PRINT May 1983


SINCE THE LATE 18TH CENTURY the function of art as a form of value, and how that value was to be defined, has been anything but clear. The subsequent development of art for exclusive exhibition purposes coincides with efforts, in the absence of specific cultural and spiritual obligations, to assign it various other functions. Art was seen as either serving itself as Art, with esthetic experience deemed a type of transcendence, or, in one form or another, serving the state, the people, or the masse. The result has been constant conflict between contending movements, perplexing even the greatest Modern artists. Liberty clearly guides the people in Delacroix’s masterpiece, but Rubens—and Art itself—were clearly Delacroix’s guides as well.

Romanticism was “romantic” because it was ambivalent about the private and public roles of art, the cult of Genius notwithstanding. Emerging from the French Revolution, Romanticism got no clear message from the “real” world as to the limits of public and private authority or the dividing line between rights and obligations. “It is true,” wrote Baudelaire in 1846, “that the great tradition has got lost, and that the new one is not yet established.”1 He challenged art to represent “the heroism of modern life.” Things are not much clearer today; some art claims to go down into the streets but, as always, much of it still seeks out the highest bidder.

When photography was announced to the world in 1839 it confirmed the insecurity of art, mainly because it compounded art’s ambivalence. Was photography a science or an art? It was not incidental that a scientist, François Arago, announced the invention of an artist, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, to the world. That photography as depiction raised questions about the nature of artistic representation was true for as long as the issues were obscured by the destabilization of the representational tradition by the avant-garde. This situation was further aggravated by a near total misunderstanding of that tradition by both photographers and an entrenched Academy. But ultimately an analogous destabilization of the photographic tradition occurred; and its own esthetic was fragmented. It was the infusion of social and political ideology that again made photography a central issue in critical discourse. If Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,”2 first published in 1936, has achieved considerable currency in recent years it is because the discomfort with art as a purely self-involved activity has arisen again, and photography and the photographic have been advanced as one of the possible antidotes. Benjamin was among the first to criticize Modernism in sociopolitical terms that linked photography to artistic reform, providing meanwhile a theory of mechanical reproduction that justified for many the repudiation of esthetic self-consciousness. Benjamin’s essay is, however, a very problematical one, and symptomatically so. It leaves out too much, on the one hand, and claims too much, on the other. The appropriation of the “masses” by theorists always seems to operate by first ignoring their preferences and then, faced with evidence of those preferences, ignoring the evidence. One of Benjamin’s oversights was major; he failed to deal adequately with photomechanical processes, a type of reproduction the masses—everyone—sees every day. This not only impairs the usefulness of his provocative essay but also impairs the cogency of any argument based on it.

Benjamin saw photography as the “first truly revolutionary means of reproduction.” But he was wrong. Though obviously aware of them, Benjamin in his preoccupation with photography and film, does not distinguish among the photomechanical processes, which were truly reproductive processes—photolithography, woodburytype, heliotype, albertype, photogravure, and the most important of them all, the photoengraved halftone process, which was and still is the basis of modern pictorial journalism. Their development parallels that of photography and of the avant-garde from about 1840 to roughly the end of the century. For Benjamin, “mechanical reproduction” is really an umbrella term for processes that have some technical similarities, such as the woodcut, the photograph, and the photomechanical print. Actually they result in completely different objects—a fact which changes their character and function and the way they are consumed. Therefore the processes have different cultural meanings.

Photomechanical processes, in particular, have a history as complex as that of photography; a case can be made that without them photography might have ended up as just another art medium. That photomechanical reproduction should flow from photography was inevitable, since both are based on the principle of photosensitivity. Indeed, the problem was recognized at the outset that photography was not mechanical enough. A more transparently photomechanical technology was required to convey the message of photography to the world. This came to pass and photography was virtually transformed by new functions, but this has not been critically acknowledged.

The history of the development of photomechanical processes is so technical, the processes themselves so numerous (I’ve named only a few; the variants were numerous) that it is impossible to summarize them without extensive digression from my critical narrative. Suffice it to say that they are themselves photographic: an image was printed from a negative onto any one of several kinds of sensitized surfaces, sometimes through a ruled screen, sometimes on bichromated gelatin, etched or washed or pressed into metal and then rolled up with ink from which a printed impression was made. A major advantage of prints of this sort was that they would not fade—the impetus behind early photomechanical technology was the tendency of paper photographic prints to fade. With the daguerreotype, a process that provides only a unique copy, there was simply a desire for replication. Early methods to reproduce daguerreotypes through etching were not strictly photomechanical and ultimately were not practical. Another factor in the development of photomechanical reproduction was economic—the desire to reproduce photographs as cheaply as possible. Only when photographs were available in large numbers were the masses involved in a way that was to be revolutionary, though within the norms of society whose dialectical tension derives from industrialization as a metaphor of both equality and exploitation.

