Photography in the Age of Digital Reproduction

In 1935 the German philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin was pointing out, in his seminal essay "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", the profound shift in the means of production and consumption of art. Up until then, with the exception of woodcut and similar printing media, the work of art had always been defined by its uniqueness. There was one original work, that could only be experienced on site, in person.

All of a sudden, with the development of photography, the film negative offered the possibility to make unlimited prints, each and every one a copy and an original at the same time. Copies could be in different places at the same time, and the same copy could be produced in completely different times – with pretty much the same result every time. Gone seemed the days where a work of art had its here and now as Benjamin puts it – referencing Heidegger’s hic et nunc – meaning the existence of it was only possible in relation to its physical presence in space and time.

Fast forward to today, and we see digital images that exist in absurd amounts of copies on the screens of millions at the same time (or in case of my own website and Instagram account, on the screens of but a handful, no doubt very discerning connoisseurs). Oddly enough, the omnipresence in the virtual cloud seems to doom this endless succession of images to a much more ephemeral existence - as they are literally gone in the flicker of a screen. So, can these be considered artwork?

Not quite: they only have the potential to be artwork. The film negative, as well as the digital image, are still just potentially artwork, as they are still the sum of all the possibilities. Choices were not yet made. Sure, the photo may have been edited, but a digital file can just as easily be edited again, not to mention it changes based on the calibration of the screen. If nothing else, it can be made smaller or bigger, to the point where it is an unrecognisable concoction of pixels. Not until the artist creates a print, reconnecting the artwork to its physical existence in the here and the now, does the negative (how fitting the term “negative” is) become an actual work of art.

The original is what remains after all the choices have been made and the photograph, paradoxically enough, was borne into its definitive form within the perishable material world in a very limited amount of copies. The only possibilities still open are ones of interpretation or perception, but the work’s physical being is defined and guaranteed for authenticity and rarity (or even uniqueness) by the artist’s own signature.

Which brings us to another crucial question: what would happen if an artist chose to make an endless amount of prints of the same photo? Technically it would still be art, but not very valuable one. Each print made simply reduces the value of the total. Also, if we consider facsimiles, as beautiful as the photo may be that comes with an Ikea frame, we would not consider that imitation to be the actual work of art, nor does it bear any value. Does seeing the Mona Lisa on phone cases and tote bags diminish the experience of seeing the real painting? Probably it does. But at the same time, all the value is still in the original. Without the original, all copies would be meaningless. But without copies, the original would still maintain its value.

I can find a can of Campbell soup in most supermarkets, and yet none but Warhol’s would be considered art. Warhol’s entire body of work seems a parody of Benjamin’s musings about art’s lost aura. So it is on purpose I wish to conclude with Warhol as he manages, in a very pop fashion, to show us how even a humble can of soup can be given that intangible aura, not lost after all, but merely faded. To restore it, we must do a balancing act between a distracted devouring of copies and a more receptive appreciation of the original. 

This is not the (work of) art.

This is not the (work of) art.