Thursday, 9 December 2010

Thoughts from 'A short history of Photography' by Walter Benjamin

Benjamin writes in this essay about, among other things, the early daguerrotypes taken by a man called Hill taken at the Edinburgh cemetery of Greyfriars.

"...this place could never have achieved its great effect had not its selection been for technical reasons. The lower sensitivity to light of the early plates made necessary a long exposure in the open. This, on the other hand, made it desirable to station the model as well as possible in a place where nothing stood in the way of a quiet exposure. "The synthesis of expression which was achieved through the long immobility of the subject", Orlik says of the early photographs, "is the chief reason besides their simplicity why these photographs, like well drawn or painted likeness, exercise a more penetrating, longer lasting effect on the observer than photographs taken more recently". The procedure itself caused the models to live, not out of the instant, but into it; during the long exposure they grew, as it were, into an image.

It struck me that a comparison could be made between this and the modern ability to make moving portraits via the medium of video. During what might be termed the long exposure of the video, the subject, simply looking at the lens could also be said to live into the instant, to grow into an image of themselves that is arguably difficult/impossible (?) to achieve in a single image. In my recent experiments with this, the synthesis of expression which Benjamin refers to was apparent and was, to me, one of the compelling aspects of it.

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