Saturday, November 17, 2012

Creative Process Journal and The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Photo of Walter Benjamin in 1939 by Gisela Freund
"Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be," wrote Walter Benjamin in 1936 in an essay called "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". This essay is one of many philosophical essays written by Benjamin before his death by suicide in 1940.

The idea of the aura of the original is something that makes an artwork unique and adds value. There is a mystical quality associated with an original work of art, which can be understood by considering the  difference between seeing an artwork in person as compared to viewing it in a book or on the web.

Benjamin traces the history of the mechanical reproduction of art with founding and stamping by the Greeks, engraving and etching in the Middle Ages, and lithography in the 19th century. It was the ease with which reproduction could happen using  photography and film in the 20th century which underpinned Benjamin's analysis of how these media would shift the concept of authenticity.

Relative to photography, Benjamin identified that "process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will. And photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision".

Applying this idea to my project with artifacts and garments from the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection, the use of a macro lens allows me to capture minute detail of hand-stitching, beading, embroidery, and lace on historic garments that are otherwise "lost" or "invisible" to the naked eye because of the wide angle of unrestricted vision.  As well, my use of post-photography digital manipulations creates copies using the original "into situations which would be out of reach for the original self". In effect, the photographic process allows me to create an "original" artwork that does not actually exist in real life.

Carte des visite Ryerson Fashion Research Collection
Benjamin also makes a poignant reference to the "cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead" within photography. In the carte des visites that I've discovered within the Collection, I gaze into the faces of those long dead, which Benjamin describes as the aura emanating "in the fleeting expression of a human face". I share his conclusion that this "is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty".

Towards the end of the essay, Benjamin compares the painter and "camaraman". He suggests that the painter keeps a "natural distance from reality" to create a total picture, while the cameraman "penetrates deeply into its web", identifying "multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law". I cannot think of a better description for what I am attempting to do with this project.

For further reading:

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936).
Web link:

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