The first practical application of photomechanical technology was in book illustration. Before the mass media were transformed by the photomechanical technologies, the illustrated book, starting with original photographs that were “tipped in,” commenced a “revolution” that has been generally ignored because either antiquarians dominate the field or photographers are terrified of being called illustrators. Yet it was for the purposes of book illustration that the bulk of the photomechanical processes were first invented. Although brief identifying captions had been used in earlier photography, process reproduction allowed photography to be linked to a substantial text for the purpose of mutual illumination. The consanguinity of image and printed text is the most revolutionizing aspect of mechanical reproduction. It is not merely that a semiotic fusion occurs but that it ratifies what became cognitively different about the world after photography. It thus introduced “illustration” as fundamental to the ontology of the photographic/photomechanical image. This is hardly illustration in the Berensonian sense as weighted formally by its inclusion in a decorative scene. This is not to say that photography is or is not art, but that it can be used as art or preferred to art. In either case it clarifies rather than diminishes esthetic experience—and aura—by proposing an utterly different ontological model of reality from that of “art.”

Despite a very limited, and recent, exposure to Hegel, I would hazard the thought that photography expresses Hegel’s notions of immediacy and mediation in sense experience as a solution to problems of perception—in fact new tasks for perception, as Benjamin, who obviously read Hegel, correctly surmised—that are distinguished by a particular relation to cognition. Meanwhile plastic visual art, which became absorbed in its own “light impression” of nature at about the same time that photography did, yielded increasingly to its medium, introducing an automatic—and prolific—element into art making. This “speeding up” paralleled mechanical reproduction, but the effect was to emphasize the differences as much as the similarities between “automatic” and “mechanical” modes and to deepen whatever ambiguities they might share. The parallels between photography and visual art are perplexing, mysterious, and unsettled, but I am no longer as sure as I once was that they are part of a single dialectic and a single history.3 Even such otherwise persuasive theories as those of Peter Galassi4 and Max Kozloff,5 which locate either the origin or the intimation of photography in paintings done well before the invention of photography, are limited by their concentration on similarities and differences of representation. Kozloff ignores and Galassi rejects the discredited notion that photography compelled painting to become “abstract,” but neither attempts to explain the relationship after painting “became” abstract or their relationship now that figurative art (of a kind) has appeared again—or why painting became abstract in the first place.

Any sustained exposure to the most striking results possible with mechanical reproduction simply leaves Benjamin’s theories in shreds. The first to go is the theory of the diminished aura of the work of art. Benjamin believed art once possessed a special quality which he called aura and by which he seemed to mean the compelling quality of remoteness of anything great and beautiful. This aura, he held, was eliminated from the work of art, which was subsequently devalued, as a result of a “plurality of copies” reproduced by mechanical means. The elimination of the aura in turn detached the original from its tradition because its unique existence was totally compromised by replicas that removed it from its location in space and time. It has often been noted that Benjamin did not perceive the elimination of aura as a loss. He saw it and the devaluation of tradition as“intimately connected with mass movements” whose “most powerful agent is film.” Film brought art closer to the masses—something, Benjamin argued, that had become necessary with the emergence of a mass audience for art in the 19th century. This he felt was a great crisis for art, and one it had failed to resolve. He perceived Modernism as similarly attempting to devalue tradition and the preciousness of the art object, i.e., the easel picture, but when photography “transformed the entire nature of art,” these efforts were doomed to failure. For some “post-Modernist” critics, any pictorial art that does not incorporate the impersonality of mechanical reproduction is simply regressive, reviving lapsed forms of art and the bourgeois values associated with them. It is a telling irony of an argument that I think otherwise has merit that it is a version of the way Caravaggio probably felt about the Caracci, long before Marx’s time.

