The End of an Aura?

Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Archival Materiality.

A presentation for The New School Parsons, Paris Fashion Heritage and Media research symposium held on 29th April 2022.

Keywords: aura, archive, materiality, fashion, communication, social media, photography

Abstract

A 15-minute talk exploring the notion of the aura, as defined by Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in relation to the materiality of traditional archives. This is investigated amongst the perceived loss of aura when fashion heritage is mediated through photography and spread to a wider audience via digital platforms including social media. This affords accessibility, but does it call an end to the aura of the objects?

Benjamin’s writing conjures many contradicting attitudes towards the development of technology in constituting and communicating artwork, and thereby fashion. The traditional archive and digital communication of fashion can be viewed as a dialectical matter, in which contradictory forces interact to construct popular understandings of fashion heritage.

An object is seen to gain legitimacy through its placement in history, and the existence of aura depends on uniqueness, which Benjamin thought was displaced through the reproductive capabilities of photography. Modern digital media allows innumerable levels of reproduction and therefore immeasurable depletion of the aura found in material archives. This essay explores the connection of this with the mediation of fashion heritage.


The invention of photography in the 19th Century is cited by many as either 1826 or 1839, though this is disputed in accordance with the exact definition of photography, meaning light drawing in Greek. Nevertheless, 1826 marked the year of the first fixed image on photographic material. Though, for centuries images had been created using apertures and light, for example the allowance of light through small holes in the ceilings of cathedrals to create imagery on the floor below. In the 19th Century, the pre-existing light sensitive silver based photographic material, a lens capable of creating an aperture and the required light with which to ‘draw’, finally converged and the process we now think of as photography was born. 

Figure 1. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1826) View from the Window at Le Gras.

In 1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce created the first fixed image, entitled View from the Window at Le Gras (fig. 1). He named his process Heliography, hailing from Helios, the Greek for sun. Later, in 1839, the term photography was popularised, as a practical process was established for creating fixed imagery. In that same year Louis Dagguere captured the first photograph, or as he named it a Daguerreotype, to include a person. Entitled Boulevard de Temple (fig.2), this was shot on a busy Paris street, but the long exposure time has meant that only a shoe shiner and his customer were still long enough to be captured.

Figure 2. Louis Dagguere (1839) Boulevard de Temple 

Fashion and photography became inextricably linked during the 20th century, both viewed as pseudo-arts in elite circles. Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, written in 1936, provides us an insight into the way in which photography revolutionised the art world, and how this was received in the early 20th Century. The rise of photography and socialism created fear amongst art critics of the 19th and early 20th Century in the supposed crisis created for traditional art. Additionally, photography accelerated the reproduction of art beyond the means of any previous technological invention. Photography freed artwork of the hand, which brought into question its validity as art in elite circles. Reproductions cannot afford art with the context of existing in one specific time and place. Also, the physical traces of history do not exist on the reproduction. Benjamin noted that ‘the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity’ (1936), therefore the reproduction can not obtain legitimacy in itself. 

Photographic copies can reach places that the original objects cannot and the photographic lens can see things that the naked eye cannot. However the very existence of the reproduction devalues the aura of the original. This is because authenticity is culturally bound to history. Aura is an abstract concept that Benjamin defines as ‘a strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be’ (1936). Benjamin said that  the aura ‘withers in the age of mechanical reproduction’ (ibid). Photographic copies of an object take the object outside of tradition and remove its uniqueness, due to the potentialities of reproducibility. In modern times there seems to be an insatiable desire to bring things closer and make things more convenient through mechanical reproduction and online distribution. Fashion magazines and digital media afford fashion accessibility and reproducibility that the fabric garment in itself would not ordinarily have. 

Digital platforms and social media sometimes allow us to take away the authenticity benefited by an aura and replace it with an artificial show of personality, and a commodification of the historical and cultural value of an item, in order to appeal to a mass audience. Benjamin writes about this in his exploration of the ‘permeation of reality with mechanical equipment’ (1936). Benjamin tells us that a progressive reaction towards a mechanical reproduction of a work of art ‘is characterised by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert’ (ibid). Additionally, ‘the decrease in social significance of art forms the shape of the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public’ (ibid). Generally, the conventional is enjoyed but the truly new is criticised. Mass accessibility to artwork is feared because it is difficult to control mass reception. Physical archival material requires concentration from the spectator but this isn’t always important in the reception of art. Sometimes this can cause the viewer to be absorbed by the art rather than to absorb it. They may have a higher capability of absorbing the artwork when in a state of distraction. This state of distraction can often be achieved when viewing something digitally, as you scroll by the artwork becomes absorbed into your stream of consciousness. 

