Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘A Short History of Photography’ (1931) made bold statements about photographic pioneers such as David Octavius Hill and Nicéphore Niépce, and the social and historical context of their work. This first selection of Benjamin’s writings on photography includes a new translation of this influential essay as well as a range of Benjamin’s other writings, both published and unpublished, some of which are translated into English for the first time here.
Esther Leslie’s introduction covers Benjamin’s writing on early photographic methods and aesthetics; his analysis of the commercial studio photography of the ‘decadent’ bourgeoisie; the use of photographs in scientific research; and other innovative photographic methods such as the ‘auraless’ images of Eugène Atget and the ‘new visions’ of August Sander and Germaine Krull. Leslie discusses Benjamin’s take on the evolution of photography into a modern form, the universal fascination with the seemingly simple postcard – an interest dating back to Benjamin’s own childhood – as well as the special relationship he found between Paris and the photographic method.
As a notable philosopher, critic and uniquely imaginative thinker, Benjamin’s essays offer a fascinating critique of early photography. With a substantial introduction, contextualizing prefaces and comprehensive glossaries, Esther Leslie guides the reader through Walter Benjamin’s multifaceted engagement with the significance of photography.
Esther Leslie is Professor of Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck, University of London. She is the author of Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry (2007), Walter Benjamin (Reaktion, 2007) and Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-garde (2002).
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