In Walter Benjamin’s Little History of Photography, he contrasts three kinds of photography: art or creative photography, fairground ‘huckster’ photography and industrial photography. The middle form he largely abandons to set up a tidy duality. He speculates that the return of the former in the early twentieth century may be linked to a capitalist crisis (507) and equates it with ‘philistine’ (508) conceptions of art. Benjamin suggests that the philistine reacts in abject terror when technology is posed to erode their romantic conception of genius. He then recasts the photographer in the equally romantic role of the ‘overturner’ of art-fetishism who could unleash unanticipated effects.
The first Daguerreotypes were one of a kind and treated like jewelry. However, their art status was secondary for, unlike a painting, which retains significance as a painting indifferent to its content, the photo’s power was to fill the viewer with ‘unruly desire’ for that which ‘cannot be silenced’ (510). The camera introduced two aspects: the desire for the object of the past to return as presence and the revealing of the unconscious nature of the image as a ‘secret’ (510). [Or in Freudian terms, the uncanny and the repressed, though the former is the latter twice over]. This optical unconscious is material not atmospheric (soulful); a place of ‘waking dreams’ replete with random ‘physiognomies’ (512) cropping up out of the inanimate. Before the ‘godforsaken’ age of his time, the earlier images of photographic history were innocent, people were indifferent to ‘posterity’ (519) and possessed an ‘aura’ (515). The auratic, which he speaks of as a period of darkness (the dark age before light writing), was ‘congruent’ between the new bourgeoisie who possessed it and the technician who captured it (517). This vanished with technical shifts but was re-animated with ‘simulation’ as the photo moved from an aesthetic object to one of narcissistic sociality (520). He praises Atget for ‘cleansing’ photography to ’emancipate’ its object from this aura (518). This object without aura is readily reproducible and able to circulate; it’s ’empty’, he insists, allowing it to be contemplated in detail (519): even empty spaces are given faces. This strategy of technical control becomes paramount as the photo manages not only to bring everything close, but to shrink it.
Finally, Benjamin returns to a contrast between the creative and the constructive. The former detaches itself from the social milieu, the latter insists on its instructive programming of the viewer. Since the photo has a ‘shock effect’ that can ‘paralyze’ association, for the constructivist it becomes necessary to make the photo literary and, therefore, redundant; to transform it into a machine of inscription to mark the guilty (527), a description of photography which is eerily close to the operation of the harrow machine in Kafka’s In The Penal Colony.
Written in a style more baroque than Brechtian, Benjamin’s frequently Biblical language, logical reliance on prefiguration, proliferation of unnecessary novelistic details, psychological projections (ie. ‘his immensely sad eyes, which dominate the landscape predestined for them’) are all part of a juxtaposition of argumentative strategies which montage a set of desperate affective convulsions that are only kept in line by the determination of his paranoia, one which likely arises from the fact that the call to constructivism which he advances sounds eerily like the ‘hucksterism’ he represses from his history.