When combined with fashion and archival material, photography can grant previously uncharted accessibility. However, in taking a Benjaminian approach, this leaves us to wonder if when the historical fashion archive is documented using mechanical processes and shared digitally, is the aura of the garment lost? 

Figure 3. Clementina Hawarden (c.1860s) Fashion Portrait of Lady Clementina Hawarden and Lady Isabella Hawarden.

The earliest fashion photography was created in the 1860s with the aim of promoting Parisian couturiers through socialites wearing garments for advertisements (fig. 3). There is importance placed on the physical preservation of historical garments in archives, in addition to exhibiting these pieces (figs. 4-6). Nowadays this also exists in conjunction with the widespread photography of such garments, but this limits our experience of the item in many ways. When the materiality of the archive is taken from a three dimensional experiential process, to a purely visual and screen-based one, what does this mean for fashion heritage and the ways in which we communicate with it? 

(L-R)
Figure 4. V&A Museum (2020) Kimono Exhibition.
Figure 5. Érin Hanlon (2021) Princess Diana’s Wedding Dress on Exhibition at Kensington Palace, London.
Figure 6. UAL Costume Archive Society (2021) …Concentrating on late Victorian and early Edwardian skirts and petticoats…

Although, for those outside of access to archives, we may never have access to any experience of the items if it weren’t for photography and digital communication. Oftentimes, the camera introduces us to the unconscious, that which we would not have the ability to see. Benjamin’s writing conjures many contradicting attitudes towards the development of technology in constituting and communicating artwork, and thereby fashion. 

(Clockwise L-R)
Figures 7-10. Kerry Taylor Auctions (2021) …A rare Boué Soeurs pale-pink silk-taffeta Robe de Style, model ‘Bouquetière’, 1927-28 (sold for £6,500 hammer)⁠… [Instagram]. 26 October 2021. [Accessed 14 April 2022]. Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/CVfalUcMTLk/ 

Here we can see a historical Boué Souers dress photographed on a model in 1927 or 28, and the accompanying image of the damaged item; traces of its life and touches left upon it, photographed by an auction house in 2021 (figs 7 & 8). The traditional archive and digital communication of fashion can be viewed as a dialectical matter, in which contradictory forces interact to construct popular understandings of fashion heritage. An object is seen to gain legitimacy through its placement in history, and the existence of aura depends on uniqueness, which Benjamin thought was displaced through the reproductive capabilities of photography. 

Figure 11. Kerry Taylor Auctions (2021)Unboxing ‘Bouquetière’ by Boué Soeurs, 1927-28… 

Arguably, modern digital media allows innumerable levels of reproduction and therefore immeasurable depletion of the aura found in material archives. Mechanical depictions of the garment allow us a closer inspection of it (figs 9 & 10), which can give some sense of intimacy with the garment. But this can not truly emulate the experience of analysing the physical entity (fig. 11). Here, we can see an attempted simulation of that experience shared on Instagram, a striving towards a middle ground falling between the artwork and the experience usually granted by mechanical reproduction. This certainly allows viewers a closer look at detail, but it is just a teaser for the actual experience of the material item. 

The same can be seen in this video of this couture gown Rose de Feu by Yves Saint Laurent for Dior in 1959 (fig. 12).

I believe that these Instagram posts encapsulate the very feelings that Benjamin writes of when describing the desire for the aura of artwork. We are dissatisfied with the usual sharing of historical dress imagery, and crave an experience of the materiality of the object, which these attempt to simulate.

Figure 12. Kerry Taylor Auctions (2021)Straight out of the history books and your dreams: this couture gown is named ‘Rose de Feu’ and by Yves Saint Laurent for Dior, Spring-Summer 1959…

The aura of a garment in a collection or museum gives us so much more, we are privy to the feeling, smell, sight and essence of the item. The lifesize item, not shrunk down to fit our screens (fig. 13).

The experience of materiality in archives which is missed out on when we settle only for the photography of items, with which we are vastly over-saturated, engages many of our senses. This is set out by Cathleen Baker and Randy Silverman of the University of Utah in their writing on the barrier white gloves create in examining archival objects. They write of the examiner’s desire for gaining ‘information concerning the condition of material they handle as well as the aesthetic pleasure of holding artefacts’ (2014: 1, emphasis mine), and the ways in which visual and tactile pleasures interact so magnetically; the engagement of touch enhances visual enjoyment. They also argue for the importance of tactile interaction with an object in order to understand its functioning in history, and that this should not be discouraged now that the item has become a part of cultural heritage through being placed in an archive. Our own interaction with it gives us an insight into the garment’s past traces and touches.

