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Wolkenwandelbarkeit: Benjamin, Stieglitz, and the medium of photography.

In his essay from 1933, "Erfahrung und Armut," Walter Benjamin evokes the fractured character of modernity, as well as the difficulty in communicating historical experience. In a particularly vivid image of soldiers returning from the trenches of the First World War, he brings together these two themes through the figure of clouds: "Eine Generation, die noch mit der Pferdebahn zur Schule gefahren war, stand unter freiem Himmel in einer Landschaft, in der nichts unverandert geblieben war als die Wolken" (2.1:214). This remarkable scene--which is also evoked in his essay, "Der Erzahler"--stages a dramatic contrast between the dynamic pace of the technological age, culminating in mass warfare, and the seemingly unchanging natural landscape. Yet whereas this passage appears to mobilize the cloud as a figure of consistency and static sameness, the nature of the cloud--caught between transparency and opacity, form and formlessness--renders this very consistency questionable. After all, throughout his critical and literary works, Benjamin explores the cloud as a radically dynamic object caught in a process of perpetual transfiguration.

In this article, I examine precisely this more dynamic, dispersive, ungrounded character of the cloud as a figure that is not opposed to technology, but which rather plays a central role in two fundamental reassessments of what we understand under the rubric of the photographic image and the structure of its medium: Alfred Stieglitz's photographs and Benjamin's writings on photography, both of which offer us new and unexpected ways of thinking about photography in terms of a cloud-like structure of non-self-identity. By placing these two contemporaries in dialogue through the cloud as it figures in their reflections on photography and visual perception, we gain insight into the structure of self-alterity and self-differentiation, which conditions not only every photographic image, but the photographic medium as such. The cloud reveals this structure with particular luminosity because of its unique character as a figure of disfiguration, caught in a perpetual drift away from itself, always splitting and dispersing in several possible directions at once. In order to grasp the implications of Stieglitz's and Benjamin's ways of thinking about the cloud-like structure of the image, we begin with a brief overview of the history of cloud photography, outlining the prevailing views that inform the development of this genre up to the early twentieth century.

A Short History of Cloud Photography

For technological, epistemological, and aesthetic reasons, cloud images hold a special place within the transnational history of photography. (1) From the earliest days of camera technology, photographers sought to capture the sky. This desire, however, was long frustrated by technical limitations. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, it was impossible to capture both earth and sky together in one image. (2) While early photographic chemicals were relatively insensitive to everything below the horizon (necessitating long exposure times), the same chemicals were highly sensitive to the blueness of the sky above. Therefore, if a photographer were to capture the properly lit sky, the earth beneath it would appear as an underexposed, opaque surface. Conversely, if the earth were adequately captured, the sky would develop overexposed. This dilemma essentially forced early photographers to choose between creating a landscape or a skyscape, but never a union of the two in one picture. (3)

In the mid-1850s, the Parisian photographer Gustave Le Gray developed the standard method for overcoming this impasse, a method that is often cited as the oldest example of photomontage. Rather than trying to capture land and sky (or, more typically in his particular case, clouds and ocean) in one photographic shot, Le Gray spliced together the negatives of two separately taken photographs to render the illusion of a single image in the resulting print. Fie termed the ensuing prints of this ground-breaking technique "composite" or "combination" images. Whereas photomontage today is often understood as a mode of optical illusion or photographic manipulation, Le Gray and the school of landscape photographers that followed his example did not tend to conceive of this process as a less authentic mode of photography. Instead, as a response to a specific technological problem, combination printing remained true to these photographers' larger aim of accurate, realistic reproduction. Images in which the sky or earth appeared in a distorted fashion were considered undesirable abnormalities. Combination printing, meanwhile, allowed the photographer to solve this problem while adhering to the photographic ideal of mimetic representation, of transparently replicating the objective world. Rather than abstract shots of solely the sky or the earth, which would unsettle conventional perspective, this method grounded and oriented both viewing subject and depicted object to one another by way of a horizonal fusion of sky and earth.

LeGray's "Le Brick" (The Brig) from 1856, one of the oldest existing combination images, is a paradigmatic example of composite landscape photography (see Figure 1). The seamless fusion of the sky and sea leaves no hint that this photograph was, in actuality, made from two glass negatives. By joining the clouds with the sea, not to mention framing the shoreline in the foreground of the picture and the eponymous brig at its center, the photo offers both an object to behold--a landscape to which the clouds, the boat, and the shore all belong--and a subjective position from which to see it. The viewer of this scene, the implicit subjective vantage point we assume through the camera's perspective, clearly stands on a ground opposite the object of perception, detached by a distance from it. Located slightly above the shoreline in the immediate foreground, the position from which the photograph is taken is so conventional that it almost seems mundane. In other words, there is nothing de-familiarizing about the perspective of this photograph. On the contrary, the scene reenacts the common viewpoint of an embodied observer looking out onto the ocean. The horizon in this scene functions as a stabilizing reference point, an orienting marker. Without the grounding sea in the bottom third of the image, it would be impossible to determine the approximate place of origin of the viewer's line of vision. Thus, the combination of sky and earth in the composite image not only solves a technological dilemma, but also has wider-reaching aesthetic and epistemological implications.

By attaching the clouded sky to the earth, composite printing enables photographers to imitate a "natural" mode of perception. Facilitated by the ostensibly invisible, transparent medium of photography, visual perception is staged as a movement that occurs between an embodied observer, an individual occupying a particular place and time, and an external object. In "Le Brick," Le Gray captures and helps to reinforce this conventional conception of perception in the implicit interaction between the viewer on the shore and the seascape at a distance. Acting as a reference point that allows us to calculate the relation of the observer to the scene, the horizon plays the crucial function of determining the relationship of subject and object to one another in this scene of photography.

