1. Dissemination
Published: 15.09.2012
in the series Photography and Dissemination
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The theme of my contribution to Still Searching is inspired by Walter Benjamin’s famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’ (1935-36). Or, rather, it is inspired by the striking absence of discussions of reproduction and its effects in the literature about photography since this essay first appeared. So I guess I am searching, in the first instance, for the reasons for this absence, given that Benjamin’s essay has been made compulsory reading for a generation of students and is one of the most cited in serious texts about the photographic experience. But I am also interested in beginning to explore the ramifications of photography’s relationship to reproducibility for our understanding of this medium’s history. How has reproducibility manifested itself in photographic practice and experience? What have been the effects of these manifestations? What kind of history would have to be written to encompass these questions? The invention of this history—of a mode of representation capable of doing justice to these questions--is ultimately what I am ‘still searching’ for.

When Benjamin reflected on these issues, he chose to equate the reproductive capacities of photography with the processes of mass production, and thus with the most basic operations of capitalism itself. For Benjamin, these processes are fraught with an inherent contradiction, an alienating inversion of social and commodity relations, such that reproduction is simultaneously capitalism's lifeblood and its poison. Photography, he suggested, contained within it this same contradiction, being equally capable of sustaining capitalism and of destroying it. Reproducibility is, in short, a political capacity that can be either exploited or suppressed but should not be ignored. Of course, most commentaries on Benjamin’s famous essay are content to try and define what he meant by ‘aura,’ perhaps the most misunderstood word in the photographic lexicon (with the possible exception of ‘punctum’), thereby displacing attention from the essay’s larger political concerns. I see the conjuring of aura—“a strange tissue of time and space: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be”—as Benjamin’s attempt to account for the effects of commodity fetishism, such that unequal relations of power are experienced by individuals in very real, if invisible, phenomenological and psychological terms. The endless reproduction of the Mona Lisa brings this painting close to us, but at the cost of the commodification of our relationship to it; in reproduction form it is near, physically and temporally, but its cult value has been exponentially enhanced by this same reproduction, this preventing us from having any kind of authentic relationship to it. In other words, the waxing and waning of aura is but one of the (political) effects of reproducibility.

Benjamin tends to equate photographic reproduction with the ability to make thousands of exact photomechanical visual copies of existing images (such as works of art). But we need to recognize that photography’s reproducibility encompasses many more practices than this. Photographs are images that are indexically induced by the thing they represent, reproducing that thing, through a reaction to light, as a two-dimensional image. This privileged relationship of original and copy is what has fascinated so many commentators on the photographic medium. Frequently, what we think of as a photograph is in fact a reproduction from a negative, in which forms and tones have been reversed from that original imprint. Many positives can be made from such a negative, some of them seemingly identical to one another, some looking quite different (witness the many different versions of Ansel Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico). In other words, photography’s reproducibility includes its capacity to reproduce itself.

But the theme of reproducibility also encompasses forms of photography that result in unique objects, such as daguerreotypes. Commercial portrait studios promised their customers that they would look much like their neighbors, endlessly repeating certain poses, backdrops and props to ensure that social conformity was part of what one purchased (we bring the same expectation to our professionally-taken wedding pictures today). Aspects of industrial mass production had to be adopted by these studios if they were to compete in the market place; only a rote repetition of certain actions and settings would allow as many as 40 daguerreotype portraits per day to be produced. In any case, some daguerreotypes were quickly distributed in other media. Daguerreotypes of public figures, for example, were likely to be translated into lithographs or wood or steel engravings and distributed through the illustrated press, allowing a daguerreotype image made in London to be seen throughout the British Empire. This kind of reproduction exponentially increased the audience for certain photographs, thus securing photography’s presence in the culture at large. The price for this was a disconnection of the photographic image from photography itself, blurring any firm distinction of form and substance, and introducing the post-medium condition that digital technologies have since only exacerbated and prolonged. In other words, once it was harnessed to the engine of reproducibility, photography could not help but be haunted by ghosts of its own making.

William Henry Fox Talbot, A Cascade of Spruce Needles, 1839 (photogenic drawing negative)

But this is true even of individual images that were never copied. A Cascade of Spruce Needles, a photogenic drawing made by Henry Talbot in 1839, the year of photography’s announcement, is the perfect embodiment of the kind of haunting I’m talking about. Not only does this picture show a fertile scattering of seeds, of spruce needles to be precise, but it also demonstrates the dividing of identity that constitutes all acts of reproduction. The image looks as though the needles are cascading through space in front of the camera, falling from top to bottom of the picture plane, as if caught in an instant of light-sensitive exposure. But in fact this is a contact print, produced when Talbot scattered some needles across his horizontal sheet of prepared paper, so that they lay there statically in the sun long enough to leave an impression. Having given the play of chance full rein, he then fixed whatever image happened to result, thereby reproducing the unpredictable operations of nature's own mode of reproduction. What we see now as the presence of needles are those places where there was an absence of light on the paper, resulting in a reversal of tones such that the black needles are represented here by white paper. Both nature and photography, Talbot seems to be saying, are generated through an economy of repetition and difference.