Figure 13. Kerry Taylor Auctions (2021)Inside Dior: take a closer look at this very special couture gown: ‘Rose de Feu’ by Yves Saint Laurent for Dior, Spring-Summer 1959… 

Further to this, Benjamin noted that ‘tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit’ (1936) and gradually mastered. So much is read between the lines through unconscious perception when we are able to experience the materiality of archival material. Although, by contrast, the very depletion of aura is oftentimes what allows us to recognise its prior existence, as Carolin Duttlinger notes aura is ‘a concept coined with hindsight, describing an elusive phenomenon from the perspective of its disappearance. It alludes to a groundbreaking cultural shift from authenticity to replication, from uniqueness to seriality, and from the original artwork to its “soulless” mechanical copy’ (2008). Photography and aura are entwined in complicated ways and Benjamin’s writing itself is often contradictory in its arguments on whether photography removes or constitutes aura. Towards the end of his essay, Benjamin dives into the possibility that photography can resituate an item within its histories and give it a new kind of auratic power.

However in regards to sartorial studies, placement in time and space are hugely important to our historical and cultural understanding of an object. I argue that although digital sharing creates accessibility which is vital, it does deplete the aura of the garment. Therefore I think that digital communication has a part to play in fashion heritage mediation, but should not sit in place of the material archive, in which one has the ability to fully experience an item and create much more detailed analyses of it. As researchers we must take note to look beyond the ease of accessing photography online, and allow our curiosity to leak into material archives in order to build a more comprehensive picture of the history of garments.  As Grant Bollmer summarises, ‘materialism designates a set of perspectives united by the claim that physical materiality – be it of technology, practice or body – matters in the shaping of reality’ (2019: 1).

In closing, Geczy and Karaminas note that ‘for Benjamin the present is what is historically present – digital fashion media and print media photography offer the consumer a lifestyle of commodity seduction that immerses the participant in a dream world manifested by the latest styles in dress, artefacts and conspicuous consumption. The promise, or representation, of a life lived and experienced’ (2016: 92).


Bibliography

Baker, C. and Silverman, R. (2005) Misperceptions about White Gloves. International Preservation News. Number 37 December, 4-9.

Benjamin, W. (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Paris.

Bollmer, G. (2019) Introduction: thinking about (and in) the materiality of media in Materialist Media Theory: an introduction. New York, London: Bloomsbury (pp. 1-20)

Duttlinger, C. (2008) Imaginary Encounters: Walter Benjamin and the Aura of Photography. Poetics Today. Vol 29:1, pp.79-101.

Geczy, A. and Karaminas, V. (2016) Walter Benjamin: Fashion, Modernity and the City Street in Rocamora, A. and Smelik, A. Thinking Through Fashion. Bloomsbury: London (pp. 81-96).

Walker, D. (2012) The first fashion photographer: Clementina, Lady Hawarden. [online] The Library Time Machine. Available at: <https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/the-first-fashion-photographer-clementina-lady-hawarden/&gt; [Accessed 14 April 2022].


List of Illustrations 

Figure 1. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1826) View from the Window at Le Gras.

Figure 2. Louis Dagguere (1839) Boulevard de Temple.

Figure 3. Clementina Hawarden (c.1860s) Fashion Portrait of Lady Clementina Hawarden and Lady Isabella Hawarden.

Figure 4. V&A Museum (2020) Kimono Exhibition.

Figure 5. Érin Hanlon (2021) Princess Diana’s Wedding Dress on Exhibition at Kensington Palace, London.

Figure 6. UAL Costume Archive Society (2021) …Concentrating on late Victorian and early Edwardian skirts and petticoats… [Instagram]. 25 November 2021. [Accessed 14 April 2022]. Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/CWtVVIIASf5/

Figures 7-10. Kerry Taylor Auctions (2021) …A rare Boué Soeurs pale-pink silk-taffeta Robe de Style, model ‘Bouquetière’, 1927-28 (sold for £6,500 hammer)⁠… [Instagram]. 26 October 2021. [Accessed 14 April 2022]. Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/CVfalUcMTLk/ 

Figure 11. Kerry Taylor Auctions (2021) Unboxing ‘Bouquetière’ by Boué Soeurs, 1927-28… [Instagram]. 21 October 2021. [Accessed 14 April 2022]. Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/CVTa8JHMfMd/ 

Figure 12. Kerry Taylor Auctions (2021) Straight out of the history books and your dreams: this couture gown is named ‘Rose de Feu’ and by Yves Saint Laurent for Dior, Spring-Summer 1959… [Instagram]. 23 November 2021. [Accessed 14 April 2022]. Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/CWnq-jJlbEm/

Figure 13. Kerry Taylor Auctions (2021) Inside Dior: take a closer look at this very special couture gown: ‘Rose de Feu’ by Yves Saint Laurent for Dior, Spring-Summer 1959… [Instagram]. 23 November 2021. [Accessed 14 April 2022]. Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/CWoX97NNR7L/

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