they seemed to retain some of the cult value of paintings. I'm not a theory geek, but that essay has stuck with me for years.

    I should have said, probably, that if there's only one surviving photo and it can't be reproduced ... then of course it has aura in the Benjamin sense.

  6. That essay made a big impression on me, too. And I agree completely. Of course, photos can be turned into art objects. There was an exhibit I saw at MoMA years ago, of this photographer whose name I forgot, who created these huge prints of supermarket aisles and such, and the effect was breathtaking. Another guy (maybe he was a painter) turned black and white photos into these blurred, ghostly images... But yeah, the effect, the manipulation, not the photographness, was the art.

  7. I haven't read Benjamin's essay, so can only comment on your (very brief) reference to it here. There might be something in what Benjamin says, but just based on the discussion right here I'm not persuaded. Certainly my experience of looking at photographs has been different from what you've described here.

    I've seen three photo exhibits that left major impressions on me: Bill Brandt (saw it I think in fall 1971); Ansel Adams and Berenice Abbott (the two of them together in an exhibit), sometime in the late 1980's, I think it was; and (ca 1989) Lee Miller. All three exhibits were made up entirely of black-and-white photos.

    In each of the exhibits the photos were matted (not framed and not under glass or imitation glass). In each case the gallery was fairly sparsely peopled when I went there. I went to the Bill Brandt exhibit with members of a poetry writing class I was in during my last year of high school. I went to the Adams/Abbott exhibit with one friend. I went to the Lee Miller exhibit twice, the first time alone and the second time with one friend (as it happens, the same friend I went with to the Adams/Abbott exhibit).

    The Bill Brandt exhibit was at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, at the time a 1960's modernish building with stark white walls inside; Brandt's photos were arranged well, though at moments were slightly overwhelmed by the bare white surroundings, I thought.

    The other two exhibits were at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a massive stone building with much marble and touches of brass inside; a more recent added section is lighter, steel and windows. The exhibits there were nicely presented, with ample room, and well-modulated lighting.

    I mention these details to give a sense of the ambience of each exhibit. In particular with the photos by Adams and Abbott, I had a conscious awareness that I was looking at original works, even though I knew that they were photo prints; the prints had been made by the photographers themselves.

    In my experience, a printed reproduction of a photo in a book (even a high-quality reproduction, such as in the collections of Ansel Adams's photos) does not match the singular force -- does not present the aura, if you will -- of an original print.

    Probably figuring into my perspective on this is the fact that I have (years back) made half-tone negatives, which are used for turning photos, paintings, etc., into printed images made up of those tiny dots, and I have in fact printed them, a little, on a printing press. I also can see the little dots in a printed reproduction in a book or magazine (though in something very high-quality, like the Adams reproductions, they're not easy to see).

    BTW, last I knew, the dots in a printed image aren't call pixels, they're just called dots. "Pixels", as far as I know, refers specifically to the dots in an electronic image, like a TV screen or a computer screen.

  8. ah good, i'm glad the dots are just called dots.

    but speaking of pixels—pixels are why viewing a photograph on a computer screen is always worse than seeing a real print, even if it's a digital photo—because no matter how spectacular the resolution of the photo is, when displayed on a screen it will always be limited by the screen's resolution, which is inherently worse than any photo's.

  9. I get where you're coming from, but... you're mostly writing about art photography, right? For me, many found photographs do have an aura, especially perhaps old family photographs or portraits. You can know with reasonable certainty that this picture you're holding has not been reproduced, has no currency in the larger world (nor was meant to), and, if it's old enough, no longer functions even as a memento for the people/person it depicts. So you have both loss and discovery (your own), which is enough, for me, to generate an aura. This is why Sebald -he says so somewhere in an interview, specifically using the word "aura"- used mostly found photographs in his books.

    Hate the glare, too!

    Great blog.

  10. Hi, Not Lon,

    I ended up adding this amendment in a comment above: "I should have said, probably, that if there's only one surviving photo and it can't be reproduced ... then of course it has aura in the Benjamin sense." So yes, I think you're right that found photographs can have aura. Same with found notes and things, right? Hence, Found Magazine!