A Photo of a Painting of a Photo

        In Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”, the author examines differences in effect and significance of different artistic media during an age in which digital images of any artwork can easily be found and replicated. As a painter myself, I found Benjamins passage on the role of the camera operator versus the role of the painter particularly interesting. The painter, Benjamin writes, is like a magician, maintaining a “natural distance” from the subject while asserting more individual perspective and authority. The cinematographer, however, is like a surgeon, “diminishing the distance from the patient [or subject] by penetrating the patients body, and increases [authority] only slightly by the caution with which his hand moves among the organs.”(115) So, he asserts, paintings allow for a singular, whole point of view, while film and photography can only slightly tamper with the reality that is already in front of the eye of the viewer. Benjamin goes on to assert that because of this, film is now more significant to depictions of reality than painting in our society.
       There are two things that strike me about this particular assertion. First, I couldn’t help but notice that right before this statement, Richter contradicts himself, or at the very least, directly states that film attempting to replicate reality is the “height of artifice.”(115) I happen to agree. It is using machinery to attempt to create reality as we see it. The camera exists to disappear in the eye of the viewer. This idea ironically reminds me of realism in painting at the turn of the 20th century. As Benjamin discusses, paintings were very commonly used as forms of portraiture, attempting to realistically capture the looks of family members, rulers, or other subjects. Since photography was not around, painting was the best possible option for this. When photography was invented, the painting, a long held tradition, suddenly was able to change its purpose and attempt to depict reality in different ways: namely, through abstraction. Georgia O’Keeffe, a 20th century American painter, has been quoted as saying “I often painted fragments of things because it seemed to make my statement as well as or better than the whole could… I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at… not copy it.” Obviously, there was and still is a school of thought that Benjamin ignores all too easily– one that believes that the only way to portray a true reality is to be honest about how an artist sees his or her subject.
        Second, I notice that much earlier on in his essay, Benjamin stresses the importance of authenticity, and how technology has devalued that authenticity by easily replicating the artwork. (103) He seems to believe that film has embraced that technology, allowing us to join new technology and art into one valuable practice.

"Betty," by Gerard Richter. Oil on canvas, 40 1/8 by 23 3/8 inches, 1988

This brings me to my Photo of the Week, which is a digital image of a painting by German artist Gerhard Richter. Actually, it is a photo of a painting of a photo. Richter openly mimics in his oil painting the flatness that is imposed on a subject–his daughter– by photography. According to Benjamin, this might devalue the authority of the painting because it openly veers from an important “historical testimony” (103) relating to painting, which is that one must always paint from life. The writer defines a “historical testimony as “the authority of the object, the weight it derives from tradition”(103), and the way that this image is planned and painted veers far from tradition. It does not look exactly like a girl with her head turned; it looks exactly a photo of a girl with her head turned. If that is not a winsome fusion of technology and art, then I don’t know what is.

        I would love to know what Benjamin has to say about “Betty”. In fact, I am a bit surprised at the way the author so easily ignores such a long-utilized medium. Rather than deeming painting obsolete relative to film and photography, he should be exploring more intruiging questions about how painting embraces technology and photography now, and how in turn we embrace it. How can such a precious practice deal with the devaluation of art as a physical object? The solutions are broad and endless in every type of art.
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