For a photogram to be made, object and image, reality and representation, must first come face to face, literally touching each other. The photogram’s persuasive power depends on a lingering specter of the total entity, a continual re-presentation of this coming together and separation of image and object on the photographic paper. This is the prior moment, that something other than itself, to which the photogram must always defer in order to be itself. This photograph therefore marks the spacing, the temporal and spatial movement, of these needles and their imprint. The photograph, which is in fact a negative posing as a positive, represents both them and its own convoluted conditions of production. What we are witnessing here then is a surprisingly complicated, almost self-contradictory, maneuver that simultaneously circumscribes and divides the identity of the things being represented, whether that be nature and its processes of reproduction, or photography and its.

Although still part of the political economy of reproducibility, my discussion of this picture has taken on an ontological aspect, a concern for the question of being itself. Indeed, I propose that, if we are to truly grapple with all the ramifications of our theme, then we have to try and think Benjamin’s work through that of Jacques Derrida. We have to address ourselves to ‘dissemination’ rather than just ‘reproduction.’

As Derrida has demonstrated, dissemination is a dynamic that simultaneously circumscribes and dissipates; it enacts “an erasure which allows what it obliterates to be read,” “making possible the very thing that it makes impossible.” Simultaneously a verb and a noun, both a mark and the act of marking, dissemination allows for an examination of a diverse array of photographic practices without dislodging us from the context of consumer capitalism and its processes of mass production in which those practices have taken place. It allows us to question what photography is even while investigating what photographs do and what is done to them. It allows us to pursue a history for photography from the inside out, unconstrained by the limited interests of art history or by value judgments based on innovation or originality.

This, at least, is what I hope to demonstrate over my next few posts, through reflections on the medium of photography (of what does it consist?), on the capacity of photographs to shift shape and size, on the effects of multiplicity (wherein photography issues multiple copies of itself), on the complication of a photograph’s authorship, on the distribution of photographs (such that they can appear in many places at once, or can reappear at different points in time), and similar issues. I’m hoping that such posts can both generate some discussion (including disagreement) and set the foundation for a new way to consider the representation of photography’s history.

10 comment(s)
Charlotte Cotton
Posted 17.09.2012 at 03:35

Dear Geoffrey,

I really enjoyed your first post and look forward to reading more. I am thrilled to be experiencing once again what I call ‘the Batchen effect’ on my thinking! You’ve triggered a remembrance of a constellation of moments and thoughts that I have not - until reading your post - gelled together. Here are five things that you prompted me to put together today and I look forward to expanding and adding to this over the course of the next few weeks in reaction to the ideas you bring into play.

1. Listening to Professor Thomas Crow in my undergraduate art history course in 1990 and his memorable introduction to the ironic fact that most art history is learnt through reproductions of art.
2. Five years ago, being asked (by the press and marketing department of the museum I was working at) to choose the key image for a forthcoming exhibition that would work equally well on billboards, street banners, in magazines and on smart phone screens.
3. My continued enjoyment of photography as being hopeless at representing the scale of its subject. Or, more specifically in relation to the idea of the experience of the reproduction, the actual size of the reproduction is the dominant influence on the experience of the image/subject, in the absence of a relation to scale in the photographic capture per se.
4. The emerging critical mass of ‘digital native’ contemporary art photographers for whom the act of making a photograph is essentially reproductive – of picture forms that already exist; of channelling the languages of desire that are visually embedded in the invariably mass produced, reproduced objects that they photograph; and who consciously meditate upon the reproductive dynamics of the ideologies at play in neoliberal culture that prescribe image-making.
5. Standing in an immigration queue yesterday at a Seoul airport looking at a screen-based advertisement for the Samsung Galaxy tablet that uses a delicate, animated image of a feathery dandelion flower gone to seed. It was, of course, your description of WH Fox Talbot’s photogenic drawing of the pine needles that prompted me to think differently about this rather inane advertisement. Your writing and my queuing had brought to mind another picture by Fox Talbot, from the mid 1850s that I saw ‘in the flesh’ this year and made me think about how Fox Talbot might be remembered in the 21st century, given that the photographic positive/negative innovation for which we honoured him in the 20th century is no longer a default or commonly understood photographic practice. The work by Fox Talbot that you made me remember is a photogravure (Fox Talbot was an early developer of this subtle printing process) of scattered dandelion seeds at actual size. It’s a breathtaking print because it is such a fine reproduction.