Yet far from eliminating the aura and devaluing original artworks, reproduction just as readily creates an appetite for them. Anyone professionally involved with art usually recognizes the difficulty of working with reproduction. Some paintings look better in reproduction, some reproductions are unfaithful but somehow convincing. Furthermore, reproduction may invoke the original through associations that in turn enrich the reproduction. When I saw Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan for the first time 12 years ago after more than forty years of exposure to all sorts of reproductions of it, I was simply overcome by a majesty of conception and sheer physical beauty which comes back to me whenever I employ one of several excellent slides in teaching. If anything, a reproduction creates a longing for aura. The shock of encountering a work that one has known entirely through reproduction can be the shock of recovering the work.

Douglas Crimp’s assertion that excessive exposure to reproduction has destroyed the Mona Lisa for contemplative purposes is simply dead wrong.6 It is usually difficult to contemplate because there always seems to be a crowd around it, evidence that reproduction has added to its aura, not detracted from it. Leaving aside the possibility that the notion of aura itself may be questionable, the fact is that reproduction does not eliminate the aura. It simply cannot reproduce it, for the aura is not material. It is an intangible quality imbedded in a literal surface of which a reproduction is always unrepresentative. Reproduction does not detach an original from its tradition, as Benjamin claimed, but from its surface. Photographs read differently from paintings because the photographic surface does not “signify” the way paint does. In painting it is a “sign” whose latency is made manifest by “art.”

Indeed, Roland Barthes may have had a point when he observed, in Camera Lucida (1980), that a photograph is closer to theater than to painting, for the photographic frame is more like a proscenium than the boundary of a picture plane. André Bazin really “placed” the importance of a surface in visual art when he observed, “Perspective was the original sin of Western painting.”7 Before photography could affect the aura, illusionism in plastic art had depreciated the sign. In the effort to recover the conviction of the sign Modernism was born.

In a way all photographs are surreal because they are not present to perception the way a painting, possessing factural reality, is. That is, they lack a present, the present of the beholder. The photographic image is in a state of constant retreat from the present in which it is seen. This makes it odd, even disturbing because its permanent temporality is not “universalized” by a generalizing plane. In process reproduction, the surface—an ink impression—detaches the reproduction from the “surreality” of photographs. A photomechanical reproduction of a photograph, translating and recoding it, often develops an “aura” of its own. This is the second most radical aspect of photomechanical reproduction—that it can create a kind of beauty that derives in part from the transparency of the reproductive process itself.

But a shift in focus must be acknowledged at this point- Benjamin’s theory of aura relates largely to the mechanical reproduction of works of art. He does not make it at all clear whether he means this to include the reproduction of photographs- The aura they presumably helped to eliminate from art they preserved in the early years “in the fleeting expression of the human face” until its elimination as “cult value” was displaced by “exhibition value.” Earlier, in his “Short History of Photography” (1931), he had attributed the loss of aura in photographs to “improved optics . . . which completely conquered darkness and distinguished appearances as sharply as a mirror.”8 (But improved phototechnology enabling photographers to “capture” movement also meant that human beings were never to resemble heroic sculpture again.)

The startling changes that some photographs undergo when they are reproduced may be analogous to the effects of retouching practiced, according to Benjamin, by photographers in the period after 1880 in an attempt to simulate the eliminated aura, by then a reactionary fantasy of an “imperialist bourgeoisie.”9 Actually, the aura of photomechanical (and, for that matter, photographic) imagery is one produced by mechanical means, and the beauty of it is its impartiality and often even its lack of “taste.”

In any event most reproductions are immediately recognizable as such and one is unprepared for the “presence” that certain photographic images have acquired in their alteration by chemical and graphic means. With early processes like the woodburytype it was hard to believe that the images were not photographs, and they are still confused as such today. Photographs by Nadar and Etienne Caijat, reproduced by this process in the 1870s for the publication Galerie Contemporaine, sell today for several hundred dollars each. But a photograph printed on stone and then prepared like a lithograph (photolithography) undergoes a transformation that, even if it does not attain the aura associated with uniqueness, achieves the aura of its multiplicity, of many unique copies. This is another sticky subject, this business of originals and copies, but photomechanical prints, obviously copies of a kind, can be so distinctive as to deserve the status of a kind of original, especially when printed in limited quantities. As in photography the quality of the impression is also a factor. In most photomechanical processes, and especially in difficult ones like photolithography, the plates or stones wear down after a certain, relatively small number of impressions and have to be replaced, or the inking may vary. One might even propose a cult of the good print in photomechanical printing. I have myself acquired duplicate copies of photomechanically illustrated books because some impressions of the plates are better than others—a judgment I make, incidentally, without recourse to the “original” photograph. It is the quality of the mechanical impression itself that counts. This similarity to the artistic problems of photographic printing confirms rather than compromises the autonomy photomechanical images can acquire. But as in photography, the quality of the impression should not always be the first criterion.

