I recently read, and subsequently discussed in class, the essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility" by Walter Benjamin (that's a soft "j," by the way, much like in jogging). How I feel about the thesis is irrelevant, and honestly pretty boring because I didn't really do the assignment. I just skimmed. But I still was able to participate in class, partly because there are certain things in this world (and more particularly my world) that I care deeply and fervently about.

One of those things is photography.

In fact, I care about photography to the point where it's 3:08AM and counting (GMT) and I'm still trying to grapple with a point in this essay that was defended by a classmate the other day.

To boil it down to its absolute basest and most basic argument, Benjamin (remember to read that as Benyameen) suggests that photography and film aren't really art because of their accessibility. Not only that, but the inherent ease of their reproducibility also deducts from their artistic value because they lose (or perhaps even fail to achieve) their "aura."

This was thusly defended by my classmate, who asserted that "everyone has a camera and anyone can take a picture, how is that art?"

Deep breath.

Art should not be defined by its accessibility, reproducibility, or "aura" (don't even get me started on that bullshit). And at any rate, I could argue that photography is the least accesible art. What was said, is true, many of us own cameras and take pictures daily. We post to facebook, flickr, and send them to friends with cameraphones. Fair enough, photography is accessible.

When did you get your first camera? When did you get your first pencil? When you think back on your childhood, are you fiddling with apertures on an old Voigtlander, or are you scribbling out your parents in front of a house with crayolas and watercolors? How much does it cost to buy a camera? How much does it cost to hum a tune? Even a disposable film camera--which we'll say for the sake of argument is the cheapest photographic equipment that everyone has access to--costs roughly $8. A pencil costs 10¢. Your voice came free with your body (apologies to the mute).

I'm willing to wager that the average person doodles more than they take pictures on any given day. How can these elitist art snobs say photography is not an art because anyone can do it? On that logic we might as well blow up the goddamned MoMA or the Tate Modern right now, Fight Club style since its just filled with a bunch of crap any fourth-grader could do during recess.

I can understand the ignorance of my fellow classmate (at least on the accessibility issue), because as an upper-middle-class-SU-student--and even moreso an SU student with the funds to live in London for 4 months--its easy to take things for granted.

I'm more confused by Benjamin's philosophy.

Benjamin wrote this essay in the 1930s, when, for all intents and puposes, photography was still in its infancy. At this time, film photography was really just hitting its stride, and being a photographer still meant you had to have a good knowledge of chemistry--a far cry from what I would call accessible.

But whatever, I won't argue that point anymore because Benjamin is dead and won't put up too much of a fight with what I have to say.

Reproducibility is next. I can understand this, to some extent, but only when I look at it from Benjamin's mindset. I can understand that for some people to "get" the Mona Lisa, you need to see it in its small, heavily guarded, poorly lit, crowded and claustrophobia inducing location at the Louvre, in person. I'll agree that you won't be floored by looking at pictures of Damien Hirst's Virgin Mother. I will concede, that there are certain paintings you just need to be in the presence of to feel. I have firsthand experience with this, I was floored when I saw Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus in the National Gallery.

But how much of this is simply the history attached to the piece? Look up any piece of modern art online and Google will find you multiple copies strewn across the internet. Download one and make it your wallpaper. Print it out on a laserjet and hang it up. Save up the money to travel and see it and you won't feel a damn thing different than when you saw it you monitor.

Once again, I'll make a concession here, that works of an incredible scale, or any installation or 3+ dimensional piece does need to be experienced.

Thousands, if not millions read the New York Times everyday, in print, and online. Is the aesthetic value of the front page photo lost because of its reproduction? Does the photo mean less because it reached more people? Did the photographer "get" more out of it because he saw it first on his LCD, or the DoP because he saw it on the lightbox or monitor before everyone else?


When I think about photography, its not the printed page, or the pixels that move me. Its the content. The moment. The intrinisic value of that scene that the photographer needed to capture.

This, quite serendipitously, dovetails nicely in with the final point: Aura.

I would argue that we've gotten to the point where the medium is not the message (take that, Marshall McLuhan!). According to Benjamin, an original has an aura to it, that can't be replicated.


Not the aura, that is, I think that many pieces of art have an aura to them, but as I pointed out above, how much of this is tied to the historical value, and not the artistic?

Back to Caravaggio. When I first saw Emmaus (one of my favorite paintings by the way), it was in a stuffy lecture hall my first year at SU, without my glasses on, projected on a screen with rips as I ate a garlic and salt bagel and drank choclate milk. I fell asleep 30 minutes later when the class moved on to something besides chiaroscuro.

Why do I remember all of this? Because that artwork speaks to me. The way Jesus is portrayed, with a heavy, cupid-like face, the subtleties in the other men's faces revealing a complex palette of emotions, the play of the shadows in the frame, and a thouasnd other things all screamed at me at once to stop eyeing the girl three rows in front of me, put down the bagel, and listen to my geriatric professor. Sure, the feelings hit me again when I saw the original, but I didn't need to see it feel it. Arguably the first viewing hit me more because it was reproduced in a much larger scale.

What I'm trying to get at is the point I made above: a work's true intention, its emotion, isn't contained in the canvas, the pixels, or whatever transitory media it was created on. That aura (if the artist did their job right) is inherent to the art. It follows it, it follows the viewer, and it doesn't matter if I'm talking about Picasso's Guernica or Carol Guzy's pulitzer winning photo of Kosovo refugees, that aura either hits you, or it doesn't.

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