The importance of joining the clouded sky to the earth (and thereby positing a stable, subjective point of perception), became a guiding principle of cloud photography persisting into the early twentieth century. (4) Indeed, in the realm of landscape photography, composite printing remained the dominant model for treating clouds, even after new remedies to the technological dilemma had emerged. Perhaps the most significant solution came in 1884 with the introduction of orthochromatic plates. First developed by the German photochemist Hermann Wilhelm Vogel, these plates solved the problems posed by the azure color of the sky by redistributing the light-sensitivity more evenly across the plate. But as Vogel himself described seven years later, combination printing remained the preferred method for dealing with clouds, for one seldom finds "einen schonen und passenden Himmel uber einer Landschaft. Bei Mangel eines solchen aber bleibt nichts ubrig, als einen passend gestimmten Himmel abzuwarten und separat aufzunehmen und einzukopieren" (193). (5) This statement demonstrates a shift in the changing views toward composite cloud photography at the time.

By the late nineteenth century, composite landscape photography no longer drew its main impetus from a technical difficulty, but from the artistic desire to match the earth with an appropriate skyscape. Unlike factors such as lighting or framing, which can be controlled on-site or retroactively, through different darkroom techniques, the specific formation of the clouds above a landscape exceeds the photographer's control. Composite printing posed away for photographers to overcome this lack of mastery over the image and thus became instrumental for not only technological, but also creative reasons.

The shift from the realistic aims (or justifications) of composite landscape printing in the early years of photography to the deliberately artificial use of this technique coincided with a new emphasis on so-called "art photography." In the 1890s, a series of smaller, more affordable cameras entered the market. This greater accessibility to photographic equipment resulted in a fresh wave of amateur photographers, precipitating a shift in the prevailing views of photography at the time. Inspired by the impressionist painters, these new picture-takers sought to raise photography to the level of the fine arts by supplanting the traditional goals of sharp, precise, realistic representation with a deliberately unfocused, fuzzy style, a sort of nebulous gaze. This influential movement became known as "pictorialism."

A prototypical example of pictorialist photography is found in the young Stieglitz's iconic "The Hand of Man" (see Figure 2). In this crepuscular scene, whose composition mimics a conventional landscape with the sky and ground forming the two halves of the image, detail and sharpness give way to dim obscurity, and the traditional nature scene is replaced by an industrial vista. The sharp steel lines of the train tracks fade into oblivion at a distance; the silhouetted electricity pole on the left loses its form in the darkness surrounding its base; and perhaps the most distinct feature, the black smoke billowing from the locomotive, dissolves upwards into the clouded sky. Even the most pronounced details dissolve into indeterminacy. The cumulative effect is one of murkiness. The picture evokes more of a hazy atmosphere than any particular object that is captured in it.

This particular image is also striking because its themes, smoke and technology, can be read as an allegory of pictorialism itself. The smoke that emerges from the train and fades into the sky functions as a metaphor for the way modern technology, with all of its photographic precision, issues in a nebulous mode of perception. No longer striving for the effect of transparent immediacy, Stieglitz, with this pictorialist picture, makes its artificiality, its constructedness, into part of the image, as the photographic gaze begins to cloud over. The mechanical sharpness of the photographic apparatus, with its promise of transparent perception, is replaced by an aestheticizing gaze. In contrast to the neat alignment and sharp depiction of the clouds and sea in Le Gray's composite images, cityscape and sky blend indistinctly into one another in the diffuse horizon of Stieglitz's "The Hand of Man," whose title itself draws attention to the role of the artist and medium involved in creating this image.

Whereas composite landscape photographers typically aimed to represent accurately what they saw, to portray nature both as it truly is and in the form that it is naturally perceived in (from the perspective of grounded subjects looking out onto external objects), pictorialists began to unsettle the conventions of such perception and representation by bringing the distant clouds so close that they fog over the photographic gaze. Objective reality, pictorialist photographs suggest, is a murky projection of the subject's gaze, a construction filtered through an embodied observer who is anything but transparent.

Although the pictorialists' unfocused mode of sight begins to foreground what we could term the cloud-like medium of (photographic) vision, this mode of perception, I suggest, does not acquire its fullest artistic articulation until several years later, in Stieglitz's series of cloud studies and, in theoretical form, in Benjamin's reflections. As much as the pictorialists, including Stieglitz in his early career, turn away from a transparent conception of the photographic medium and a corresponding attachment to objective representation, they nonetheless remain beholden to the rigid subject-object configuration that underpins composite imagery (even while shifting their emphasis towards the subjective dimension thereof). Stieglitz's late cloud images, on the other hand, fundamentally unsettle both sides of the subject-object relation to disclose a more dynamic, unstable view of the photographic medium.

In the following section, I analyze Stieglitz's cloud images, focusing on the volatile, radically heterogeneous structure that they unearth. By drawing our attention to the structural instability and heterogeneity of the photographic medium, Stieglitz's images call for us to conceive of the photographic image differently, namely in a manner that takes into account the image's own its non-identity with itself. Much as the cloud, as we will see below, becomes a crucial figure for Benjamin in his rethinking of the image in terms of medial self-alterity, the cloud stands at the center of Stieglitz's studies into photography, but in doing so disperses this center, causing it to drift away from itself. Rather than images of external clouds or projections of a hazy internal gaze, Stieglitz's images of clouds self-reflectively turn back on themselves: one is to imagine the image from the ever-shifting perspective of a self-differentiating, dynamic (a)positional cloud.

Alfred Stieglitz's Cloud Photographs

From 1922 to 1931, Stieglitz printed approximately 400 cloud photographs in order, as he put it, to "find out what I had learned in 40 years about photography" (237). Although Stieglitz attributes his initial interest in clouds to the technical difficulty of capturing them on film, the longevity of his fascination reveals a more profound connection. Reflecting on his formative years in Germany, when he studied photography under Vogel (the inventor of orthochromatic plates mentioned above), Stieglitz intimates a structural affinity between photography and the figure of the cloud that keeps them interlocked with one another in his mind:

   Thirty-five or more years ago I spent a few days in Murren
   (Switzerland), and I was experimenting with ortho plates. Clouds
   and their relationship to the rest of the world, and clouds for
   themselves, interested me, and clouds which were difficult to
   photograph--nearly impossible. Ever since then clouds have been in
   my mind, most powerfully at times, and I always knew I'd follow up
   the experiment made over 35 years ago. I always watched clouds.
   Studied them. (235)

Years later, when Stieglitz follows up his earlier experimentation in order to see what clouds could teach him "about photography," it is with an eye towards this double relation: the way they relate to "the rest of the world," and the way they are in "themselves."

