Photography and the Aura-Encounter

Posted in 2012 Journal

The photographic image is, at the most basic level, a simple recording of what most would consider objects or events in the ‘real’ world. Yet I hesitate to call this process simple, because taking a look below the two dimensional surface of the photograph reveals a much deeper process than simply point, shoot, and ‘poof,’ a reproduction. Rather, the camera refocuses our vision in new ways, causing us to reevaluate how we see the world which we inhabit every day. This is perhaps where it becomes most evident that photography shapes our life ‘process’ just as much as the photographic process is shaped by each of our own individual lives. In this way, the camera acts as the focusing mechanism which effectively frames the pages on which the image-story is told. To this end, a photograph is something deliberately created, an amalgamation of human perception and mechanical vision, which ultimately supplies us as human beings with one more means of expression and exploration.

My argument takes place through words and pictures; in order to better define this methodology, I turn to W.J.T. Mitchell’s book Picture Theory, where he explains the potential of images both as authored and authoring texts. Mitchell writes that “images ‘compose a medium quite distinct from print, one that communicates differently, one that achieves excellence differently'” (Mitchell, 1994, 1). Thus, while it may seem apt to compare the image with writing, what I try to explore here is what type of communication takes place when the two are juxtaposed, together forming a singular text. That is, I hope that the simple captions I’ve attached to my photographs will encourage the reader to take an opportunity to practice the theory of photography that I develop throughout this paper. In general, these images represent instants in time and space that can never be repeated, yet their different meanings continue to evolve as they are engaged by different viewers. Mitchell takes this investigation further in explaining that his own work “raises the same questions with regard to pictures, the concrete, representational objects in which images appear. It asks what a picture is and finds that the answer cannot be thought without extended reflection on texts, particularly on the ways in which texts act like pictures or ‘incorporate’ pictorial practices and vice versa” (Mitchell 1994, 4). That is, any picture does not simply conform to one definition of what a picture should be, but rather must be examined individually on the basis of the context in which they and the viewers are. To this end, I have employed Mitchell’s ‘image-text’ concept, which relates both the image and the text as equally important components in making meaning.

The pictures I have chosen to include here all have some particular meaning for me in time, place, or content; what I explore through each image is how meaning is teased out of a picture by those who view it. As much as Mitchell’s goal was not “to produce a ‘picture theory’ (much less a theory of pictures), but to picture theory as a practical activity in the formation of representations,” I aim to present the ways in which viewers picture the photograph (Mitchell 1994, 6). That is, I want to show, initially through the work of Walter Benjamin, but then with my own take on his concept of aura, how the act of picturing, as a unified act of experiences, empowers every viewer with a sense of authorship. Through Walter Benjamin’s work I want to show that it is when the photographer’s eye, the context of the photograph, and the eye of the viewer meet that the possibility arises of glimpsing what Benjamin referred to as the ‘aura’ of the photograph. Refining this term, I believe that what occurs at the junction of these different interpretations is more of an aura-encounter. That is, while the photograph may hold some particular value on its own, that value (and the image’s potentialities for meaning) is only truly realized when the process of interpretation begins. But first, it is necessary to examine the similarities between photography and the other time-tested medium to which it is so often compared: writing.

Walter Benjamin and the Photographic Aura

Benjamin, writing in the 1930s, begins with an analysis of script, and how what writing says is imbued with a kind of potency by nature of its medium. Yet this is a potential energy that, while perhaps still present today, seems to be overlooked by the rush of society. In discussing the kind of consumer chaos which has seized us, Benjamin writes that “before a contemporary finds his way clear to opening a book, his eyes have been exposed to such a blizzard of changing, colorful conflicting letters that the chances of his penetrating the archaic stillness of the book are slight” (Benjamin 2008, 172). Put simply, the glimmers that the eyes can take in on the surface have been given priority over the real gems that may be found if we are only willing to dig a little deeper. But why would any emphasis be put on inspection (let alone introspection) in a culture so concerned with expediency? Benjamin echoes this notion, remarking that even in his time, “things press too urgently on human society” (Benjamin 2008, 173).

