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An Essay response to critical theory-the artist and the archive and then some thoughts

The Archive and the concept of Aura and the Print

An archive is defined as a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution or group people. Of interest to historians and museums the archive would seem to be a dull place for an artist to work. Why would a collection of dusty weathered documents, a pile of unrelated old photographs or boxes in the attic of a museum serve as inspiration to the contemporary artist? If the artist would choose to curate the archive, how would the presentation appeal to the viewer? In Critical Theory we examined the relationship between the art world and the archive.

The archive has become a theme for modern and contemporary art. Visual artists take archived items and present them in a variety of ways to challenge conventional thinking and stimulate discussion. Using Charles Merewether’s text, The Archive, and two essays, The Archival Impulse by Hal Foster and Okinawa Ennwezor's article Archive Fever (referencing philosopher Jacques Derrida's book, Archive Fever) we explored the various ways the artist uses the archive. The class also traveled to ICA with curator Dan Byers to visit the exhibition the Artist Museum and witnessed via Skype an opening of one of Andy Warhol's time capsules, courtesy of the curators of the Warhol museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

During the seminar I realized that I used the archive in my own work on several projects. I have used an archive of historic bridges to research a series of prints for my BFA. I am also exploring a collection of documents, photographs and ephemera saved by my deceased relatives in my newer work. I appropriate scientific drawings of viruses from old textbooks. The challenge in working using the archive seems in the presentation of the material. The artist must consider how to compile and present data and objects meaningfully. The involvement and reaction of the viewer completes the work. A series of photographs for example may be curated as sterile documents devoid of emotion or they may be presented to take on nuances of meaning. For example, Christian Boltanski frequently uses archived photograph. I viewed his piece called Tiroire (1988) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. In this work Boltanski presents an enlarged blurred portrait of a child copied from a newspaper. The blurred face is shown above a drawer of clothing and is lit by harsh lighting. This juxtaposition of the photograph from an archive and discarded clothing in a drawer conveys a non-specific but deeply moving sense of loss or mourning.

Included in the collection of readings The Archive is the essay by Walter Benjamin written in 1931, entitled A Short History of Photography (Merewether 58). Artists have used photograph collections since the invention of the camera, which is likely the reason that this short history is included in the book. I chose this essay to better understand Benjamin’s writings about art and technology. This essay deals with photography and also introduces Benjamin’s concept of aura. Benjamin’s later paper, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction takes this concept further as he traces the history of printmaking from woodcuts to lithography and to photography. As an artist and a printmaker I work in a medium that is known for it’s reproducibility so understanding the concept of aura and its relationship to my art took on a particular importance.

Benjamin begins his discussion in the Photography History essay, by introducing David Octavius Hill, Hill was painter who is now known mostly for his early photography. He uses Hill’s photograph of the Newhaven fishwife to unique effect that a photograph may have on a viewer. The photograph as of the fishwife shows a woman with downcast eyes. According to Benjamin, her "seductive modesty" is captured by Hill and is a testament to his art. The viewer is drawn to the woman and is filled with “an unruly desire” to know who the woman is and to ponder her name, her character and even how her mouth might feel to kiss. There is a particular connection that develops between the beholder and the subject. Part of this is based on the precise technical talents of the photographer, “ the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for a tiny spark of contingency, of Here and Now” (Merewether 58). Benjamin is alluding to an emotional attachment to the photograph which makes it compelling for the viewer. This is a particular draw for this type of photography.

Another quality of photography is its ability to act as a tool for careful analysis. Using a simple example of walking, Benjamin notes that photography can break down “the fraction of a second when a person steps out” and analyze the motion. Photography with its “devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret.” Benjamin tells us that through photography we first discover the existence of the optical unconscious. These two elements of photography the first where the beholder searches a photograph for a tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now and the second the experience of optical unconscious are two means that photography is able to change our visual perception.

