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12.6.09

À mon chevet: The Arcades Project

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
The world exhibition of 1855 offers for the first time a special display called "Photography." In the same year, Wiertz publishes his great article on photography, in which he defines its task as the philosophical enlightenment of painting. This "enlightenment" is understood, as his own paintings show, in a political sense. Wiertz can be characterized as the first to demand, if not actually foresee, the use of photographic montage for political agitation. With the increasing scope of communications and transport, the informational value of painting diminishes. In reaction to photography, painting begins to stress the elements of color in the picture. By the time Impressionism yields to Cubism, painting has created for itself a broader domain into which, for the time being, photography cannot follow. For its part, photography greatly extends the sphere of commodity exchange, from mid-century onward, by flooding the market with countless images of figures, landscapes, and events which had previously been available either not at all or only as pictures for individual customers. To increase turnover, it renewed its subject matter through modish variations in camera technique -- innovations that will determine the subsequent history of photography.

-- Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (from the German edition), p. 6
This book has been on the Paris Reading Project list for years, after many friends have suggested reading it. The book's reputation is well merited: dense, theoretical, quoting and alluding to a vast amount of the author's extensive reading, with something to quote on almost every page. Benjamin had a gift for the bon mot, which is probably one reason he loved Paris so much. The arcades or passages were the iron and glass covered walkways that once created an entire network of hidden streets in Paris. Almost all were torn down during the modernization of Paris begun by Haussmann, also lamented by Louis Aragon in Paysan de Paris, although a few have been preserved.

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