Karl Marx, whose work Benjamin draws upon as the foundation for his own theories, first articulated the kind of cultural apathy that results from this fast-paced way of living, what Marx considers the product of capitalist society. Marx essentially described how the capitalist world is a quantifiable one rather than a qualitative one, where producing more of a thing more quickly outweighs producing less of a higher quality thing. Of course, this may seem like an exaggeration, especially with regard to something as commonplace as objects we encounter in our everyday lives. However, Marx writes that “[a] commodity appears, at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Marx 2002, 122). Thus it seems necessary to reconsider those objects which we consider commonplace as essentially taking on a life of their own, not only through their common value of exchange, but more importantly through their unique creation; if the latter seems unthinkable (especially in a culture where mass production is the law of the land), then a more refined approach considering the use value of an object can supplement and consequently demonstrate this point more vividly.

Ultimately, Marx argues that in losing the uniqueness of the object, the unique qualities of human labor are being lost as well. As he puts it, “the commodity…reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labor as a social relation between objects” (Marx 2002, 123). First and foremost, this is problematic because it seems to place humanity at the level of object, considering people to be just as homogenous as the products they produce. But secondly, this point emphasizes how critical the human component is to the process of not just creation, and for the purposes of this discussion, interpretation. Rather than taking Marx’s theory as that of a doomsayer, why not use it as a reflection on the current state of human affairs with the goal of increasing our critical consciousness? Marx urges that this link between human and object is key to peeling back the curtain that has been draped over our eyes. He says that “[i]t is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things” (Marx 2002, ibid). In order to gain greater insight into Benjamin’s concept of aura and the uniqueness of individual things, it is necessary to establish a framework in our own minds that perceives the world not as simplistic but as complex. Otherwise, we face Marx’s alternative—as the commodity alienates workers from their labor and consequently from themselves, the object is released into the realm of abstract social relations, losing any trace of the source of its creation and consequently any unique sense of identity.

Benjamin elaborates on this loss of the commodity and even creator, writing that “[a]ny person, any thing, and relationship can mean absolutely anything else” (Benjamin 2008, 175). And of course this is the logical conclusion in a world where an abstract system of worth is substituted for the intrinsic value of a thing. This, Benjamin says, is “a world in which detail is of no great importance,” where predictable permutations of letters and numbers dictate the order of the day (Benjamin 2008, ibid). Even the written word becomes reduced here, taking on a more symbolic nature. But perhaps this symbolism, which, while allowing for a myriad substitution of things, also allows for a kind of reclamation of complexity through ambiguity; and this ambiguity, produced by copied culture, becomes the very tool used to reintroduce distinctness. As Benjamin puts it, “[a]mbiguity…stands everywhere opposed to purity and coherence of meaning” (Benjamin 2008, 177). Perhaps the purest meaning, then, comes from what is left unsaid, in what a text or an image is used for, not necessarily how it should be used. Perhaps the meaning lies in what the object has to say for itself instead of what is said for it.

Thus it seems prudent that, to access this pure meaning of a thing, that thing must be removed outside of its place as designated by society. Benjamin recommends that this type of isolated object can be found, for example, “[i]n the ruin, [where] history has merged sensuously with the setting” (Benjamin 2008, 180). In being taken out of its ‘proper place,’ the ruined object becomes defined not through its use value but rather through the sum of its life experience. That is, it seems that glimpsing the aura of this thing hinges on its context; this is not to say that the thing does not have a certain aura within society, but that it has a meaning outside of society that is more properly of itself. Even then, though, this aspect of an object is not easily detectable. Benjamin writes that “[i]n the true work of art, delight knows how to make itself fleeting, how to live in the moment, disappear, become new” (Benjamin 2008, 182). It is this fleeting delight, perhaps a shimmer of recognition, which lies in an object’s aura. In a society that values great, sweeping generalizations, it is easy to see how this minute glimmer of identity can be overlooked. This is why Benjamin emphasizes that “[w]ithout at least an intuitive grasp of the life of the detail…all devotion to the beautiful is nothing more than empty dreaming” (Benjamin 2008, 184). And so, aura seems to be prevalent in certain contexts where the specificities and complexities of a thing there and then can show through.