One of the ways Stieglitz explores the relational nature of the cloud--"clouds for themselves" and clouds to "the rest of the world"--is by separating the cloud from the horizon. In the hundreds of cloud photographs he produced during his career, the majority share this unusual feature: they have no horizon or any other objective point of reference. This framing technique lends the photos an abstract, ethereal quality. In capturing the sky in detail, but without any landscape from which to orient the viewer, Stieglitz challenges the supposed antithesis of realistic representation and aesthetic abstraction. Neither earth-bound nor unfocused, these horizonless images upset the inherited dichotomies organizing not only the genre of cloud photography, but also the subject-object relation that governs our conventional views of photography as such. Stieglitz's decontexualized cloud images drastically disorient the viewer and the image, subject and object, by removing and calling into question the very ground of this relation. Instead, both the pictures themselves and the viewing subject seem to exist in an uprooted state: hovering, directionless, inducing a sensation of vertigo.

Stieglitz explored and emphasized this disorienting condition in a number of ways. Beginning in 1925, he would often exhibit several prints of the same photograph next to one another using different sides of the image as the base, playing on the fact that it is impossible to tell what is up and what is down, in the absence of a grounding horizon. (6) Around this time, he also started calling each one of these images by the same name: "equivalent." Shortly after arriving at this title, he began to interchange it intermittently with the plural "equivalents," also applying this plural form, seemingly indiscriminately, to single prints. (7) In 1927, Stieglitz went a step further and began to inscribe explicitly the very sort of plurality implied by the title, "equivalents," onto the back mounting of selected prints. There one finds phrases (which hardly qualify as directions for exhibitors) such as: "All ways are 'right,'" "all ways are up," and "goes all ways." (8) In blurring the distinction between one cardinal direction and another, between up and down, left and right, these poly-positional images stage a key attribute of the polymorphous clouds they depict: their unruly, dispersive character. (9)

The latent capacity inherent in Stieglitz's horizonless cloud photographs to be hung or viewed differently from the way they were first exhibited not only undermines the notion of an "original," stable position, but in so doing, also transforms these pictures from merely static images of clouds into dynamic cloud-images capable of drifting in several directions at once. There is no single "right" way of viewing or relating to these cloud-images, for every possible orientation is haunted by a plurality of other potential perspectives, which do not allow any one position to be privileged above the rest. As a result of their immanent poly-positionality, Stieglitz's clouds hover in a state of suspension. Always oriented in "all ways," these images expose an undecidability that traverses and conditions the decision for any one "right" way of viewing or grounding the image. This irresolvable undecidability, a plural heterogeneity subtending these singularly unique photographs, both destabilizes these images--keeping them afloat, adrift, and ungrounded--and yet simultaneously forms the very condition of possibility for them to acquire a stable context or reference point against which to be viewed.

Stieglitz indicates a dimension of this uncontainable medial heterogeneity when he discusses his role as a photographer and his choice of clouds as photographic material. The equivalents series, he argues, proves that the power of his images cannot be ascribed to "subject matter--not to special trees, or faces, or interiors, to special privileges," for "clouds were there for everyone--no tax as yet on them--free" (237). Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, Stieglitz avers the exceptionality of his images by denigrating both his individual talents as a photographer, as well as the uniqueness of the objects captured by his camera. What makes his photographs unique, he suggests, lies beyond the scope of a conventionally defined subject-object relation. The cloud series attests to a larger photographic potentiality, a general capacity to which every photograph and photographer exists in relation. According to Stieglitz, this photographic potential has both a spatial component--as object matter, the clouds are "there for everyone"--and, as he later notes in the same letter, a temporal aspect--the possibility of having shot these particular pictures lies latent "in the power of every photographer of all time" (237). Furthermore, we should add, this potential exists prior to and thus exceeds an economy of exchange--there is "no tax as yet on them."

Stieglitz's cloud-images disclose a larger photographic potentiality that extends beyond the immediate subject matter (the clouds) captured in any one of his photographs. Hovering between their own necessary empirical singularity--the fact that they were taken at a particular place and time, by a particular subject of a specific object--and a more fundamental medial heterogeneity, which forms the unstable condition of possibility for any singular photographic iteration, each of Stieglitz's cloud-images stages and makes visible a structural tension that would otherwise remain unseen. With no ground from which to coordinate the angle or place of origin of the photographer, nor to determine in which direction we are looking when we assume the place of the camera's gaze, these cloud-images unfix the viewer's location relative to both space and time, causing the observer to confront the instability of his own unique perspective and the dispersive, (un)grounded, self-differentiating medium on which it rests.

If these photographs recreate the sensation of lying on one's back under an open sky, mesmerized by the slowly passing and transforming clouds above, beneath the observer one should imagine an abyss. The seeing self moves upwards, but also, importantly, in no specific direction at all, giving itself over ecstatically to the unpredictable dispersive movement of clouds. Unhinged from the earth and its material substrate, these images transport the viewer into a diffuse, dynamic, scattered realm --the ungrounded medium of photography. As Stieglitz remarks in his comment about the universal availability of clouds (their "freeness"), taking clouds as his subject matter places not only him, but all of those who view these photographs into a cohort with all photographers, in all places, at all times.

It is unknown whether Benjamin should be included in this cohort of those who have seen and been unsettled by Stieglitz's cloud images, for one finds no explicit mention of Stieglitz or his photographs throughout Benjamin's variegated oeuvre. And yet there exists an uncanny resemblance between Stieglitz's images and Benjamin's own reflections on the erratic character of the photographic medium. One reason for this proximity stems from Stieglitz's and Benjamin's mutual interest in the cloud as a figure for a more dynamic, unstable mode of visual perception. In his writings on photography, this cloud-like form of visuality acquires its fullest (disfigured) shape in Benjamin's treatment of aura as a gateway to the structure of photographic referentiality and as an indication of the (im)possibility that an image acquire a stable horizon or context.