The main difference is that, standards of craft aside—and the standards of the printing craft can be, and often have been, a matter of intense artisanal pride—the preparation of a photomechanical block involves none of the selectivity that goes into the making of a photograph. It is not self-conscious, there are no decisions about subject matter—only problems of a technical or mechanical nature. In the case of early photolithography, for example, and one work in particular, A.A. Turner’s The Villas on the Hudson, it was, in 1860, something of a miracle just to achieve such reproduction on stone, and indeed the process appears to have been abandoned for the reproduction of photographic images and later to have been used primarily for the reproduction of line work like maps and architectural drawings. Yet it is hard to believe that the originals of the images in The Villas . . . have not been enhanced by reproduction. It is difficult to describe these images, which may have been taken by Turner, a mysterious figure about whom little is known, but the vaguely grainy reticulation of the lithographic process transmits to these printed images of famous villas along the Hudson, all of which have vanished with the exception of Washington Irving’s Sunnyside, a degree of materiality that heightens their monumental effect. In addition the reproductions, large oblong images, are tinted in terra-cotta and green printed over the tonal images beneath, and evoke early Warhol but without the “camp.”

Seventy years later results similar to those achieved in The Villas . . . were achieved in a truly mass-produced item, Cora M. Martin’s children’s book, At the Farm (1930), which is illustrated with “staged” photographs of children, adults, and farm animals, all reproduced in halftone combined with some sort of color overlay. Again the images have been transformed into magical icons, slightly kitschy perhaps, but their inadvertent beauty is enhanced rather than diminished by the fact that they are mechanical reproductions.

In other words, through strictly photomechanical means, a kind of image-intensification can occur in specific instances that demand to be recognized without reference to any presumed original. The problem of intentionality remains to be dealt with, granted; the problem is partly compounded by the fact that the reproduction is usually part of an ensemble of image, type, and layout. This introduces the “decorative” element, another issue outside of this discussion, but the obvious can be stated. Many good photographs are ruined by bad production and reproduction; many poor photographs are “saved” by judicious design. The Villas . . . is more of an album than a book, just as many other photographic books are. In such cases the quality of the images is all-important. Although the historical importance of The Villas has assured its survival, the images cannot be separated from the particular process that has immortalized them. But in Martin’s book, the unornamented, functional layout and the simplified color separation transform fairly banal images into uncommonly appealing illustrations—literally improved photographs.

It is meanwhile somehow vastly reassuring to contemplate such ephemeral images because as reproductions they are metaphors of a kind of permanence as well. In mechanical reproduction, replication is theoretically infinite, and their “beauty” can thus be constantly renewed. Like the negative-positive process of photography, the photomechanical processes imply the undisclosed sublimity of infinite number. We perceive media imagery and reproductions as banal because of their ubiquity, but that ubiquity is the meaning of reproduction. Technology, like nature, goes on more or less literally forever. We apprehend here what William Henry Fox Talbot, a scientific polymath with a visionary streak who not only invented the negative-positive process but also anticipated the halftone and invented the first photogravure process (called “photoglyphic engraving”), perceived—that photography is virtually Natural Law made visible.

Photomechanical processes have been used self-consciously without eliminating the special aura of the process as something like a natural act. P.H. Emerson, Alfred Stieglitz, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Paul Strand, among others, all employed fine photogravures to illustrate their books and periodicals. Their desire was for reproductions that looked as much like photographs as possible. Stieglitz printed an overrun of the issue of 291 that carried his famous image, The Steerage, 1907, which he may have intended for the mass market, one dealer offering a print in his catalogue for $10 in the mid-1920s. Discussing his book London (1909), in his autobiography, Coburn claimed “that in my hands photogravure produced results which can be considered as ‘original prints’ and which I would not hesitate to sign. . . .” Ironically, the expectation here is for the process to work virtually against itself and actually implies a mistrust of mechanical reproduction that can be traced back to a fine art rather than a photographic esthetic. P.H. Emerson insisted, not surprisingly, that “the artist who works in photography must not rest until he has mastered photo-etching: then he is completely equipped, and ranks with the etcher.. . .”10 In retrospect, it is understandable that Emerson, who advocated photography as a plastic art in his very influential book Naturalistic Photography (1889), which devotes an entire chapter to photomechanical processes, would subsequently change his mind and, in the third and revised edition of 1898, print an equally famous retraction- Emerson was right for the wrong reasons in the first instance, wrong for the right reasons in the second. His esthetic was received in the one case, his phenomenology deficient in the other. Talbot, a fastidious man, was neither as presumptuous nor as impulsive, and because of his diffidence the world heard first of Daguerre.