Photographs can reveal the hidden qualities of a place, revealing details which may be overlooked by a casual glance. Here, the sense of calm before the storm may affect a viewer’s response to the combination of these photographs

So why is it that photography seems capable of revealing this hidden quality of things? Benjamin thinks that it is through what the apparatus of the camera is capable of doing, the way in which it captures, that reveals aura. Referring to a 1928 article on the significance of photographing particular ‘details’ of flowers, Benjamin writes that “[t]hese photographs reveal an entire, unsuspected horde of analogies and forms in the existence of plants. Only the photograph is capable of this” (Benjamin 2008, 272). Through close-ups, full shots, color images versus black and white, overexposed images versus underexposed ones, the camera clearly possesses myriad ways of producing an image. It might seem that through this very act of producing, however, that the photographed image is little more than a replication of some object of reality. But Benjamin seems to suggest that this reproducibility has an aura, a reality, of its own. He writes that “the most precise technology can give its products a magical value, such as a painted picture can never again possess for us” (Benjamin 2008, 276). This magical value translates into photography in the relationship of photographer/viewer/object: “No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible compulsion to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, the here and now” (Benjamin 2008, ibid). It is this careful searching out that we instinctively do because we feel there may be more than meets the eye in a photograph. Benjamin goes back to this search for details to find the aura of things. He writes that “image worlds, which dwell in the smallest things—meaningful yet covert enough to find a hiding place in waking dreams, but which, enlarged and available for formulation, make the difference between technology and magic visible” (Benjamin, 279). Thus there seems to be a kind of relationship between seeing and knowing, that perhaps there is more to believing what an image holds than actually what one sees.

In coming close to defining this aura, Benjamin asks, “What is aura, actually? A strange web of space and time: the unique appearance of a distance, no matter how close it may be” (Benjamin 2008, 285). Put another way, aura emanates from a particular thing in a particular place and time. Yet this definition still does not fit a precise formula for always capturing the aura of a thing in its image. Maybe that is because in order to ‘see’ the aura of a thing we can’t just be looking at it. Just like aura is the amalgamation of a thing’s experience at a specific place in time and space, so too must be our approach to recognizing it. Benjamin writes that “[t]he camera is getting smaller and smaller, ever readier to capture fleeting and secret images whose shock effect paralyzes the associative mechanisms in the beholder” (Benjamin 2008, 294). Thus it is through this tool, through the camera, that our sight can be extended, so long as we don’t allow it to limit our sight. And we must remember that even if we are looking for aura, we may not necessarily see it; not because it is not true or real, but because it is not necessarily visible from our particular point of view. And this concept of point of view, what we come to develop from our own pasts and individual experiences, is what I believe is the driving force behind what the picture has to say to me or you specifically; this is how our story affects the other stories we encounter already in mid-telling in our own lives.

Some viewers might naturally construct a pre-story for a photograph like this based on their own experiences. What happened here?

The Stories that Photographs Have to Tell

Hannah Arendt explains the power of stories—how we take a story to reveal our own past or potential as human beings or to learn about something that we ourselves have not directly experienced. Yet even with our seemingly limitless powers of description, Arendt writes that “all our definitions are distinctions…[and] we are unable to say what anything is without distinguishing it from something else” (Arendt 1998, 176). This implies that we tend to define things negatively, in terms of what something is not. This type of ‘definition’ obviously leaves much to be desired, especially with respect to what a thing’s nature is. However, through the storytelling process, Arendt proposes that a more meaningful kind of definition does take place. But while we expect a story to supply us with an immediate revelation about ourselves, Arendt emphasizes that what stories tell us the most is about the protagonist at the heart of the story. Of course, we try to relate to this individual, sometimes placing ourselves in his or her shoes. Arendt writes that “[stories] tell us more about their subjects, the ‘hero’ in the center of each, than any product of human hands ever tells us about the master who produced it, and yet they are not products properly speaking” (Arendt 1998, 184). Yes, the story is told, but the telling evolves every time it passes from one person to another. How does this happen? In placing themselves at the heart of the story, in the role of Arendt’s hero, individuals find that they are doing more than relating to a character; they are, in a sense, becoming author and character to a degree, or, in terms of photography, taking on both the role of viewer and viewed.

