The exhibition is exceptional: In Pictures: Walter Benjamin’s Little History of Photography, opens at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Gilad Reich, The Horace and Grace Goldsmith Curator of Photography and curator of the collection did us the honor of writing this text:
For the first time, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, is bringing together works by pioneering photographers of the 19th– and 20th-century featured in “Little History of Photography” (“Kleine Geschichte der Photographie”) (1931) by the German-Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), a groundbreaking essay that forged our modern understanding of the photographic medium. In Pictures: Walter Benjamin’s Little History of Photography unites more than 80 photographs and 10 portfolio books drawn from the Israel Museum’s collection, one of the few in the world to represent all the photographers that inspired Benjamin’s seminal essay, including Eugène Atget, Karl Blossfeldt, Julia Margaret Cameron, Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), David Octavius Hill, Germaine Krull, and August Sander. One of the first theoretical studies of visual culture, Walter Benjamin’s “Little History of Photography” laid the foundation for the field of cultural criticism, shifting focus from the artwork as a unique object toward the political and artistic potential of a new technology based on endless reproduction.
Benjamin’s insights from nearly a century ago into the cultural impact of photography’s emergence takes on new relevance in today’s society, where an unprecedented percentage of the population has ready access to a camera,” said Dr. Gilad Reich, Horace and Grace Goldsmith Curator in the Israel Museum’s Noel and Harriette Levine Department of Photography. “The connections he draws between aesthetics and a culture’s shifting social and psychological dynamics continues to be a touchstone for the entire field and beyond.”
“The exhibition invites visitors to become immersed in the images and ideas that motivated Benjamin, whose insights into the implications of endlessly reproducing visual information foreshadowed our current cultural moment,” said Denis Weil, the Anne and Jerome Fisher Director of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. “As a museum that has dedicated more than 50 years to collecting and deeply researching the trajectory of photography, we are in a unique position to illustrate Benjamin’s essay, engaging audiences in deeper understanding of how photography developed and more critical thinking around the images we consume in our daily lives.”
“Little History of Photography” was originally published in the German literary journal Die Literarische Welt as three short essays reviewing several books dedicated to early photography. In this text, Benjamin introduced concepts that remain central to critical theory of the medium: the aura, optical unconscious, reproducibility, among other topics. Benjamin’s analysis of the aura and optical unconscious, concepts first introduced in “Little History of Photography,” were elaborated on in his most iconic essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), developed just several years later. Benjamin never saw original prints of the photographs he discussed in “Little History of Photography,” but only mass reproductions in books. The Israel Museum exhibition allows viewers to experience what Benjamin was not able to during his lifetime.
In Pictures: Walter Benjamin’s Little History of Photography is organized into three sections that follow the essay’s structure, each featuring works by the photographers and outcomes of the technological developments that Benjamin describes.
About Walter Benjamin
Born in Berlin in 1892, Walter Benjamin is considered one of the most influential cultural thinkers of the twentieth century, best known for his post-Marxist and original interpretations of concepts such as history, modernity, and authorship. A literary critic, philosopher, and cultural sociologist, he was associated with the interwar Frankfurt School, which formulated new critical social theories.
As Nazism became more powerful, Benjamin left Germany in 1932 and eventually settled in Paris. After Germany invaded France in September 1940, he and a number of others fleeing Nazi-occupied France crossed the Pyrenees into Spain. When they reached the border town of Portbou, they were halted and told that they would be sent back. Benjamin tragically died by suicide at age 48 on the French-Spanish border, leaving behind the unfinished “Arcades Project,” written between 1927 and 1940, an immense collection of writings on life in 19th century Paris. His other writings include “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) and “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), written while in exile; as well as “The Task of the Translator” (1923), and “The Author as Producer” (1934).