Auratic Atmosphere

In 1931, as Stieglitz was concluding his almost decade-long work on the equivalents series, Benjamin published his own study of the medium of photography, the "Kleine Geschichte der Photographic." In this essay, as well as in the closely related study, "Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit" (1935-36), Benjamin situates photography at the beginning of a historical shift from an era dominated by an "auratic" mode of perception and representation to the modern era of mass, mechanical reproduction. "Aura," a notoriously difficult term in Benjamin's oeuvre, is here (provisionally) characterized by the cult value of the singular, unique artwork, embedded within a fixed spatio-temporal context, and with a clear referential link to the moment of its creation. (10) In other words, it is the aura of an artwork that binds it to a singular, determinate horizon. Although the invention of photography marks the moment at which technological modes of mass reproduction begin clearly to overtake the auratic artworks of craftsmen--a loosening of the artwork from its horizon, if you will--Benjamin does not posit a complete rupture or antithesis between aura and photography. On the contrary, he locates the last stages of the auratic age as a process that unfolds within the medium of photography. Whereas early photographs still emanate aura, further technological development ushers in its gradual dissolution from the photographic realm.

In narrating the story of the decline of aura throughout the "Kleine Geschichte," Benjamin repeatedly employs meteorological, cloud-like rhetoric. Aura is variously described as an atmosphere, associated with breath and fog, and linked to an unfocused, nebulous photographic style. Eduardo Cadava observes this imagery already in the very first scene of the text, noting that a "fog spreads its mist throughout the essay," making both knowledge and vision difficult (7). While we should read this fog that disperses itself across the text in line with the focus on aura throughout, the figures Benjamin deploys also inscribe this text into a larger complex of thinking on visual cloudiness. Indeed, from his early, unfinished project on color, play, and fantasy to his late autobiographical writings and the Passagen-Arbeit, Benjamin repeatedly returns to the cloud in describing modes of perception. (11) Although the cloud never presents itself as such in the essay on photography, the dispersion of this figure, or its dis-figuration, into related tropes such as fog, atmosphere, and breath throughout the essay displays a key component of Benjamin's thinking on the cloudiness of aura and the image: namely, the difficulty of acquiring a firm grasp or direct knowledge, that is to say, a fixed horizon of aura as a sphere of immediacy. Never presenting itself directly, but only showing itself in a multiplicity of other forms, the possibility of aura ever having been completely, solidly present--so as to fix immediately the artwork or the image to a specific context or reference point--is unsettled from the outset by the diffuse, misty imagery used to capture it. Despite this figural shiftiness, at one level of the text, Benjamin avails of precisely such amorphous, atmospheric language in outlining the history of aura and its decline.

One likely contemporary influence on Benjamin's choice to convey the concept of aura through atmospheric rhetoric can be traced to a main resource he consulted in composing the essay on photography: Camille Recht's edited volume of nineteenth-century photography, Die alte Photographie (1931). In the preface to this book, the French-German poet Ivan Goll presents the narrative of a fall or decline instigated by photographic technology. According to Goll, prior to the invention of photography, humans tended to populate the space of the unknown "mit herrlichen und machtigen, bosen und unbegreiflichen Gottern." The advent of photography marks an end to this mystical, religious world view, a change that Goll suggestively aligns with the fall from paradise: "Aber langsam wurde des Menschen Auge scharfer und durchbohrte die Nebel.[...] So lernte der Mensch zwar genauer, [...] aber er gab dafur seine Himmel auf. Das wissende Auge wurde immer scharfer, auf Kosten der mystischen Vision" (11). For Goll, photography is linked to an enlightened mode of perception that is figured in the knowing eye (wissendes Auge), which bores through the fog ("durchbohrte die Nebel") of the nebulous, quasi-religious mode of perception tied to the heavens and sky ("Himmel"). In short, a mystic, theological, hazy mode of perception is replaced by the sharp, discerning, scientific gaze of the camera.

Modifying Goll's claim that the subjects in many early portrait photographs project a unique, "eigene Atmosphare" about them, Benjamin argues throughout the essay on photography that many early photographs contain traces of aura (14). This aura, he implies, makes itself most manifestly felt in the diffuse, blurry, imperfect style characteristic of the early days of photography. Adopting Goll's teleological outlook, Benjamin argues that, as the technology begins to come into its own, the aura of the photograph starts to recede. Improved lighting, considerably faster exposure times, and a generally more "advanced optics" ("fortgeschrittene Optik") lead to sharper, more precise images, and simultaneously to a loss of aura (2.1:366-67). It is with this story of auratic decline in mind that Benjamin re-reads the hazy, out-of-focus pictorialist style en vogue at the end of the nineteenth century. The deliberately blurry style that the pictorialist photographers developed is presented as a nostalgic desire to recapture the lost aura of early photography through artificial means: "Die Photographen jedoch sahen in der Zeit nach 1880 [...] es als ihre Aufgabe an, diese Aura durch alle Kunste der Retusche, insbesondere jedoch durch sogenannte Gummidrucke vorzutauschen" (2.1: 377). The attempt, and failure, of the photographers of this period to recreate and lodge aura into their photographs finds a radical counterexample in the photographs of Eugene Atget. Atget, rather than trying to conserve aura, or return aura into the photograph, explicitly thematizes and celebrates its disappearance as an aesthetic category.