Yet how can one individual simultaneously take on two seemingly separate roles, one within the story and one without? Perhaps it is that the experience narrated by the story goes beyond the historical context in which it has been told for hundreds of years, or the pages of the book which contains it, or, in this case, the edges of a photograph. Of course, the enveloping nature of the story’s experience does not end here. Arendt writes that “[t]he perplexity is that in any series of events that together form a story with a unique meaning we can at best isolate the agent who set the whole process into motion; and although this agent frequently remains the subject, the ‘hero’ of the story, we never can point unequivocally to him as the author of its eventual outcome” (Arendt 1998, 185). One might think that, in terms of pictures, this initiating agent is the photographer, that it is his or her positioning of the lens and the click of the shutter that sets the story in motion; and this is certainly true to a point. But the story is not finished being told after the photographer takes a picture. With regard to the digital age in particular, once the photograph is taken it can then be stored in any number of ways, and can be printed and subsequently begin a new life as a poster, card, or computer background. Here, Benjamin’s aura comes into play, as the photograph as object not only has its own particular aura, but each copy of the ‘original’ has its own aura evolve through use. Yet Arendt would argue here that the kind of story she’s talking about isn’t made per se; rather, “[t]he distinction between a real and a fictional story is precisely that the latter was ‘made up’ and the former not made at all. The real story in which we are engaged as long as we live has no visible or invisible maker because it is not made” (Arendt 1998, 186). Thus, the true story becomes a reflection of our own life experience, both insofar as it is a part of our lives and also in that our lives are a part of it; one necessarily affects the other.

This is another important feature of storytelling as a part of the visual experience. With regard to contextualizing visual culture, Irit Rogoff writes that, “[a]t one level we certainly focus on the centrality of vision…[a]t another level we recognize…opening up the field of vision as an arena in which cultural meanings get constituted” (Rogoff 2002, 24). That is, although the faculty of sight is certainly essential to perceiving the visual, it is also important to understand the meanings that can be ‘seen’ beyond our field of vision. In this way, our unique points of view can allow us to read particular visual stimuli in particular ways. But this is far more than just a reasoning for why some people see certain things when they look at a photograph; it is also a way of defining the viewer as an active participant in the seeing (or telling) process. Rogoff explains that, “[i]t is this questioning of the ways in which we inhabit and thereby constantly make and remake our own culture that informs the arena of visual culture” (Rogoff 2002, 28). Thus it makes more sense to think about the viewer as playing an active role in the constitution of meaning.

Yet Rogoff also warns that this process of identifying for ourselves, rather than through a particular focal lens established by society, can cause us to lose track of the fact that we are still looking through but one lens: that of our own life experience. She writes that “as we divest ourselves of historical periods, schools of stylistic or aesthetic affiliation, national cultural locations, or the limitations of reading objects through modes and conditions of production, we run the danger of divesting ourselves of self location” (Rogoff 2002, 33). The danger here is of decontextualizing ourselves, of perhaps falling back into either the belief that there is a right way of seeing as dictated by society or into the belief that it is all relative and random—a kind of seeing that immobilizes the viewer as passive. But by trying to see the world through our own eyes, a concept that seems simple enough, we may not only be able to see the lives of objects, but realize the impact we have on those objects in our own living as well. Rogoff describes this as “coming into critical consciousness,” where we realize our active presence in the world, even in the everyday (Rogoff 2002, ibid). The result of acknowledging this active place that we hold in the world allows us to ‘own’ our unique perspectives and realize the interactions between ourselves and the world more fully based on our individual circumstances.

Ultimately, using Rogoff’s explanation and Arendt’s framework, storytelling is portrayed as a kind of ever-changing means of communication, evolving with the times. But how can we begin to define something that seemingly lacks any solid definition? Perhaps we can turn to what that thing does which, in the case of the story and the photograph, is to tell. Yes, what these two things have to say can vary from person to person and context to context; but their ability to tell is constant. And it is how we interpret these stories that reveals not only something about their nature but our own as well. Arendt explains that “the specific revelatory quality of action and speech, the implicit manifestation of the agent and speaker, is so indissolubly tied to the living flux of acting and speaking that it can be represented and ‘reified’ only through a kind of repetition, the imitation” (Arendt 1998, 187). So in taking pictures, the photographer imitates the life-story, the experience, of the photographed object. Perhaps it is this intentionality with which the photographer ‘takes’ a picture, believing that it has some story to tell that does, in fact, begins the storytelling process. But it is essential to remember that Arendt’s story is told in two stages: “the beginning made by a single person and the achievement in which many join by ‘bearing’ and ‘finishing’ the enterprise, by seeing it through” (Arendt 1998, 189). Thus photographer, photographed and viewer all seem to bear the work of image-making, each realizing another part of the story through their own unique experience.

