Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Walter Benjamin’s ‘Little History of Photography’

photo of young Franz Kafka in exhibition (photo by Dorothea Shefer-Vanson)

The exhibition now being shown at the Israel Museum brings together works by the photographers mentioned in Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay about photography which was published in three parts in a German literary journal in 1931. The exhibition echoes the title given by Benjamin to his study of photography, which was still in its early stages, constituting a synthesis between art and technology that inspired a new approach to the world of ideas.

The curator of the exhibition, Gilad Reich, notes that the Israel Museum has in its collections images produced by all the photographers mentioned in Benjamin’s study, this being a rare and singular feature not shared by many museums in the world. Benjamin was one of the first art and culture critics to view photography as a way of relating to the world through images captured by means of a technology that was relatively new, imparting to the image a meaning that was new and possibly even revolutionary. Benjamin coined the concept of ‘aura’ as defining the image and its effect on the viewer.

As we move through the exhibition and view the images on display we find ourselves moving through the history of the photographic medium. It developed initially when Louis Daguerre invented a complex process for reproducing images in 1839, while later technological advances enabled images to be more easily reproduced. Thus, in Victorian England the concept of the ‘photographic visiting card’ bearing a picture of the individual was adopted by Queen Victoria and became widely popular. Photographic studios became the focus of the desire to commemorate the individual or family as an image that was more readily available to a wide segment of the population.

Benjamin, however, was critical of such commercial photographic studios, noting with derision their paraphernalia and ‘props’ intended to enhance the impact of the image or portrait. In the exhibition an enlarged photo of young Franz Kafka illustrates this concept, with the serious young boy holding a stick and a large black hat, surrounded by heavy, dark furniture emphasizing the gravity of the situation.

The technology of photography was still clumsy and demanding when Benjamin was writing about it, with the need for metal plates, chemical processes for developing the image in a dark room, and cumbersome camera equipment. With the passage of time, the emergence of the box camera, special photographic paper, and – more recently – the mobile phone have helped to make the process of photography easy and accessible to all.

Thus, while Benjamin’s concept of ‘aura’ may have lost something of its significance, in its place has come immediacy and the ability to capture the fleeting, ephemeral image which might have interested and intrigued him just as much, had he not died tragically in 1940 while seeking to escape the Nazis on the border between France and Spain.

About the Author
I was born and brought up in England. I am a graduate of the LSE and the Hebrew University. I have lived in Israel since 1964. I am an experienced translator, editor and writer.