Whereas the photographers of what Benjamin terms the "epoch of decline" ("Verfallsepoche") attempt unsuccessfully to recapture the aura of early photography through artificial means, the defining characteristic of Atget's images, Benjamin emphasizes, lies in their striking emptiness. They are suggestively compared to a "crime scene" ("Tatort"), or perhaps more literally and fittingly, to the scene of an event or deed (Tat) (2.1: 385). (12) But the event to which Atget's images bear witness is none other than that of the disappearance of aura. Aura, in absentia, becomes the negative, retroactive subject matter of Atget's photographs. Instead of trying to restore aura, as the pictorialists ostensibly aimed to do, Atget liberates his images from the stifling, stale atmosphere that results from superficially trying to fix and embed aura into the photograph (and thus give it a clear referential link or horizon):

   Als erster desinfiziert er die stickige Atmosphare, die die
   konventionelle Portratphotographie der Verfallsepoche verbreitet
   hat. Er reinigt diese Atmosphare, ja bereinigt sie: er leitet die
   Befreiung des Objekts von der Aura ein, die das unbezweifelbarste
   Verdienst der jungsten Photographenschule ist. (2.1: 378)

It is through his reading of Atget's photographs that a more fundamental aspect of Benjamin's thinking on photography, which brings him close to Stieglitz, becomes most noticeable. Rather than simply lamenting the loss of aura, or presenting this process as a purely linear, uni-directional historical movement, Benjamin reveals a more fundamental ungroundedness of the photographic image, which underpins not only non-auratic pictures, but the medium of photography as such. Unfettered from ties that bind the image to a particular historical location, as well as to a determined external referent, Atget (like Stieglitz) sets his photographs free to circulate under the open air of history. (13) But in self-reflectively disclosing their own detachment from a fixed, auratic horizon, Atget's images call into question the very fixity and consistency of the aura against which they purportedly give evidence and thus orient themselves. Pulled between the larger desire of orienting and grounding the photograph and celebrating its empty, radical disorientation, the history of the decline of aura reveals an irresolvable tension between two equivalently possible ways of approaching the image and its referentiality.

Wolkenwandelbarkeit and the Image

At a crucial point in the essay on photography, Benjamin turns to a childhood portrait of Kafka to explicate the relation between the aura-less gaze, and the aura that suffuses early portraiture. In contrast to Atget's empty images, in Kafka's portrait we find not only a subject, but also what Benjamin describes as an artificially produced sense of auratic plenitude. Invested, almost suffocatingly, with props, this image can be read as another attempt at (re)inscribing aura into the photograph through a feeling of authenticity, presence, and referential fullness. While the picture is not hazy like those of the pictorialists, the overflow of props that clutter it seem intended to recreate a sense of dense (auratic) atmosphere--what we might describe as a weightiness that would fasten it to a horizon:

   Da steht in einem engen, gleichsam demutigenden, mit Posamenten
   uberladenen Kinderanzug der ungefahr sechsjahrige Knabe in einer
   Art von Wintergartenlandschaft. Palmenwedel starren im Hintergrund.
   Und als gelte es, diese gepolsterten Tropen noch stickiger und
   schwuler zu machen, tragt das Modell in der Linken einen unmassig
   grossen Hut mit breiter Krempe, wie ihn Spanier haben. (2.1: 375)

From the tight-fitting, over-decorated suit Kafka wears, to the studio-simulated tropical environment in which he stands, every attribute of this scene, as Benjamin describes it, appears to overwhelm the child who stands at its center. Overcrowded, the picture is not only "stickig und schwul," but also stuffy, in a more literal sense, as objects threaten to bury the subject at its center. (14) This surfeit of things, which Benjamin depicts as an oppressive congealing of atmosphere, acquires vivid form in the enormous hat Kafka holds, whose largeness is described as not only immoderately but also possibly "tremendously" large: "einen unmassig grosen Hut." The massive, Spanish hat embodies the lushness of this image, which is filled to the brim. Yet despite this artificial overflow, and the sticky, immeasurably (unmassig) oppressive climate, the young Kafka, according to Benjamin's further commentary, does not succumb to the atmospheric pressure surrounding him, nor does he disappear into its surrounding arrangement (2.1: 375). On the contrary, through his "unermesslich traurigen Augen" the boy persists in an immeasurable sadness, marking what seems to be a diametrically opposed position--utter emptiness--to the purported plenitude around him. Benjamin addresses this dichotomy between plenitude and lack between which this image oscillates in the following passage:

   Dies Bild in seiner uferlosen Trauer ist ein Pendant der fruhen
   Photographie, auf welcher die Menschen noch nicht abgesprengt und
   gottverloren in die Welt sahen wie hier der Knabe. Es war eine Aura
   um sie, ein Medium, das ihrem Blick, indem er es durchdringt, die
   Fulle und die Sicherheit gibt. Und wieder liegt das technische
   Aquivalent davon auf der Hand; es besteht in dem absoluten
   Kontinuum von hellstem Licht zu dunkelstem Schatten. (2.1: 375-76)

If we follow the narrative of decline outlined above, then we might read these lines as a programmatic description of the fall from auratic wholeness and referential unity--from an implicitly theological, paradisal state, in Goll's terms--to a fractured, fragmented ("abgesprengt[en]") state of mechanical reproduction. But such an interpretation would be a misreading of this passage, not least because it would entail overlooking the striking, if seemingly enigmatic, definition that Benjamin offers for aura. Benjamin does not locate the "technische Aquivalent" of the aura in a self-contained object, as one would, perhaps, expect, but rather in what is suggestively described as a "Medium" that consists "in dem absoluten Kontinuum von hellstem Licht zu dunkelstem Schatten." It is necessary to read this description in the context of the lines immediately preceding it.