John Berger delves more deeply into this photo-fusion, exploring what exactly it is that allows a photograph to encapsulate such an experience. He writes that “the possibility suggests itself of composing with numerous quotations, of communicating not with single photographs but with groups or sequences” (Berger 1995, 279). What Berger is indicating here is that in grouping images, the photographs begin to tell their story for themselves. While a group of images may not tell the most direct story, the juxtaposition supplies more of a context than a single, stand-alone photograph would. Berger takes photography a step further, revealing that “with the invention of photography we acquired a new means of expression more closely associated with memory than any other” (Berger 1995, 280). Thus the photograph takes on the ability to envelop not only the experience of the photographed object in the present, but in the past as well. This gives the photograph more depth than its two-dimensional nature would at first suggest.

Photographs can make viewers aware of new meanings from which they can revise their personal perspectives. Here, viewers catch a glimpse of where macro and micro worlds collide.

Berger also writes that, in juxtaposing images, “[t]here is, as it were, no seat supplied for the reader. The reader is free to make his own way through these images” (Berger 1995, 284). Thus the viewer seems to be confirmed as an active teller of the image-story, on par with the photographer him or herself. But as was found with the ever-changing experience of the image-story, it can be rather difficult to pin down what holds true for these narrators across the board. Fortunately, Berger has a suggestion, writing that these stories “fuse teller, listener and protagonist into an amalgam…the story’s reflecting subject” (Berger 1995, 285). The idea of the ‘reflecting subject’ entails an author who, while continually writing a story, is him or herself continually being rewritten as an individual. It is through this constant reflection that the story-telling occurs; in the original telling of the photographer and the retelling of the viewer, the image-story takes on the very ‘living’ quality of the photographed object in the world. Berger further explains that “[t]he photographic narrative form places [the reflecting subject] before the task of memory: the task of continually resuming a life being lived in the world” (Berger 1995, 287). Thus the photograph is imbued with life from the experience of all involved with its creation and interpretation; it becomes a ‘living’ object with a ‘life’ of its own. This form of story telling, Berger suggests, “is not concerned with events as facts—such as is always claimed for photography; it is concerned with their assimilation, their gathering and their transformation into experience” (Berger, ibid). That is, the photographic narrative is a story of ambiguity, where what is left implied or deliberately unrevealed is just as critical as what is said explicitly. Giving heed to what is present as well as what is absent in an image, then, reveals the story told through photography to be a much richer one. As Berger puts it, “[p]hotographs [placed together] are restored to a living context…a context of experience. And here, their ambiguity at last becomes true. It allows what they show to be appropriated by reflection” (Berger 1995, 289). Although there doesn’t seem to be some straightforward way to really get at the experience that a story has to offer, there are certainly different ways of relating to the narrative, so that through reflection, we may come to see how we fit into the bigger picture of what the story has to tell. But again, what story is told depends heavily on how we perceive the events of that story unfolding. Here again, the camera can help focus our sight.

Seeing, Photographically Speaking

Rene Descartes explains the effects of augmenting our seeing and the positive role that images can play even as reproductions. He writes that “sight is the most comprehensive of the senses, [and so] inventions which serve to increase its power are undoubtedly among the most useful there can be” (Descartes 2002, 116). The camera certainly falls into this category. But how can something that seemingly narrows our vision to such a degree enhance our visual experience? Ideally, while the perspective may be narrower, this allows us to perceive greater detail, but this also brings to mind the idea that, while the camera can reveal a great deal, it can also hide things.