Yet even artistic photogravures could not subvert the liberating impersonality of mechanical reproduction, though they could be too literally seductive, too detached from the text. Moreover, they were costly and time-consuming to execute and, printed in limited editions, their value has risen astronomically. That they are photomechanical reproductions—as are the famous woodburytypes ofJohn Thomson’s Street Life in London (1877) (the originals of which have not yet been found) and as are the examples I mentioned earlier—seems to be irrelevant as far as the market for rare, “fine art” photographs is concerned. The eminence of the photographers and the quality and rarity of the reproductions, however, has contributed to the neglect of more common kinds of reproduction, especially halftone and three-and four-color processes—unless, again, the work of an important photographer is involved. Herbert W. Gleason’s Through the Year with Thoreau (1917), one of the most beautiful halftone illustrated books in America, is a typical example.

This is, however, a late, sophisticated example of a type of illustration in the United States which probably began with the primitive illustrations in Adele M. Fielde’s Pagoda Shadows (1884). This book is generally believed to be the first American book (as opposed to periodical) to be illustrated with halftones, but I have discovered three others with halftones, though not as many, published in the same year. Pagoda Shadows is illustrated with photographs that were probably produced for the tourist trade, but as primitive halftones in a book that is described as endeavoring “to place the hand of woman in the East in the hand of woman in the West,” the illustrations expose the inequities of women’s life in China, and are transformed into both a form of documentary photography and early examples of “concerned” photography. The chapter on foot-binding is chilling, all the more so for the illustration at the head of the chapter of a pair of bound feet, one shod, the other bare and grotesquely misshapen.

The recognition of the high points of mechanical illustration, in other words, has generally delayed the recognition of photomechanical processes as a whole and virtually suppressed acknowledgment of their most radical phenomenon, the photomechanically illustrated book. It is not simply that photographic illustration is excluded from or slighted in traditional histories of illustration but that as a genre it consummates photography insofar as photography requires the world, rather than the fictions it replaces with the narrative of daily life and industry. Thus a book published in Boston in 1910 as a trade catalogue, About the Farm, illustrated with tinted halftones, is virtually unknown. Its subtitle reads as follows: An Illustrated Description of the New Boston Dairy and Other Industries at Valley View, Muzzey, and Hutchinson Farms, Which Are a Part of The Supply Department of Young’s Hotel, Parker House and Hotel Touraine, and in text and illustrations this is a technological hybrid of an illuminated manuscript, a tome on picturesque scenery by William Gilpin, and a provincial circus broadside. This unwitting combination of genres is a consequence of mechanical reproduction that Benjamin could not have foreseen.

The specialization of photographic reproduction through developing photomechanical technology further complicates the problems of interpreting the interaction of photography and plastic art. The idea that photography influenced or compelled a change of style in art is, to say the least, simply uninformed, and was a cliché from the start. It is perfectly true that the narrative impulse, in a necessarily transformed vision, reemerged unmistakably in photography, while mechanical reproduction clarified the illustrative capacity of photography by expanding its image repertoire. Talbot was thinking less of esthetics than of utility when he published the first photographically illustrated book, The Pencil of Nature, in 1844–46, but in the course of assembling images for the book (some of which varied slightly from copy to copy), he created what even in reproduction appears to be one of the most beautiful photographs ever made, Plate VI, The Open Door. He did have art in mind when he took it, but it was another art, “the authority of the Dutch school of art, for taking as subjects of representation scenes of daily and familiar occurrence.”11

Ultimately photomechanical technology would create an authentic image culture infused with popular values truly available to all. This by itself does not constitute a refutation of Benjamin’s theory of mechanical reproduction because processed imagery is essentially anonymous, relatively apolitical and extremely diffused. Its anonymity is a function of its acceptance, usually fairly passive, by an industrialized society where leisure time is not very structured except by choice. But by its very absorption into, or its infiltration of, mass culture, it demonstrates a range of functions and pleasures that expose as oversimplified and even arrogant Benjamin’s theory that mechanical reproduction would serve as a prelude to the development of a modern political cinema which would suffice as both an art for the masses and a solution to the problem of the role of high art in a mass society.