The two poles of the medium, of the "absolute[n] Kontinuum" of aura--the brightest light and the darkest shadow--mimic and repeat the relation Benjamin draws between the boundless ("uferlosen") loss evoked by Kafka's eyes and the fullness ("Fulle") of the auratic gaze. This technical equivalence suggests that non-auratic and auratic perception are not completely, diametrically opposed. Rather, these two poles mark complementary positions within one and the same photographic medium. In order to better understand this crucial distinction, let us briefly turn to Benjamin's earliest known explorations of the concept of the medium in his unfinished project on play, color, and fantasy. Written almost simultaneously and in connection with his essay, "Uber die Sprache uberhaupt und die Sprache des Menschen" (1916), the early color studies depict a structure of mediality that remains central throughout the various periods of Benjamin's thought, a way of approaching the medium whose visual implications have often been overlooked in favor of Benjamin's linguistic and philosophical reflections on the medium. (15)

In the rainbow-dialogue, as in other texts from the color studies, Benjamin develops a notion of the medium by which he, contrary to conventional views, does not conceive of it as an empty or transparent vehicle of transmission between subject and object, or, as he frames it in his language studies, as a stable line of communication (Mitteilung). Rather than positing transparent mediation across a stable horizon with a fixed aim, Benjamin explores the dynamic contours of the sphere of transmission as a single, unified sphere of differentiation. In the color studies, he identifies precisely such a sphere of contiguous difference in the color spectrum. Instead of viewing color as a secondary property attached to primary phenomena, in the artistic and child-like perception of color he uncovers a mode of seeing that does not travel across an empty medium of vision or light, but that sees within the color spectrum as a field of difference (i.e., sight moves from one colored position, our colored eyes, to another colored object).

This concept of contiguous difference is captured in a key term Benjamin repeatedly refers to in describing the color spectrum: "nuance." In the rainbow-dialogue, Benjamin describes the medium of color as "monoton nuanciert ohne Lichtund Schattenubergange," and as playing itself out in "unzahligen Nuancen" (7.1: 25). Variation within the color spectrum as we move from slightly distinct hues and shades of one color to another is so subtle, it is almost imperceptible. What appears to us as different colors are, in fact, nothing more than slight variations, nuances of the same monochromatic color of fantasy, that is to say, of the same medium. The medial point at which the colors of fantasy gather and simultaneously drift apart is not held together or separated by delimiting transitions ("sie ist ohne Ubergange"), but rather--and this, I argue, is key to Benjamin's concept of color as a visual medium--the operative principal of difference in this medium is the ability of color to nuance, to vary from itself by repeating itself in a slightly different form. The color of fantasy manifests itself in "unzahligen Nuancen," countless iterations of the same medium of color. In nuancing, color remains itself precisely in departing from itself. In other words, in transforming into a different color or iteration of the single, monochromatic sphere of transmission, color remains true to its own non-self-identical character as a medium. The nuanced structure of colorful difference is succinctly captured elsewhere in the text as follows: "Bunt und doch einfarbig" (7.1:25).

Benjamin's choice of the word "nuance" to capture this sort of immanent movement of non-self-identity central to the medium of color is not without consequence. Beyond its meaning as a "subtle or slight variation or difference," the OED also offers the following definition: "a subtle shade of a basic color; a slight difference or variation in shade or tone." This less common connotation of the word "nuance" stems from its original sense, when it was coined in late fourteenth-century Middle French. If we trace the etymology of the word "nuance" even further, however, we find at its root the Old French word for "cloud" (nue), a derivative of the classical Fatin nubes. The medium of the color spectrum contains a range of possible colors, it can disperse into different color-clouds (nuances), but none of these colors is more substantial, graspable, or grounded than any other. Grounded only in a difference that is self-immanent, the medium of color represents a sphere of pure alterity that is immaterial, insubstantial, non-fixed and that yet remains a single, united sphere--a color-cloud.

If we now return to consider the photographic medium as one of cloud-like aura, we see that it demarcates such a non-self-identical, amorphous space in which transmission and mediation, as effects of a self-differentiating medium, occur. In situating aura and its pendant at the opposite ends of one and the same spectrum, Benjamin gestures towards an intricate structural link between the supposedly self-identical mode of auratic presentation, and the shadow of non-self-identity that haunts and conditions all referentiality. In other words, if there is a medial link between aura and non-aura, then it is because aura can only ever present itself in moving away from itself, that is to say, in withdrawal. (16) The medium of photography, as an "absolute[s] Kontinuum" containing a range of values within the visual spectrum, marks a medium of self-difference in which phenomena split from themselves--an instance of the object of perception tearing away from itself in entering the image. Auratic perception, it turns out, is not the absolute coincidence of the image with what it records, for the very possibility of such coincidence always already depends on the non-coincidence of the photographic image and its referent.

This constitutive withdrawal, the supplemental shadow that coincides with aura and first allows it to become a visible object of perception, also plays a prominent role in Benjamin's most well-known definition of aura:

   Was ist eigentlich Aura? Ein sonderbares Gespinst von Raum und
   Zeit: einmalige Erscheinung einer Feme, so nah sie sein mag. An
   einem Sommermittag mhend einem Gebirgszug am Horizont oder einem
   Zweig folgen, der seinen Schatten auf den Betrachter wirft, bis der
   Augenblick oder die Stunde Teil an ihrer Erscheinung hat--das
   heisst die Aura dieser Berge, dieses Zweiges atmen. (2.1: 378)

The possibility for auratic perception that Benjamin describes in this scene necessitates above all a stably grounded perspective, as Samuel Weber has indicated: "What holds the aura of originality in place, as it were, is the subject as its point of reference, just as, conversely and reciprocally, the subject is ensconced, embedded, held in place and at rest by the scene that it both observes and also 'breathes in'" (Mass Mediauras 86). However, the horizonal perception of aura, the supposedly stable line of sight between a grounded subject and self-identical object within a fixed spatio-temporal context--the metaphorical "Gebirgszug am Horizont" that the auratic gaze always orients itself towards--is destabilized at its origin, as the object of perception branches out, proliferates as a copy of itself in the photograph, and departs from its stable origin in a multiplicity of directions. This inherent potential of the referent and line of sight to be carried away from themselves into the dispersive realm of representation already at their origin is captured in Benjamin's word for the object that is meant to solidify and stabilize the auratic gaze: "Gebirgszug am Horizont" (my emphasis). The mountain range, the horizon or reference point that should guide and situate auratic vision, withdraws, moves (ziehen) away from itself by entering into the photograph--a potential inherent to and perhaps even induced by the object which gives itself over to representation. The horizon of orientation, as external reference point, is replaced by an ungrounded, internal horizon latent within the explosive, contiguous structure of difference that defines the medium of photography. The photographic negative epitomizes this potential of technological "Reproduzierbarkeit" according to Benjamin, insofar as the question of an "Originalaufnahme" (a term Benjamin tellingly sets in quotation marks) is rendered moot by the latent capacity for mass production that lies at the heart of the photographic process (2.1: 376). He explains, "von der photographischen Platte z.B. ist eine Vielheit von Abzugen moglich; die Frage nach dem echten Abzug hat keinen Sinn" (7.1: 356-57). In potentiating "eine Vielheit von Abzugen," the plate destabilizes the concept of a stable origin that is not always already given over to repetition, distancing, and alterity from the very moment it becomes legible. In its very etymology, the photographic print, Ab-zug, signals a process of withdrawal in which an origin or object (such as the "Gebirgszug") only first becomes legible in taking leave from itself, departing from itself, in an act of immediate self-differentiation.