This makes sense, especially with respect to our perception of ‘real’ things. Yet the camera not only augments our sight but also reproduces what we see through it. While these reproductions are typically treated as lacking some quality of the original, the reverse effect also takes place, in that they transform our perception of the original. But Descartes says that this is not altogether a bad thing. He writes that “[w]e should…recall that our mind can be stimulated by many things other than images—by signs and words, for example, which in no way resemble the things they signify” (Descartes 2002, 120). Thus images come to represent not objects trying to be a real object, but rather objects that give greater insight into what they are as imitations of the real. Descartes concludes by explaining that “[i]t is enough that the image resembles its object in a few respects. Indeed the perfection of an image often depends on its not resembling its object as much as it might” (Descartes 2002, ibid). In this way, the images take on lives of their own and become just as ‘real’ as the originals.

Hubert Damisch takes this notion and explores the phenomenology of photography, or how photography can be experienced. He writes that “[t]heoretically speaking, photography is nothing other than a process of recording, a technique of inscribing” (Damisch 2002, 87). This allusion again to light-writing intersects with the idea of photography as not only a means of storytelling, insofar as the physical image has its own tale to tell, but also as a kind of transcription of the real, experienced world into the realm of the photograph. But Damisch makes it clear that the photograph is not a natural object that occurs in its own right, a seemingly obvious statement which may, in fact, not be so obvious in a culture that meets with images of all kinds at every turn. To emphasize this point, Damisch writes that “[t]he photographic image does not belong to the natural world. It is a product of human labor, a cultural object” (Damisch 2002, 88).

Yet we rarely give a photograph a second glance, especially with regard to the claims it makes about reality. We assume what is found within the borders of the image to be true, at least to the extent that what we see was actually captured somewhere in some way. Damisch expands on this, writing that “[a] photograph is this paradoxical image without thickness or substance (and, in a way, entirely unreal), that we read without disclaiming the notion that it retains something of the reality from which it was somehow released” (Damisch 2002, ibid). That is, we tend to take for granted the image as ‘historic’ in nature, when in fact it may be closer to historical fiction. Yes, the camera certainly captures a unique view of the world, but this view is particular and confined within the parameters of the lens, and further narrowed by the eye of the photographer. But Damisch says that photography can break free of this confining quality “each time it calls into question its essence and its historical roles, each time it uncovers the contingent character of these things, soliciting in us the producer rather than the consumer of images” (Damisch 2002, 89). That is, when photography is used in such a way so as to achieve something new, it breaks free of its culturally assigned role; it becomes a means of not just reproduction but of creation.

While bright light tends to cause the eyes to close, this image of a firework allows viewers to open their eyes and gaze upon the hyperreal.

Jean Baudrillard takes this idea of creating the new to the next level, examining how abstraction and substitution result in what he comes to call the hyperreal. Baudrillard writes that “[a]bstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer…a referential being or substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (Baudrillard 2002, 145). Rather than being an imitation of the real world, the hyperreal becomes an extension and enhancement of the real. Baudrillard’s description of the hyperreal as “the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere,” evokes the idea of a space of creation beyond typical reality, a space ready for the new to be brought into it (Baudrillard 2002, 146). In fact, this quality that reproductions and imitations seem to have taken on has further brought objects like photographs into their own. However, the next step is to investigate whether or not the hyperreal is actually more real than what we tend to consider reality. It then becomes a question of when does seeing through a camera stop being an extension of our sight and actually become our sight? As Baudrillard puts it, “[i]t is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself” (Baudrillard 2002, ibid).

Lazlo Moholy-Nagy further investigates this creative power of photography, especially as an extension of human sight. He would agree with Baudrillard, writing that “photography…is in a fair way to bringing (optically) something entirely new into the world” (Moholy-Nagy 2002, 92). Thus the changes in how we perceive the world through photography seem to be substantial in and of themselves. Despite the fact that our eyes can do so much, they are still limited; combined with the technology of photography, the eye increases in its ability to really see and take in as much as possible. Moholy-Nagy gives an example of this, referencing how photography has brought about “a standard of visual perception which embraces ultra-rapid snapshots and the millionfold magnification of dimensions employed in microscopic photography” (Moholy-Nagy 2002, 93). Without the aid of the camera, these in-depth insights would be next to impossible.