Geoff Batchen
Posted 20.09.2012 at 05:16

Thanks for your generous response Charlotte. As you suggest, history always inhabits the present and often borders on autobiography. It also often repeats itself, even if with a difference. Talbot makes a photogenic drawing of a scattering of seeds and then, some time later, makes a photoglyphic engraving of the same motif, as if this is indeed the most appropriate metaphoric subject for his work. First he proposes the paper-based negative-positive system that comes to dominate the nineteenth century and then he invents a photomechanical process that will dominate the image culture of the twentieth. On top of all that, he was also a friend of Charles Babbage, inventor of the first computing engine. Indeed, Babbage showed examples of Talbot's photographs in his drawing room, next to a working model of his computer, as if to imply that they were complementary modes of representation.

Emil Fedida
Posted 18.09.2012 at 13:15

Dear Geoffrey

A photography as an object is the same object in timespace, so long the camera is a box the photography will be limited as an abstract phenomena, the new technology of today and urban life which the object do not exit in our mind, because of Kant’s influence, nothing is real anymore. Kant didn’t mean that, but making his philosophy hard to understand. His critics are only analyses of criticism, in fact every object made by man can his origin be discovered. Now, giving, as light do, receiving as matter receive light, and the consequence of it. This is not about photography. This is about life it self and the law of nature, when matter is the origin of light. Means everything is one and the same which is timespace, not time and space! In photography time is an important fact, but limited because light goes trough one hole. Any photography that has power has his own effect on mans mind, because it is the photo that watch the viewer, why? Because the photo picture has an abstract effect that moves mans mind, we batter talk about mans mind! And not about photography! Photography must serve man mind and not the opposite where the photography manipulates mans mind. It looks like people watch photos as Stone Age man watch him self first time in the mirror. It is why photography it used as a dangerous medium in modern time. Better watch the wall, you can find a story in walls, and can also learn to see.

Emil Fedida

Daniel Palmer
Posted 19.09.2012 at 05:22

Thank you Geoffrey (and Charlotte) for these illuminations! However, I'm a bit surprised you observe “the striking absence of discussions of reproduction and its effects in the literature about photography”. As you well know, Benjamin and reproduction obsessively preoccupied postmodern critics – think of Rosalind Krauss (who does indeed try to think Benjamin’s work through that of Jacques Derrida), or Douglas Crimp, who in his 1980s essay ‘On the Museum's Ruins’ proposed in dramatic terms that: "Through reproductive technology, postmodernist art dispenses with the aura. The fiction of the creating subject gives way to the frank confiscation, quotation, excerptation, accumulation and repetition of already existing images. Notions of originality, authenticity and presence, essential to the ordered discourse of the museum, are undermined.” (p53) All that, inspired by reflections on Rauschenberg! That the museum continues to maintain its ordered discourse perhaps only goes to support your interpretation of aura in relation to commodity fetishism. Here, I agree with Boris Groys, who argues that contemporary art is essentially a reproductive exhibition practice, concerned with its own staging/performance, hence the predominant mode of installation art (or, in the case of photography, big/serial/found images?).

I’m certainly intrigued by your desire to shift from reproduction to (Derridean) dissemination – in order to appreciate “the dividing of identity that constitute all acts of reproduction”. To me this evokes the Internet, as Charlotte alludes to. Meanwhile, on the issue of reproductions and complications of authorship, I’m always reminded of photographs of artworks themselves, like Stieglitz’s photograph of Duchamp’s urinal (the sculpture itself being lost), and Man Ray’s photograph of the Large Glass (which Duchamp gave the name Dust Breeding). But this is familiar territory, of course – recently explored in that MUMA show on photography and sculpture, ‘the original copy’.

Anyway, a “history for photography from the inside out” sound good. So I look forward to your future posts for an elaboration of what all this means, and how it might be achieved.

Geoff Batchen
Posted 20.09.2012 at 05:27

Hi Daniel,

It's true, critics like Krauss and Crimp engage the relationship of original and copy in the course of making a case for a postmodern art that mimics existing vernacular genres of photography. Of course, Crimp's wish for an end to aura is not much more than that; photographs by Cindy Sherman have quickly become "Shermans," works of art bearing a signature style rather than quotations of the genre of the film still, with her originality as a creative artist frequently reasserted through the high prices her work realizes in the art market. So let me modify my own wish and lament the absence of sustained and substantial discussions of reproduction and its effects, especially in histories of photography.

Posted 19.09.2012 at 15:16

Dear all,

thank you for this interesting post and comments. I would be very interested in reading more about your thoughts on the dissemination phenomenon in relationship to artistic photography and in relation to reproduction of art works. As we now-days see most art works through reproductions and online such considerations as shape, size, materiality etc. are getting increasingly blurred.