The most suggestive example of such originary heterogeneity comes at the beginning of the essay on photography. By repeating, retracing, and reproducing another origin (this time, that of photography itself), Benjamin inscribes into the primal scene of aura a splitting away, a dispersal into the order of representation:

   Der Nebel, der uber den Anfangen der Photographic liegt, ist nicht
   ganz so dicht wie jener, der uber den Beginn des Buchdrucks sich
   lagert; kenntlicher vielleicht als fur diesen ist, dass die Stunde
   fur die Erfindung gekommen war und mehr von einem verspurt wurde;
   Mannern, die unabhangig voneinander dem gleichen Ziele zustrebten:
   die Bilder in der camera obscura, die spatestens seit Leonardo
   bekannt waren, festzuhalten. Als das nach ungefahr funfjahrigen
   Bemuhungen Niepce und Daguerre zu gleicher Zeit gegluckt war,
   griff der Staat, begunstigt durch patentrechtliche
   Schwierigkeiten, auf die die Erfinder stiessen, die Sache auf und
   machte sie unter deren Schadloshaltung zu einer offentlichen. (2.1:

Although the facts surrounding the invention of photography are well documented, its beginning, or, more precisely, "beginnings" ("Anfange") obscure its precise point of origin. (17) Since photography owes its existence to more than one person or event, its genealogy cannot be traced back along a straight path. From the very moment of its inception, the medium finds itself implicated in more than one lineage, owing itself to more than one father: Niepce, Daguerre, and others. (18) The "patentrechtliche Schwierigkeiten" that Benjamin mentions allude to this larger, dispersed origin of the technology and the resulting fogginess that blankets the story of its genesis. From the outset, photography is unsettled and dislocated within its own narrative of origins, disrupting concepts such as originary creation and innovative genius, which Benjamin elsewhere identifies as intellectually bankrupt. (19) Read alongside the hazy "atmosphere" of aura, the fog that Benjamin identifies in the origins of photography suggests that aura was never completely itself from its very beginning(s), but rather a medium of alterity and non-self-identity in which auratic objects, if such things were ever present, drifted away from themselves in the trans-formative (de- and re-formative) visual realm of photography.

In the Passagen-Arbeit, Benjamin alludes to this very sort of self-alterity when he writes in a free-floating note that is itself devoid of all context: " Wolkenatmosphare, Wolkenwandelbarkeit der Dinge im Visionsraum" (5.2: 1024). Instead of a lack of auratic atmosphere--the sort of emptiness that Atget's photographs capture--or the merely historical attempts to re-inscribe atmosphere into the image, this cloud-atmosphere is evoked as an immanent "Wolkenwandelbarkeit," indicating a deeper structure that sets the (cloudy) ground for aura and its dis- or re-appearance. Inherently turning away from itself, like each of Stieglitz's cloud-images in their disorienting poly-positionality, the aura of the photograph finds itself implicated from the outset within a sphere of medial drift: within a dynamic "Visionsraum" of "Wolkenwandelbarkeit." In attuning ourselves to this aspect of immanent self-differentiation, of "alterability" (Wandelbarkeit) that structures the cloud, we gain insight not only into a key aspect that conditions every cloud, but also into the makeup of the photographic image. As Stieglitz remarks, clouds carry an intrinsic capacity of expanding our gaze to perceive myriad potentialities and relations at work in the photograph, of which we were previously unaware:

I have found that the use of clouds in my photographs has made people less aware of clouds as clouds in the pictures than when I have portrayed trees or houses or wood or any other object. In looking at my photographs of clouds, people seem freer to think about the relationships in the pictures than about the subject-matter for its own sake. (Norman 161)

Unlike objects such as trees or houses, which are viewed as themselves (that is to say, as self-identical), clouds are not stable, grounded phenomena. Perpetually drifting away from themselves in a state of "Wolkenwandelbarkeit," the clouds in Stieglitz's photographs, like aura in the earliest photographs, can be perceived in their entirety, only when we learn to recognize their alterability. This condition is what keeps them adrift and thwarts our one-sided attempts to fix them to a static horizon, and yet simultaneously sets the unstable ground for referential fulfillment, rendering it (im)possible. Benjamin and Stieglitz invite us to view clouds and photographs of clouds as more than static things--as more than "clouds as clouds"--and to become aware of the "as" structure that suffuses every photograph and every cloud: an irreducible relationality that causes each to drift incessantly away from itself and towards something else, hovering in a state of cloud-alterability.


Tufts University


(1) For an overview of the cloud figure in the modern visual arts, including a comprehensive analysis of its place within the history of photography, see Stuckelberger.

(2) The technical difficulties in photographing clouds were a much-discussed topic in the nineteenth century and the subject of several books and articles. An overview of this literature can be found in Stiegler 170-84.

(3) Stiegler suggestively descries this need to decide between sky and earth as a metaphysical dilemma in Randgange der Photographic, 11-26. The high stakes of this impasse are more striking in the German, where the word for "sky" (Himmel) can also mean "heaven."

(4) In his comprehensive overview of cloud photography, Starl describes how composite printing remained the prescribed method in photo-manuals into the 1930s, even if ever fewer photographers followed their authors' advice.