Perhaps this has actually come to pass already, that film is the representative art of our times, but we do not know it because film criticism, in the movies’ most popular phase, was not yet the intellectual industry it has since become. In recent years a critical elite has attempted to define itself by rewriting the history of the movies in order to justify “serious” cinema today. This contradiction is part of the legacy of Benjaminite thought. This process involves the subtlety of explaining or rationalizing how this came to pass within the capitalist mode of production which Benjamin and others feared would lead only to exploitation and mass deception. It also insinuates itself in the face of “the new painting” of several competing kinds, which similarly claims to have replaced what it assumes is a fully depreciated Modernist tradition with a figurative painting that claims its authority from a neo-populist mythos.

Logically Benjamin’s position implies the demise of pictorial art. “Post-Modernism” is primarily indebted to Benjamin not for a precise formula of reform but for a paradigmatic model of metaphorical ambivalence and rationalization which results from efforts to meld artistic and nonartistic modes into a “new” esthetic—if not entirely for the good of the masses, then at least partially. Demonstrating a form of simultaneous upward and downward mobility (while latching on to a part of the truth), the English periodical, ZG, editorialized in its issue No. 3, 1981, that “there is a tendency in art to adopt the images of consumer culture rather than the more restricted lineage of art history.” Subsequently, in an editorial that introduced a special issue of Artforum (February 1982), Ingrid Sischy and Germano Celant cited “the merchandizing of culture and the culturalizing of merchandise” that presumed a relationship “between the avant-garde and mass culture production.” I hasten to add that this is not a universally shared analysis of the motives and goals of the “post-Modernist” enterprise. It would not be, I should think, totally acceptable to the writers and artists associated with or singled out by October magazine, which is simply more historical, some would say more formalist, and certainly very militant in its approach to art after Modernism. It also presumes to be more faithful, albeit in a general way, to the ideals of Benjamin, especially with regard to film. Thus it espouses certain pictorial and specifically site-conscious “sculptural” art (in addition to film, performance, video, and dance) which it perceives as marking a radical “rupture” from the traditional studio and exhibition practices of Modernist art. Yet both critical schools compositely mark the reappearance of historical conditions that, as I said in my opening sentences, have surfaced periodically in art since the end of the 18th century. We have, in other words, both a desire for art and what amounts to a hostility to art which has been latent in cultural practice since that time, especially when cultural practice has been politicized.

These sweeping observations have to stand because we did not get to this point without a great deal having happened that is not represented in our present knowledge of our own being. Besides which, we have learned in a general and discursive manner that along the way ideas and instruments were developed that were both responses to and symptoms of crises of perception and cultural values. One of the more recent of these was photography, and by extension photomechanical reproduction, which functioned as sort of the infantry of the photographic invasion. Together they verified a developing view of the natural world that was as distinct from the ideal one that had begun to fade as Renaissance cosmology was different from that of the Middle Ages.

And here the troubles began. Photography, which so curiously resembled art but which was also obviously something else—but what?—simply confirmed certain academic principles (or what were held to be principles at the time) of art. At the same time, by virtue of its superiority as a means of reproduction—of reproducing, that is, nature with miraculous fidelity—it undermined the public’s, and some artists’, confidence in fine art. This effect seems almost permanent. The mass audience was seduced away from art, not as collectors or patrons, but as the symbolic constituency that underlies all receptivity to culture in general. Ironically in more despotic times art, produced for a limited patron or ruling class, maintained a symbiotic relationship with common folk because both had a common meeting ground in the church, to cite only the obvious meeting point. Thus photography introduced the masses to art on the one hand and turned them against it on the other, making the repudiation of the avant-garde inevitable. Something similar is happening today, when photography and the media are implicated in the reaction against Modernist estheticism.