Yet we must also bear in mind to not let the camera be inhibited by our natural sense of sight. The camera can see in ways that we never could before, and we need to retool our thinking in order for our ‘photo-perception’ to reach its full potential. In doing everything from slowing motion to a standstill to combining light and shadow over time, the camera positions us in an entirely new relationship to time, light, and space. But how are photography, a seemingly limitless medium, and the camera, with countless special lenses and ways of taking pictures, to be judged as surveyors of real experience? Moholy-Nagy answers this question by stating that “[photography’s] own basic laws, not the opinions of art critics, will provide the only valid measure of its future worth” (Moholy-Nagy 2002, 94-95). Thus the photograph becomes its own standard for judgement. In reality, no two photographs ever capture real, lived experience exactly the same way; even images taken with timers reveal minor discrepancies between pictures. But the power of photography goes beyond its potential as a mere tool. Moholy-Nagy writes that “[t]hanks to the photographer, humanity has acquired the power of perceiving its surroundings, and its very existence, with new eyes” (Moholy-Nagy 2002, 95). Thus the camera becomes a tool for not only consuming the world, but also a means of producing totally new ways of perceiving that world, which is something truly visionary.

Creating Experience: The Aura-Encounter

Roland Barthes examines the photograph from a semiotic approach, investigating not only the surface meanings that a photograph has to impart, but also the culturally constructed meanings that may lie beneath the photograph’s surface, brought to bear by viewer and photographer alike. He begins by looking at what seem to be the two poles of how photography has been perceived, saying that “there are those who think that the image is an extremely rudimentary system in comparison with language and those who think that signification cannot exhaust the image’s ineffable richness” (Barthes 2002, 114). But why individuals might perceive a photograph either one of these ways over the other is another matter, one that parallels searching the inner depths of the photograph itself. Barthes focuses specifically on the juxtaposition of text with a photograph, and how “the text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image” (Barthes 2002, 118). That is, the text present with the photograph not only contextualizes the story that the image has to tell, but in doing so also aids in telling that story in a particular way.

Yet it is important to note that, while the viewer may be directed to ‘read’ a photograph in one way rather than another, the meanings of the photograph are still by no means limited. In fact, the seeming infinitude of potential meanings of the image can be found in the very ambiguity of the photograph, in the questions of ‘What is it?’ and ‘Where is it?’ and perhaps most importantly ‘Why is it?’ Barthes refers to this phenomenon of photography as “an absence of meaning full of all the meanings” (Barthes 2002, 119). Simply put, because no particular meaning is emphasized for the viewer (unless he or she is directed by text or some other form of context), that viewer pulls from the pool of photographic potentialities for meaning while simultaneously pulling from his or her own pool of experiences. Barthes drives this point home in saying that “[t]his is the case for the different readings of the image: each sign corresponds to a body of ‘attitudes’…certain of which may obviously be lacking in this or that individual” (Barthes 2002, 121). So even though a photograph may be presented with directing text or in a specific context, no two viewers will respond to those cues in exactly the same way, allowing the photograph to retain its ambiguity which seems necessary for the aura-encounter to take place. As Barthes sums up, “[t]he variability of readings, therefore, is no threat to the ‘language’ of the image if it be admitted that that language is composed of idiolects, lexicons and sub-codes” (Barthes 2002, 122). Essentially, no one interpretation is the ‘right’ way of seeing; it is simply a matter of seeing from another point of view.

These photographs depict how even the most seemingly mundane experiences, like strolling by a puddle or through a grove of trees, can become dynamic.

Victor Burgin explores this idea of point of view in greater detail, specifically with regard to how individual viewpoints are constructed. Burgin writes that “whatever specificity might be attributed to photography at the level of the ‘image’ is inextricably caught up within the specificity of the social acts which intend that image and its meanings” (Burgin 2002, 131). Again, this gets at the surface meaning of the image, the most commonly told story, the one toward which the viewer’s attention is most often directed. But this story seems to portray the viewer as merely passive, as if the story is being read to the viewer rather than the viewer reading it for him or herself. It is here that Burgin recalls the point that the viewer is just as involved in telling a photograph’s story as the photographer. He also emphasizes that this photo-telling process certainly is not one way; as particular individuals tell the story of a photograph, experiencing that photograph tells a new part of the individuals’ story as well. As Burgin puts it, “as much as we speak language, so language ‘speaks’ us,” and the same seems to be true for the language of photography (Burgin 2002, 132). And it is this speaking, or rather telling, that occurs between viewer and photograph that is the aura-encounter.

