07 May 2008

Crime Scene

~ Walter Benjamin, from "A Small History of Photography" (1931):
The camera is getting smaller and smaller, ever readier to capture fleeting and secret moments whose images paralyze the associative mechanisms in the beholder. This is where the caption comes in, whereby photography turns all life's relationships into literature; and without which all constructivist photography must remain arrested in the approximate. Not for nothing have [Eugène] Atget's photographs been likened to the scene of a crime. But is not every square inch of our cities the scene of a crime? Every passerby a culprit? Is it not the task of the photographer -- descendant of the augurs and haruspices -- to reveal guilt and to point out the guilty in his pictures? "The illiteracy of the future," someone* has said, "will be ignorance not of reading or writing, but of photography." But must not a photographer who cannot read his own pictures be no less counted as illiterate?
* László Moholy-Nagy:
"The famous phrase, 'The illiterate of the future will be ignorant of the pen and the camera alike' is Moholy's. It has gained its considerable currency mainly by way of its paraphrasing -- without attribution -- in Walter Benjamin's celebrated 'Kunswerk' essay of 1936. Moholy's observation, originally in English, was written in 1932 and first published in 'A New Instrument of Vision,' (Feb. 28, 1936)."

The layering of dates (1931, '32, '36), editions, translations, and revisions creates an almost impenetrable confusion. But if, as Benjamin writes, "someone has said," then that "someone" seems to have been Moholy-Nagy.

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