I would also like to comment on Daniel Palmers agreeing with Boris Groys, who argues that contemporary art is essentially a reproductive exhibition practice, concerned with its own staging/performance, hence the predominant mode of installation art (or, in the case of photography, big/serial/found images?). I strongly disagree to this view. This view might well be an acute sophistic generalization of a certain institutional "art-world thinking" but should not be confounded with the practice and research of contemporary artists and photographers.

Jörg Scheller
Posted 21.09.2012 at 10:39

Dear Geoffrey,

many thanks for your opening post! First, I would like to touch upon your brief mentioning of the “authentic relationship” with an image in a broader sense or, more specific, an artwork. In art history, where I come from originally, Benjamin's notion of aura & reproduction has caused much trouble since it has served as a catalyst for cultural pessimists who like to equate modern art with rootlessness and estrangement. From this point of view, photography must of course be considered as a genuine collaborator in the alleged rise of social estrangement. Benjamin, however, actually saw an emancipatory potential in (photographic) reproduction as well, sensing its democratizing effect, whereas Horkheimer and Adorno, in their essay “Dialectic of Enlightenment”, indulged themselves in good old European contempt of capitalism, consumerism, and the implied viral reproduction of just about anything – yet even they had to admit, albeit in a peripheral paragraph, that above all princely patronage and thus the old class system had allowed for the proliferation of the unique, authentic, autonomous masterpiece. The autonomous, auratic image/artwork represents the logic of aristocracy.
Now, if we look at the history of reproduction, particularly in the context of photography, it is clear that is has not brought along uniformity but, as you have pointed out convincingly, a broad range of “dissemination” techniques, practices, and aesthetics. Hence it could be argued that the critique of reproduction already lies within reproduction itself. If we stay with Derrida's terminology, we could refer to his seminal observation that the condition for deconstruction can be at work WITHIN the work which is to be deconstructed. Thus the critic's main task is to explicate the intrinsic contradictions, self-transgressions, and, so to speak, autoimmune processes which are at work within the work. However, it is salient to stress that, at the same time, reproduction and its dynamics of dissemination implicitly point towards – using a lofty term – the “idea”, or, more prosaically speaking, the basic pattern, the common denominator of the derivatives of the respective “original”, precisely through multiplication. In this regard, the many forms of reproduction/dissemination could be defined as a clandestine platonic undertaking, as an underestimated way to establish unity through diversity. Even more: if reproduction/dissemination discloses some sort of “idea” which transcends a multitude of apparitions, the alleged auratic or “ideal” original object/image/artwork implicitly, in turn, points toward reproduction...
Finally, I would like to recommend Wolfgang Ullrich's book “Raffinierte Kunst: Übung vor Reproduktionen” to all German-speaking readers. Ullrich attempts to re-assess reproduction as an artistry, as a refinement of the overrated original. To give one example: in early modern times, engravings where often regarded as superior to the “original” painting or sculpture because only they allowed for the “dissemination” of the idea, of the message which was at stake.

David Campany
Posted 21.09.2012 at 23:59

Talbot certainly had a knack for making photographs that were succinct metaphors for the photographic condition.

But strictly speaking isn’t every photograph a metaphor of its own condition? How could it not be? And if that condition is itself at least in part reproductive/disseminative then we might be able to see why it is that the discussion of reproduction proceeds so erratically. Debate on the matter has been most intensive in the 1880s (prompted by the arrival of halftone printing of photographs), the 1920s (prompted by the sudden expansion photographic mass media – magazines, books, journals), the 1960s (prompted by the eclipse of the illustrated press by television) and then the mid 1990s/early 2000s (prompted by the redefining of the photographic in light of mass digitization). Asking photography to contemplate reproduction is a bit like asking a fish to contemplate water. It only seems to be able to do it when the water changes, and then only with difficulty.

Geoffrey, have you felt your water change?

Geoff Batchen
Posted 26.09.2012 at 06:01

Hi David,
The water is always changing, or at least swirling by. Obviously, the emergence of digital technologies and the consequent modifications of the practice of photography can't help but inform my thinking about the past. The question of dissemination, of its effects and implications, seems particularly urgent in this context. But, for me, the pursuit of this question also seems a logical extension of my earlier work. I began with a book about photography's conception. Now I'd like to write one about its dissemination. In both cases, I'm interested in the problem of devising a way of thinking the politics of photography that can complicate the notion that such a politics is only to be found outside a given photograph. Dissemination encompasses both what a photograph is and what it does and has done to it. Like Talbot, I see this as a rich metaphor indeed.


Geoff Batchen
Posted 26.09.2012 at 05:49

Dear Jörg,
Yes, as you suggest, dissemination is always already there, waiting to be exacerbated into visibility. I guess my question is why it has therefore been made invisible in our histories of photography. And, as you also suggest, one cannot effectively replace 'singularity' with 'dissemination,' one being necessary to the other. We need to devise a mode of history that can keep both these possibilities in motion, without coming to rest at either pole.


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