(5) This passage is also cited by Starl (6).

(6) See photographs 1109, 1110, and 1112-15 in Greenough.

(7) See photograph 1176 in Greenough.

(8) See, for example, photographs 1210, 1215, and 1225 in Greenough.

(9) The disorientation of the cloud photograph, as Annear remarks, captures something of the manner in which Stieglitz himself would have seen the sky through his camera: "looking through his Graflex at the sky, the usual orientation of left and right, up and down was reversed. To a photographer of the time this was a normal aspect of the apparatus, but it is an aspect that Stieglitz chose to exploit" (16).

(10) For the standard discussion of Benjamin's concept of aura, see Hansen.

(11) The most influential reading of the Benjaminian cloud remains the insightful essay by Hamacher, "The Word Wolke--If it is One." In addition to Hamacher's essay, in which he focuses most closely on the role of the figure in Berliner Kindheit and in Benjamin's philosophy of language, several other studies have highlighted different dimensions of this polymorphous image. For two worthwhile readings of the "wolkige Stelle" that Benjamin locates at the (diffused) center of Kafka's writing, see Kramer and Levine (Writing through Repression). For a useful overview of the prominent place of the cloud in the early color studies, see Bruggemann 221-28.

(12) For a comprehensive analysis of the central thematic of traces and the crime scene as it permeates Benjamin's essay, see Nitsche, especially 153-92.

(13) In "Uber den Begriff der Geschichte," Benjamin identifies precisely such an open space as the condition of possibility for a revolutionary leap within his brand of historical materialism. It would be a "Sprung unter dem freien Himmel der Geschichte" (1.2: 701).

(14) This constricting, stifling atmosphere is also addressed at length by Levine in his essay, "Of Big Ears and Bondage."

(15) For an insightful reading that brings together the linguistic concept of the "medium" that Benjamin elucidates in his philosophy of language and the "Reflexionsmedium" he writes of in his dissertation on early German Romanticism, see Weber "From Reflection to Repetition."

(16) A similar version of this concept is elucidated by Gerhard Richter, in Afterness, especially in the chapter, "Afterness and the Image (II): Image Withdrawal."

(17) For a related reading of this scene, see Cadava 5-7.

(18) It should be noted that Benjamin slightly distorts the historical facts, for Niepce and Daguerre ultimately worked together to create what became known as the daguerreotype. Despite this inaccuracy, Benjamin's general account about the split origin(s) of the invention remains valid, especially when one considers that several other inventors developed photographic technologies at approximately the same time, including Henry Fox Talbot in England and Hercules Florence in Brazil.

(19) In this sense, photography responds already here to what Benjamin later affirms as crucial for reproductive technologies at the outset of the artwork essay, namely, the need to counter concepts such as "Schopfertum und Genialitat," which are readily utilizable by Fascism and other political doctrines (7.1:350). For a reading of Benjamin's political gesture as one of creating "unusable" concepts, see Richter, "Toward a Politics of the Unusable," in Walter Benjamin.

Works Cited

Annear, Judy. "Clouds to Rain--Stieglitz and the Equivalents." American Art 25.1 (2011): 16-19.

Benjamin, Walter. Gesammelte Schriften. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhauser. 7 vols. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1972-89.

Bruggemann, Heinz. Walter Benjamin uber Spiel, Farbe und Phantasie. Wurzburg: Konigshausen & Neumann, 2007.

Cadava, Eduardo. Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997.

Greenough, Sarah, ed. Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Photographs. National Gallery of Art, 2002.

Hamacher, Werner. 'The Word Wolke--If it is One." Benjamini Ground: New Readings of Walter Benjamin. Ed. Rainer Nagele. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1988.

Hansen, Miriam. "Benjamin's Aura." Critical Inquiry 34.2 (2008): 336-75.

Kramer, Sven. Ratselfragen und wolkige Stellen: zu Benjamins Kafka-Essay. Luneburg: Zu Klampen, 1991.

Levine, Michael G. "Of Big Ears and Bondage: Benjamin, Kafka, and the Static of the Sirens." The German Quarterly 87.2 (2014): 196-215.

--. Writing through Repression: Literature, Censorship, Psychoanalysis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

Nitsche, Jessica. Walter Benjamins Gebrauch der Fotografie. Berlin: Kadmos, 2010.

Norman, Dorothy. Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer. New York Random House, 1973.

Recht, Camille. Die alte Photographie. Paris: Henri Jonqquieres, 1931.

Richter, Gerhard. Afterness: Figures of Following in Modern Thought and Aesthetics. New York Columbia UP, 2011.

--. Walter Benjamin and the Corpus of Autobiography. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2000.

Starl, Timm. "Eine kleine Geschichte der Wolkenphotographie." Stark bewolkt. Fluchtige Erscheinungen des Himmels. Ed. Berthold Ecker, Johannes Karel, and Timm Starl. Vienna: Springer, 2009. 22-39.

Stiegler, Bernd. Randgange der Photographie. Munich: Fink, 2012.

--. Theoriegeschichte der Photographie. Munich: Fink, 2006.

Stieglitz, Alfred. "How I Came to Photograph Clouds." Stieglitz on Photography: His Selected Essays and Notes. Ed. Richard Whelan and Sarah Greenough. New York Aperture, 2000.

Stuckelberger, Johannes. Wolkenbilder: Deutungen des Himmels in der Moderne. Munich: Fink 2010.

Vogel, Hermann Wilhelm. Photographische Kunstlehre oder die kunstlerischen Grundsatze der Lichtbildnerei. Fur Fachmanner und Liebhaber. Berlin: Oppenheim, 1891.

Weber, Samuel. "From Reflection to Repetition: Medium, Reflexivity and the Economy of the Self." Thinking Media Aesthetics: Media Studies, Film Studies and the Arts. Ed. Liv Hausken. Frankfurt: Lang, 2013. 51-66.

--. Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996.
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Title Annotation:Walter Benjamin, Alfred Stieglitz
Author:Powers, Michael
Publication:The German Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jun 22, 2015
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