Israel: Unseen shots by pioneer photographers exhibited in Jerusalem

Caroline Haïat

Digital Journalist | @carolinehaiat

6 min read
In Pictures: Walter Benjamin's Short History of Photography
Elie PosnerIn Pictures: Walter Benjamin's Short History of Photography

The exhibition is organized in three parts which follow the structure of Walter Benjamin's essay

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem presented a brand new exhibition by Gilad Reich based on the work of German Jewish thinker and philosopher Walter Benjamin, A Short History of Photography (1931).

Through more than 80 photos from 50 years of collecting, the exhibition highlights the history of photography and its influence on art, aesthetics and perception. "In Pictures: Walter Benjamin's Short History of Photography" reveals for the first time rare, carefully selected shots of the 19th and 20th century photographers, who inspired Benjamin and who are referenced in his essay.

The exhibition invites the visitor to reflect deeply on the photos we "consume," and the place we give them in our daily lives. A real immersion in the origins of photography which allows us to understand the evolution of this visual art and its teachings.

Courtesy Israel Museum
Courtesy Israel MuseumExcerpt from the work of Walter Benjamin, in Die literarische Welt, 1931. The National Library of Israel

The exhibition is organized in three parts which follow the structure of Benjamin's essay, each presenting works by the photographers and the results of the technological developments described by the thinker. His work also deploys a whole set of reflections around photography.

"This is the first time that the photographs have been highlighted in such an exhibition, the objective being above all to make them known to the public. To be able to expose these almost unknown works to the light of day, in the only museum in the world which brings together in one exhibition, is an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Gilad Reich, curator of the exhibition, told i24NEWS.

Elie Posner
Elie PosnerGilad Reich

"As a former history and philosophy student, I know Benjamin's text very well. Originally, I wanted to create a small exhibition, then I realized the density of the collection housed in the museum and I decided to use this profusion wisely, because I think these documents have a lot to teach us," he continued. At the end of the route, he also installed a lounge with sofas and books where visitors can extend the experience.

"The business card," ancestor of the selfie

Benjamin's essay, which appeared in a German magazine in 1931 and defined for the first time the concept of aura, is the keystone of his aesthetic theory, as well as the notion of the optical unconscious. It also discusses at length the technique of portrait.

According to Benjamin, the aura is obtained only in the presence of the object or subject photographed. The aura is related to the relationship between the viewer and the object of the photo.

Courtesy Israel Museum
Courtesy Israel MuseumAndré-Eugène-Adolphe Disdéri

Benjamin sets out to show that portraits succeed in preserving and perpetuating a special characteristic of artistic work. It was the first time in history that subjects posed in front of cameras.

"They sometimes had to sit still for more than 12 minutes," says Reich. Most of the time, photographers took their close entourage and their family as a model. Benjamin was the first to detect the intimate side that emerges from the portrait and to highlight it.

French photographer André-Eugène-Adolphe Disdéri, who made his fortune with the process of photographic business cards, made it possible to reduce costs and obtain ten small images on the same board.

"Disdéri did tests by photographing himself with the technique he developed, then he took photos of Napoleon III and that's what made the public want to have cards. He filed the patent for the carte de visite in 1854. The card craze then erupted and the movement was wildly successful: photo studios were opening en masse and everyone wanted their portrait. business card to make themselves known and spread their name in society", says Reich.

Exploring society through lens

The revolutionary potential of photography is highlighted throughout the course, in particular thanks to the shots which offer us a new understanding of reality. The famous project by German photographer August Sander presents and classifies German society according to professions and status.

"Instead of making a social survey, the camera shows us what society is like. What Sander does with the population, Karl Blossfeldt did with the plants, capturing every detail", says Reich, pointing out that " the power of the lens enables us to see what the eye alone cannot perceive."

This artistic event pays an exceptional tribute to Benjamin and retraces with precision the itinerary of photography from its beginnings, through art, history and philosophy.

The exhibition is on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem through mid-December.

Caroline Haïat is a journalist for the French site of i24NEWS

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