Further in the essay Benjamin discusses the early portraiture of Hill. In early photography a prolonged exposure was needed. Due to these required technical conditions the subject needed to sit still for a period of time. The setting of the photograph also was optimally outdoors and at an “out-of-the-way spot where there was no obstacle to quiet concentration,” (Merewether 60) (referring to Hill’s portraits made in the Edinburgh Greyfriars cemetery). During the taking of the photograph the subject had to focus on the moment, hold still and “the subject as it were grew into the picture”. Benjamin suggests that the manipulation of the setting to optimize the photograph adds an air of permanence to the subject in the photograph. From the early portraiture of Hill, Benjamin moves on to discuss Atget. Atget photographed Paris without people. He separates the material objects of the city from the human presence. Atget frees the object from the aura. Benjamin calls his photos the forerunners of surrealist photography. Atget cleanses the atmosphere of the human portraiture and instead looks at the forgotten and changes the focus such pictures “work against the exotic, romantically sonorous names of the cities; they pump the aura out of the reality like water from the sinking ship.” Atget, by focusing on scenes of empty spaces that are not lonely but devoid of mood, sets the stage for surrealistic photography. This separation of material from human existence shows an estrangement between man and his surroundings. Benjamin defines the concept of the aura.

"What is aura, actually? A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be. While at rest on a summer’s noon, to trace a range of mountain on the horizon, or a branch that throws its shadow on the observer, until the moment or the hour become part of their appearance- this is what it means to breathe the aura of those mountains, that branch. Now, to bring things closer to us or rather to the masses, is just as passionate an inclination in our day as the overcoming of whatever is unique in every situation by means of its reproduction. Every day the need to possess the object in close-up in the form of a picture or rather a copy, becomes more imperative. The difference between the copy, which illustrated papers and newsreels keep in readiness, and the original picture is unmistakable. Uniqueness and duration are intimately intertwined in the latter as are transience and reproducibility in the former."(Merewether 62)

Benjamin goes on to say that the aura is destroyed by reproduction. The aura of the object has disappeared with the loss of its uniqueness if it is reproduced. Benjamin makes a point that the hand is no longer making the image. The eye is looking into the lens to make the picture. So if the photograph removes the aura then it becomes a negative experience but Benjamin show us that photography can give us a new way of seeing. According to Benjamin the reproduction destroys the aura but it also makes the experience of art available to the masses. Mechanical reproduction helps the masses achieve control over works of art and essentially everyone can have some of the experience.

Aura is further defined in Benjamin’s later essay The Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction. Aura surrounding the object is not about the physical qualities of the object as much as it is about the characteristics of the object such as its ownership and its authenticity. This idea of authenticity raises some interesting questions in regard to the contemporary print. The print is considered more valuable if it is authenticated, signed and editioned. The contemporary print is more valuable if it is hand pulled by the artist. There is also a move to use the print matrix not for multiplicity but for variation and alteration that will create unique prints instead of reproductions. Ruth Pelzer-Montada in a lecture entitled Authenticity in Printmaking-A Red Herring? Raises some of these issues and challenges idea of authenticity becoming undone by the reproduction of art. She suggests that each print is authentic in that it derives from the same original and each print is inauthentic in that there are multiple copies. Printmaking has its own traditional markers of authenticity in its craftsmanship. Pelzer-Montada quotes Didi-Huberman who says that what Benjamin failed to recognize is “that the element of touch beyond reproduction is a guarantor of uniqueness, of authenticity and power of the aura”.(Pelzer-Montada 10)

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility.Web. 1 March,2017 htpp://

Merewether, Charles. The Archive. London: Whitechapel, 2006. Print.

Pelzer-Montada, Ruth. Authenticity in Printmaking-A Red Herring? Web. 1 March, 2017.


The Artists Museum. Dan Byers, curator. The Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, Boston, MA 02210. 10 January, 2017

Witness. Karsten Lund, curator. Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611. 11 February, 2017.

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