Making Visible, Making Strange: Photography and Representation in Kracauer, Brecht and Benjamin

By Giles, Steve | New Formations, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Making Visible, Making Strange: Photography and Representation in Kracauer, Brecht and Benjamin


Giles, Steve, New Formations


KRACAUER ON PHOTOGRAPHY

One of the most striking aspects of Thomas Levin's recent translation of Kracauer's Weimar essays is its inclusion of photographic material from the 1920s and early 1930s which typifies the 'new photography' associated with the Neue Sachlkhkeit movement.1 Kracauer's 1927 essay on photography, published in the Frankfurter Zeitung some four months after 'Das Ornament der Masse',2 is accompanied in Levin's edition by a technologically and aesthetically self-reflexive Sasha Stone photograph, which depicts photographers ostensibly photographing the photographer/viewer.3 Given Kracauer's considerable interest in the mass and popular visual culture of the Weimar Republic, especially cinema, the reader of his photography essay might expect to encounter a complex and subtle disquisition on the 'new photography' comparable to his previous analysis of the mass ornament.4 This expectation would be confirmed by the opening paragraph of the photography essay, where Kracauer not only dissects the image of a film star in a contemporary illustrated magazine but also compares her to a Tiller girl. But the reader's expectancy, so seductively aroused, is soon cruelly defeated. 'Die Photographie' does not present us with a systematic, dialectical critique of the 'new photography' and its functions in the culture of distraction. This is particularly disappointing as 'Die Photographie' is Kracauer's sole theoretical engagement with photography during the Weimar years. Furthermore, Kracauer never reviews or comments on any of the major publications associated with the 'new photography', from Moholy-Nagy's pioneering monograph of 1925 through to Franz Roh'sfototek volumes of 1930.5 Yet Kracauer's response to the 'new photography' is disconcerting not only because it reminds us of Sherlock Holmes's dog that failed to bark; we might also wonder why his analysis of the media image of a film star is framed by a bizarre and seemingly misplaced quotation from Grimm's Kinder- und Hausmärchen about miraculous events in the land of Cockaigne. One - albeit enigmatic - response to that query is suggested by Kracauer's review of Kafka's novel Das Schloß/The Castle which, like its predecessor Der Prozeß/The Trial, Kracauer characterises as a stencil of a fairy-tale, 'die Matrize eines Märchens'.6 A less esoteric and repographic response will take us into the realms of avantgarde aesthetics, as we attempt to explicate Kracauer's idiosyncratic essay with reference to its modernist discursive presuppositions.

By the early 1920s - in western Europe and the USA, at any rate there had developed two clearly articulated but polarised discourses on photography, namely the documentary and the fetishistic, the scientific and the magical, which betray their roots in the aesthetic theories of the 1880s and 1890s.' On the one hand, we have the photographer as witness, producing images of reportage which ostensibly provide empirically verified and verifiable information. On the other hand, we find the photographer as seer, using imagination to transcend empirical reality and express inner truths. Certain aspects of these artistic discourses are particularly relevant to Kracauer's critique of photography. For much of'Die Photographie', Kracauer characterises photography in Realist/Naturalist terms, in such a way as to disqualify photography from attaining artistic status. He even suggests that photographs are the representational counterpart of historicism, in that they merely record the detritus of History rather than its authentic truth-content. The mediation of truth is the prerogative of Art, but Kracauer's conception of Art is radically anti-mimetic. Although he concedes that since the Renaissance, Art has entertained a close relationship with nature, he contends nonetheless that Art has always sought to achieve higher aims, by presenting knowledge in the medium of colour and contour. Art-works do not strive to resemble the objects they depict, nor is their configuration governed by an object's spatial appearance. …

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