Aura

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin describes an interesting way of judging “realness”:

The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object. One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” (…).

One of the best insight from his famous essay is something I had never previously considered – possibly because I had grown up in an age of reproduced, broadcasted art. It is the loss of immediacy that used to prevail when an actor performed before an audience versus performing for a camera (for later viewing).

What matters is that the part is acted not for an audience but for a mechanical contrivance – in the case of the sound film, for two of them. (…) for the first time – and this is the effect of the film – man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. The aura which, on the stage, emanates from Macbeth, cannot be separated for the spectators from that of the actor. However, the singularity of the shot in the studio is that the camera is substituted for the public. Consequently, the aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays.

The same is true for photography: no matter how “accurate” a photo, it can never be real. The camera may not lie, but any photo has stripped away the “aura”, that which only exists in person, and which arguably constitutes the real.

More Real

On a rangefinder camera, you focus by aligning two pictures – the camera’s projection of what’s in front of you against the actual reality. You turn the focus ring on your lens until slowly, the two panes merge into a sharp picture.

I was reminded of this whilst traveling on a bus in Mexico, looking through the window at the landscape going by. For years, Mexico had exerted a special fascination on me, a country a couldn’t wait to visit, and now I was finally seeing it with my own eyes.

It’s one of the most fascinating aspects of travel: that process of aligning the image in your head with the reality on the ground. I had envisioned Mexico to be colorful, hot, North American without being North American. I derived those images almost exclusively from books and photos, little impressionistic fragments I pieced together to a vague idea. Walking the streets of Mexico City, those ideas collided with reality. They weren’t wrong, but the experience felt like looking through the rangefinder. My picture was slightly off: Reality was less fantastical, dustier and grittier, but also all the more wonderful because it was so concrete. Crickets chirped. My living room plant existed as a mighty tree. Taco stands on every corner. Such lovely people. Yellow walls. So many dogs.

Nothing is ever quite how you imagined, because it’s so much more than you could possibly take into account. The schoolgirls, looking inquisitively. The hummingbird, blazing by. The low, rectangular buildings, hand-drawn signs. All the food, familiar yet never before seen.

The images in my head have been replaced by these impressions, but I can’t help but want to go back, soak up more of them, and see more of the grit, variety, humidity, and overall intensity Mexico has to offer. It’s become more real, and with that all the more alluring.

Anterior Future

Pure your gentle name, pure your fragile life,
bees, shadows, fire, snow, silence and foam,
combined with steel and wire and
pollen to make up your firm
and delicate being.
– Pablo Neruda’s epitaph for Tina Modotti

I dusted off my podcast and finally recorded the fourth episode of Available Light. This time, I am bringing you a story that includes almost everything that has fascinated me over the past year and a half: Photography, struggle, modernism, Mexico, revolution, the Spanish civil war. It’s the story of Tina Modotti’s remarkable life, and it starts with a picture.

You can listen below – or click “Read more” to continue to the transcript.

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Evocation

Each trip to Scandinavia turns me into an even greater fan of that region than I already was. The Nordics put on a show each visit, treating me to a winter reminiscent of a past that I’m not sure even existed: Crisp winters, when the air is so cold that your breath condenses on your face, a low-hanging sun that reflects off the frozen lakes, and a relative quietness that blankets the cities. For this trip back to Stockholm, Pete flew in from New York while Max and I went up from Berlin, and we spent three days aimlessly wandering the streets, listing off our favorite Björk records, and drinking beer served by friendly but decidedly reserved personnel.

Ever since losing my camera, I have been playing with my old DSLR again, shooting clumsily from the hip and taking most pictures out of focus. Those shots you see above are the best ones I took all weekend, all from the Djurgården ferry that we took just as the sun went down over Södermalm. We stood on the deck with cold hands, watched the sun go down, and then went back under the roof, where a group of young Swedes clutched beer cans and shouted at each other. “That’s how properly do a boy’s weekend”, Max exclaimed, and we jumped off the boat to walk yet some more.

Foreshadowing

From the excellent Iconic Photos blog, describing a photo Duncan Cameron of a seal hunt.:

Photography as a medium is always at its most powerful when it deals with ‘anterior future’ — images which foreshadows a future event good or ill (but mostly ill), such as photos taken before executions, at firing squads, or in disaster zones. Cameron’s image is one such: the ice floes looked so spotless, the baby seal so innocent, and the longing look of its mother in the background so heartrending that the anterior future here was particularly cruel.

Elegy

I have a picture of a Catholic saint leaning on my computer as I write this. It was given to me by an Italian colleague, who rushed to get as I told her that my camera had disappeared – “It has always brought me luck”, she said.

This is the kind of reaction I have got when I told others about the disappearance of my camera: It prompted shock, then empathy, followed by the question how it could have happened. I don’t really know, I would say: I had stuffed the camera into coat my pocket, went to this bar, and when I left the building, the camera was gone. Was it stolen? Perhaps. Did I drop it into the snow before entering? Perhaps. Did the discovery make the blood in my veins freeze? Certainly.

When I was growing up, my father had his trademark way of mitigating the pain of breaking an object. “Es ist nur ein Gebrauchsgegenstand”, he would say – “just a thing you use”; implying that wear and tear would whittle down even the most prized possessions. It’s a healthy attitude that I reminded myself of on the subway ride home, fists clenched in my empty coat pockets, knowing that a camera could easily be replaced.

I’ve lost a number of things over the years: Keys, glasses, sunglasses. I’ve also dropped a camera lens down a ravine and shattered multiple iPhone displays. “You can’t have nice things”, my friend Beth once told me, with a mix of pity and amusement on her face. I had come to accept this, but the disappearance of the camera felt different: much more personal than the loss of any other object. I loved this tiny, powerful camera that felt not just like a marvel of engineering but also like an extension of my eye. I’ve never had anything that let me so perfectly capture what I was seeing – and thereby document what I was noticing or thinking about.

I am suddenly a photographer without a camera and I can’t help but wonder whether that paradox should mean something. It’s a forced reset that comes at a time when I was wondering how to take my photography to another level: How to elevate it from mere picture taking to the craft of stringing those pictures together.

The grand irony of this story is how I spent my time at that bar: I was killing an hour before meeting a friend, and so I wrote some emails and researched cameras on the internet. My quest to rethink photography had created the impulse to splurge money on an even fancier device. It’s a common trap to believe that you’ll be more creative with better gear, and certainly one that I’ve fallen into in the past. What I realize now is that there’s a flip side to my dad’s saying: “just a thing you use” doesn’t just mean using something until it breaks. But also means making the most of it – with a sense of purpose.