(Lack of) Value in Portrait

“In the fleeting expression of a human face, the aura beckons from early photographs for the last time. This is what gives them their melancholy and incomparable beauty,” (108).


I hate this photograph. It was taken over Thanksgiving break when my friend Catie and I travelled to London to visit friends, and had afternoon tea at Harrods. We splurged after walking around all day, and ordered an entire spread: sandwiches, croissants, and pastries. The second the waitress sat them down on our table, we dug in, and before we knew it, we had devoured the first two layers of the beautifully crafted display. I immediately regretted that I had failed to capture a picture of the tray, but luckily, the people who sat down next to us had ordered the same thing, and it was being set on their table right as soon as my regret sat in. I asked them if I could take a picture of their feast, secretly longing to get the chic British couple in the shot, but they both sat back in their seats, avoiding my lens. I love candid pictures, capturing people in their natural environments, enjoying their tea and making eyes at each other over the table, and was disappointed by my poorly-composed image.

In regards to this photograph, I can understand Benjamin’s claim in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility” in section VII that the human face brings a certain value to many photographs. There is nothing to wonder about this photograph, there is nothing particularly intriguing or interesting about its composition, there is no human interaction that leaves the viewer curious to know more about the relationship or thoughts going through the subjects head. However, as Benjamin deduces, images without a subject can “unsettle the viewer [as he] feels challenged to find a particular way to approach them,” (108).

This image was taken on the same trip in a quiet side street near our hotel. Similar to Atget’s photographs of streets in Paris, I find this photograph haunting, and almost eerie. How is a city known to be bustling with residents, visitors, and students studying abroad so quiet? Without a caption, and without an explanation, the viewer would never know this was taken around dinnertime on a Sunday. The lack of people is, in fact, what makes this picture so special and so haunting to me personally. It exemplifies Benjamin’s explanation of the value of photography in capturing the details, the contrast, and the ironic emptiness of a place.


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