Show full item record Abstract This thesis compares and contrasts the multiple discourses on photography found in the critical and theoretical writings of Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes. It seeks to demonstrate that despite the different historical, philosophical, cultural, and linguistic contexts of their work, Benjamin and Barthes engage with a similar constellation of questions and problems that photography uniquely poses. It argues that each author moves towards a practice of redemptive criticism as foregrounded in relation to one privileged photograph in each case the childhood portrait of Franz Kafka, for Benjamin, and the photograph of the mother-as-child for Barthes. Dedicated to a close reading of relevant texts by each author, the study is divided into three parts, with each corresponding to a different set of themes to which the photographic is related. The second part investigates the complex historical and philosophical influence of Proustian aesthetics on their writing on photography.

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However, Jae Emerling has discovered that hardly any publications on photography have interwoven history and theory in a sustained fashion. Almost every volume dealing with photography theory discusses the views of both Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes—often combined with theories by other writers as in the case of Emerling —but none of them approaches these two icons of photography theory from a comparative in-depth approach, offering fresh perspectives on their writings.

Both books are devoted to views on photography as a medium and start by emphasizing the complexities involved in addressing photography as such.

In this respect their approach fits in well with current debates about the photographic medium and its so-called specificity. One of the photographs, dated , depicts William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the calotype, and Nicolaas Henneman, a prominent daguerreotype portraitist.

The other photograph, dated , shows Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, two key figures in the history of modern thought. The juxtaposition of these two portraits nicely captures the notion that theoretical debates and historical debates on the practice of photography need to complement each other. Conversely, the study by Yacavone presents portrait photographs only. This difference hardly seems a coincidence. Benjamin and Barthes both explored the meaning of photography almost exclusively on the basis of portrait photographs.

Yacavone concludes that their special concern for this genre of photography hooks up with the natural and emotional expressivity of the human face and body, which inevitably transcends any created, artistic expression. This would also explain why portraiture is traditionally considered to be the least aesthetic or formalized genre of photography That Emerling chose to concentrate on documentary and archive, rather than detail and vantage point, underlines his broader scope.

In this respect, he claims that when considering the history of photography one must be cognizant of the fact that one is addressing complex theoretical questions about representation: signs and objects, narratives and events, life and politics.

Two other glosses focus on Barthes and Susan Sontag, but Emerling did not select their most frequently quoted publications for a close reading. The second chapter of both parts deals with a late nineteenth-century childhood portrait in a winter garden setting. The attention drawn to the Kafka photo is one example of this. The reflections on the significance of Proust for Benjamin and Barthes are added as a third chapter to both parts of the book.

Singularity, therefore, requires a relationship among the photograph, its referent or sitter, and the beholder of the image 8. According to Yacavone, for every viewer there is potentially one special portrait photograph of a loved one capable of initiating a redemptive process, which is the experiential singularity of that particular photograph Emerling is interested in reverse tendencies in history as well.

Moreover, photographs are not discussed and reproduced in chronological order. Only eleven of the forty images in the book date from after the mid-twentieth century, but the discussion focuses on theories from a more recent date, such as those of Jacques Derrida and Allan Sekula. For a book that relates theory to history it is a pity that Emerling has not dated the quotation.

The notes only refer to volumes or translated editions, resulting in the year Vicki Goldberg, ed. The addition of the years and would immediately have explained that the first view spoke to the era of modernism, while the latter marked the transition period toward postmodernism.

Emerling and Yacavone clearly side with those who feel it was rather premature to herald the dominance of the digital and the death of photography, as some scholars did in the s. While Emerling submits that the new digital culture has barely marked the end of photographic discourse 6 , Yacavone argues that the earlier views of Barthes and Benjamin are still relevant today and may provide important guidance for reflections on digital photography The recent proliferation of readers with key texts on photography testifies to the vibrancy of photography as a cultural discourse.

At the same time, many of these readers overlap and cannot be easily read in their entirety due to their fragmented character. The same goes for the many edited volumes on photography with contributions from various authors. Some of these volumes reveal that it can be a challenge for editors to weld together the cacophony of voices and perspectives. It is to be welcomed, therefore, that we are now witnessing the publication of more single-voiced books, especially if they succeed in adding new perspectives and insights on photography, as both Photography: History and Theory and Benjamin, Barthes and the Singularity of Photography convincingly do.

Reviews and essays are licensed to the public under a under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.


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The Birth of the Viewer 1. If you originally registered with a username please use that to sign in. No eBook available Amazon. Benjamin, Barthes and the Singularity of Photography Benjamin, Barthes and the Singularity of Photography presents two of the most important intellectual figures of the twentieth century in a new comparative light.


Benjamin, Barthes, and the singularity of photography

Go to publisher Originally published by Continuum in and reissued in paperback by Bloomsbury in , Benjamin, Barthes and the Singularity of Photography focuses on photography in the works of German philosopher Walter Benjamin and French critic and theorist Roland Barthes, two of the most-often cited thinkers of the twentieth century. It shows that despite the different historical, philosophical and cultural contexts of their work, Benjamin and Barthes engage with similar issues and problems that photography uniquely poses, including the relationship between the photograph and its beholder as a confrontation between self and other, and the dynamic relation between time, subjectivity, memory and loss. View fullsize Go to publisher

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