This is clearly foreshadowed in an essay Benjamin wrote about five years before the one for which he is now so well known in the art world- In the context of some of the most perceptive remarks ever written on the nature of photography, Benjamin also revealed himself as something of a closet philistine when he wrote in his “Short History of Photography”: “In photography . . . one encounters something strange and new: in that fishwife from Newhaven . . . something remains that does not testify merely to the art of the photographer [David Octavius] Hill, something that is not to be silenced, something demanding the name of the person who had lived then, who even now is still real and will never entirely perish into art.” (Italics Benjamin’s.) And again: “This most exact technique can give the presentation a magical value that a painted picture can never again possess for us.”12 (Italics mine.) The conviction of the latter statement is derived from the anger at art clearly expressed in the former.

This is all the more ironic when one realizes that the first photo mechanical image in “high” art probably appeared in Picasso’s collage, Still Life With Chair Caning, 1911–12, which in addition to rope and paint includes a piece of oilcloth imprinted, possibly by photolithography, with a trompe l’oeil image of chair caning. For Clement Greenberg the utilization of such an image and material marked an effort to preserve, if not to resume, the figurative, i.e., “sculptural,” tradition but in a way suited to the more literal kind of unity proposed by Analytical Cubism. lithe appropriators of what Thomas Lawson has called “public information,” i.e., media imagery and sometimes media processes, need real conceptual and formal ratification, it is to aspects of Greenberg’s formidable essay “Collage” (1959) that they should resort, not the poetic but imprecise essay by Benjamin.

But another or supplemental interpretation of this critical collage might be made now. The appropriation by Picasso and subsequently by artists such as Kurt Schwitters and such hybridizing Dadaists as John Heartfield of photomechanical and photographic details from “real life,” the appropriation in other words of what even radicals once considered the waste products, sometimes real junk, of the capitalist system, constituted either an expression of doubt as to the viability of “pure art” or the beginning of a dialectical investigation into the possibility of a formal art that could assimilate the popular and the idiomatic. The tide of insurgencies within Modernism that followed, through Surrealism, Dadaism, and Futurism (Russian Modernism simply claimed it was a people’s art, but Lenin changed all that), and later through Pop art, Minimalism (as vernacular making), Earthworks (as the down-home sublime), and today’s “neorealists,” all reflect a perennial anxiety not merely about the value and function of art, but of being a “fine artist” in a techno-popular culture. Artists have been increasingly intimidated and yet compulsively fascinated by the popular arts, or just the popularity of the popular arts—like movies, TV, beauty pageants, pornography, automobiles, sports, and, of course, photography, especially the snapshot. (The artists of lifestyle, the counterculture subversives, took to the woods, to urban jungles, and to health foods, echoing some 18th-century prejudices which held that nature was greater than art.) Robert Smithson spent a lot of time at the movies, coupled science fiction with geology, and took his Instamatic along with him when he visited the “monuments” of Passaic to document “a kind of self-destroying postcard world of failed immortality and oppressive grandeur.”13 (Italics mine.) Later the photographer Lee Friedlander would publish a huge viewbook, The American Monument (1976), that documented their metaphorical disappearance beneath an overgrowth of telephone poles, beer cans, billboards, bird droppings, and gas stations. Smithson was proclaiming the obsolescence of all esthetic idealism, and his mourning took the form of an irony which he lost when he became the undialectical visionary of the entropic. His was one of the most dramatic efforts to create art—he wanted to create Art, and said so—that was not art, or was made with stuff that wasn’t art. Or maybe it was. No matter. It would disappear eventually anyway.

A photograph is taken as evidence of the real world and therefore of “real life.” Its reproduction in the press strengthens this conviction because nothing seems more real than news. The same topicality applies to anything else in the media, the ads that are printed, the commercials that are filmed and run on TV just after a brief account of a calamity and just before the gossip of, say, Liz Smith.

Modern films pretend almost routinely now to the journalistic candor of the photograph and some are represented as virtual documentaries. The documentary itself is an increasingly popular film form—newspapers brought to life with real motion, even when a reenactment. They strive for the same topicality as journalism, and became commercials when women start to wear what Diane Keaton wore in Annie Hall or when men start to wear what Robert Redford wore in The Great Gatsby. The revival of a magazine like Vanity Fair is a revival of cultural role models found only in reproduction. But when the commercial repertoire is looted by serious pictorial artists, a chain reaction of formal and psychological disjunctions creates a mutant iconography, some aspects of which represent a disturbance on more than just the esthetic level. These aspects are virtually morbid.