Consequently, this means that the aura-encounter is not something that can be defined for every viewer in every situation. But while the outcome of this encounter may certainly be different for each individual, the process of telling that takes place is common to any encounter with a photograph; a different story may be told to, or more appropriately by, different viewers, but a story is nevertheless being simultaneous shared and created. Burgin writes that the subject of the photograph “is not the fixed, innate, entity…but is itself a function of textual operations, an unending process of becoming” (Burgin 2002, 132). Thus the story is never truly finished being told. Rather, the aura-encounter that takes place between viewer and photograph is more of a constant retelling that can occur every time a photograph is encountered. As Burgin puts it, “the photograph is a place of work, a structured and structuring space within which the reader deploys, and is deployed by, what codes he or she is familiar with in order to make sense” (Burgin 2002, 137). And this is why I think that the viewer acts as a kind of co-creator in the photographic process, or co-author of the story that an image has to tell. This idea takes the viewer out of a position of passivity and, quite literally, places him or her behind the point of view of the camera; but from there, it is up to that viewer to see what he or she will. Thus, the photograph is seen as a place of work where reflecting subjects connect through the aura-encounter.


Recognizing the aura-encounter is about much more than translating Benjamin’s approach into a modern day context, although this is certainly a part of the process. But while the aura-encounter can be used as another tool for advocates of critical theory, it is perhaps even more beneficial to the everyday individual. At any rate, it is this individual or collective of individuals who make recognizing the aura-encounter possible; through their interchange of experiences and ideas, these individuals bring new depth to social objects like photographs.

The photographer plays an essential role as initial author of the photographic work, laying the foundation needed for the aura-encounter to take place; however, it is the viewer who encounters and reshapes this foundation. As Nicholas Mirzoeff puts it, “visual culture is now an increasingly important meeting place,” and the multiple gazes that fall upon and subsequently interpret a photograph certainly fit this idea (Mirzoeff 2002, 6). Like any way of looking at a photograph, the aura-encounter is another way of seeing. Yet I believe Mirzoeff is right in saying that “something new is being forged out of these multiple collisions of past with present and future” (Mirzoeff 2002, 17). Indeed, recognizing the aura-encounter as a reflection of photographer and viewer alike may be a crucial step to revealing the new in photography. We must simply be willing to not only open our eyes but our minds as well to the practical and philosophical implications of what photography has to offer. With these ideas in mind, it doesn’t seem so farfetched to see a photograph as something that, while only two dimensional in physical terms, is really multi-faceted to those who see the photograph as a prism from which a more metaphysical understanding of object and of self can simultaneously be revealed.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image.” In The Photography Reader, ed. Liz Wells, 114-125. London: Routledge, 2003.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations.” In The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, 145-146. London: Routledge, 2002.

Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Berger, John. Another Way of Telling. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Burgin, Victor. “Looking at Photographs.” In The Photography Reader, ed. Liz Wells, 130-137. London: Routledge, 2003.

Damisch, Hubert. “Fives Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image.” In The Photography Reader, ed. Liz Wells, 87-89. London: Routledge, 2003.

Descartes, Rene. “Optics.” In The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, 116- 121. London: Routledge, 2002.

Marx, Karl. “The Fetishism of the Commodity.” In The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, 122-123. London: Routledge, 2002.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. “The Subject of Visual Culture.” In The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, 3-23. London: Routledge, 2002.

Mitchell, W.J.T. “Picture Theory: Essay on Verbal and Visual Representation.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Moholy-Nagy, Laszlo. “A New Instrument of Vision.” In The Photography Reader, ed.Liz Wells, 92-96. London: Routledge, 2003.

Rogoff, Irit. “Studying Visual Culture.” In The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, 24-36. London: Routledge, 2002.