Nominally, the appeal of photography and process reproduction to contemporary painters reflects a desire for a representational art free of any traditional illustrative and narrative taint, while desiring “illustration” and “narrative” just the same. Such an art incorporates the “ontology of the mechanical,” so to speak, in order to depict without regressing stylistically and in fact without “style.” Impersonality is sought as an antidote to hollow emotionalism or vain estheticism; the works are permeated by a detachment from the content of the images, but not from the images themselves. These, removed from their original context and placed in a different one, shift the emphasis from representation to the paranoias of displacement. The result is an orgy of thematic apperception which, revealing no purposeful narrative, became metaphorical by default. In effect, an abyss opens beneath the foundation of common meaning. While the intent is to liberate “content” or “meaning” from the repressive strategies of “style,” the metaphor exposes an arbitrariness that is as involved with power as with. meaning. The work is politicized to the extent that a reaction against Style becomes a reaction against what the (ruling) class Style, i.e., High Art, presumably serves. There is no compensating irony (credit Pop art with that) and none of the pathos of real negation. The primary frustration really originates in a nostalgia for art that is evident in the desire for recognition, if not in the work itself. Thus the patronization of what might actually be just enjoyable kitsch becomes rooted in the narcissistic arrogation of the very history the fleeting icons of everyday life and culture were enlisted to reject. I am speaking as well of some “expressionistic” types of new figuration because they simulate what they cannot or dare not revive.

By contrast the arbitrariness of the results of the mechanical processes themselves comes across as a kind of freedom. A theory of reproduction in fact conspires against the freedom of mechanical reproduction and thus against the freedom of the masses, no matter how subject they might be to exploitation by a capitalistic system that created such techniques for profit, because it defines an end at the expense of the means. Benjamin expected to achieve an esthetic and social utopia with the aid of mechanical reproduction, not the media’s fabulae of a distorted, often vulgar and sordid, and always unpredictable human comedy. He underestimated reproduction just as he misunderstood art, trying to annex both ideologically so they would conform to and confirm his narrative tastes.

Benjamin did not—nor do his admirers—realize that mechanical reproduction accomplishes the opposite of what he claimed for it, that rather than devaluing original art, it assured its longevity and enhanced its aura. At the same time, mechanical reproduction, exploiting—as much as being exploited by—a mercantile system, precluded any dogmatization and domination of a single medium, say, film, by an intellectual or bureaucratic elite except in totalitarian societies. Theoretically with mechanical reproduction everything can be “reproduced”; there are simply no hierarchies of content. Furthermore, mechanical reproduction renders the competition between photography and “high” art academic by so clearly demonstrating their different functions and even mediating their possibly permanently uneasy coexistence. Finally, and doubtlessly most controversially, mechanical reproduction formalizes the separation of the “masses” from “high” art becoming the principal modality of mass culture. This will be taken as an elitist view, but current practice demonstrates once again that whenever art rubs shoulders with popular culture and its vernacular variants, either the latter are assimilated or a fashion is temporarily created out of a modish eclecticism that seems vital or new because it is “daring.” Some of it is even “important,” but it is an equivocal importance. And it is supposed to be a solution to equivocal art.

Sidney Tillim is an artist and critic with a special interest in photomechanical illustration. He wrote regularly for Artforum from 1965–1969.



1. Charles Baudelaire, The Mirror of Art, trans. Jonathan Mayne, London: Phaidon Press, 1955, p. 126.

2. Reprinted in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

3. See my “Walker Evans: Photography as Representation,” Artforum, March 1967.

4. Peter Galassi, Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1981.

5. Max Kozloff, “The Awning that Flapped in the Breeze and the Bodies that Littered the Field: ‘Painting and the Invention of Photography,’ ” Artforum, September 1981.

6. “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism”, October 15, Winter 1980, p. 94.

7. André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in What Is Cinema?, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967, p. 12.

8. Reprinted in Artforum, February 1977, translated by Phil Patton, pp. 48 —49.

9. Ibid., p. 49.

10. Preface to Wild Life on a Tidal Water, London: S. Lour, Marston, Searle & Rivington, Ltd., 1890.

11. The Pencil of Nature, New York: Da Capo Press Reprint, 1969. The illustrations for this edition were made from modern prints from Talbot’s negatives by Harold White and reproduced in halftone, with all the plates tipped in.

12. Op. cit., p. 47, for both quotations.

13. Robert Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” in The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited by Nancy Holt, New York: New York University Press, 1979, p. 54. (First published as ‘The Monuments of Passaic," Artforum, December 1967.)