New Aura of Old

“Aura is a quality integral to an artwork that cannot be communicated through mechanical reproduction techniques – such as #photography. The term was used by Walter Benjamin in his influential 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin argued that ‘even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’ He referred to this unique cultural context i.e. ‘its presence in time and space’ as its ‘aura’.” (TATE / ART TERMS)

I’m not sure what Benjamin would think of the Tate’s take on his theorization of what happened to art after its reproducibility, but this definition strikes me as a recuperation of a critique of “aura” in the name of renewing it. Maybe he would have seen that coming anyway.

We’ve seen that trend in practice—what is the return to analog and vintage and all manner of dead media but a resurrection of that “quality integral”—that “presence in time and place” opened up in retrospect by the unsentimental march of mechanization? And maybe we’re now seeing it happening again in yet another new and unexpected way: is an NFT the wild grasp at “aura” in the very heart of replication?

IDK. But it’s interesting to see how photography has figured into this history of theory & theory of history: for Benjamin, the very function of art was transformed once light could be imprinted to a medium and then transferred to another—once the world could become truly portable. He immediately grasped the power politics within that.

We can see that in the ways that imagery gets deployed for particular ends. Here’s how Bruno Latour poetically described the scientific endeavor, in which the image plays a big role:

“If you wish to go out of your way and come back heavily equipped so as to force others to go out of their ways… you have to go and to come back with the ‘things’ if your moves are not to be wasted. But the ‘things’ have to be able to withstand the return trip without withering away [and] be presentable all at once to those you want to convince and who did not go there.”


So photographs are useful to people interested in persuading others because they travel readily and rapidly. But in their velocity, photographs make a case for themselves as the only “true” art: only they can capture the truly ineffable—the once-and-done—or so they’d claim, if they could speak. And so, those who wield them stumble into reproducing “aura” in content and not form. Would Benjamin have anticipated that?

Here’s the paradox: “aura” actually isn’t “a quality integral to an artwork”—it isn’t even found in the artwork at all. Like beauty, “aura” is collectively beheld. “Aura” is a consensual and ever-shifting hallucination that we enter into; today, we find expired film as perhaps one of its vessels; tomorrow, one-megapixel digicams.

I now have a camera that is quite literally designed to reproduce “aura” in the guise of “patina” or “mood,” from its tactile dials to its digital film simulations, where color corrections usually made in post can be set right there, SOOC, or “straight out of the camera.” I find that fascinating.

Is that “real” #photography? Yes. It’s what real photographers do with the images they capture but with a much shorter workflow. Do these photos have “aura”? Maybe.

The thing is: film is thrice-blessed with “aura.” It’s an object of nostalgia, skill, and chemistry, making it just enough of a classical craft in the modern age to imbue it with a priestly sheen of “artistry.” Digital photography leverages the same optics but a computer does much of the thinking for you, so it loses points. And now computers are trying to artificially mimic the look and feel of analog “aura”? For shame! Stick to your own vaporwave lane!

The irony, however, is that this arc is a bit of a horseshoe: the more you’re able to do in camera, the closer you get back to that once-and-doneness of film. 


Professional photographers tend to shoot in RAW, a digital file format that contains the uncompressed data captured by a camera’s image sensor. These files contain so much data that it would probably be better to call them “everything you need to know about this picture” than actual photos; this data-richness makes them useful for post-production, when RAW files are usually converted to JPEG. This is a handy workflow because you can always go back and make tweaks and export new JPEGs, essentially crafting “new” photographs every time.

Not so with film simulations. These short-circuit the whole digital workflow and compress it into one moment—the decisive moment.

Kinda sounds a little like the filmic aura of old, doesn’t it?

The photos in this set use a “recipe” that someone came up with to mimic black and white infrared film. The grain is simulated; noise reduction is intentionally removed; picture sharpness is lowered on purpose. All of this is processed while the photo is being composed; there’s no “undo” button.

We could collectively decide that this makes these particular JPEGs authentically unique to their time and place; we could also reject them as glorified instagram filters that can never truly capture true aura. Whichever way you take it, what’s clear is that “aura” never went away in the age of mechanization—it simply shifted, a ghostly presence floating from thing to thing. The history of #photography continues to prove that.

What’s also clear is that aura is not “inside” the thing itself—it emanates from us. Much like the light we capture as photography, we “cast” aura over things and we give it names like political and artistic and real. And that’s fascinating.


“Creative acts are conditioned by the past, but they are not entirely explicable by either causal antecedents or dialectical processes through which the past unfolds into the future. There is in creative freedom a gap or incompleteness filled by a spontaneous, searching act. A gap in things is sensed before the creative intervention, but it is more dramatically exposed retrospectively, as it were, after the creative innovation has been consolidated.” (WILLIAM E. CONNOLLY)


“If creativity finds expression in the human estate, it will sometimes do so at surprising moments during a disruption in a practice, opening the door to a scientific invention, a new concept, a political initiative, a new social movement, an artistic innovation, market spontaneity, a language change, a cooking invention, teaching improvisation, a new type of film scene, a musical production, the use of new media, or the invention of a new product. And so on endlessly. Our identification with life—our tacit sense of belonging to a human predicament worthy of embrace—is partly rooted in the identities, faiths, and surroundings that already inspire us; it is partly rooted in negative freedom; it is partly rooted in reflexive reconsideration of established desires and ends. But it is grounded too in those uncanny experiences of creativity by means of which something new enters the world. This may be one of the reasons people cleave to the sweetness of life. It ties the sweetness of life to a vitality of being, even more than to a preordained end, purpose, or “fullness” with which it is officially invested. The intimate relation between freedom and creativity is why freedom is never sufficiently grasped by the idea of a lack to be fulfilled, successful action upon preset desires, or the drive to render the implicit explicit … The creative element of freedom is episodic rather than constant, and it is tinged with mystery.” (WILLIAM E. CONNOLLY)


“To articulate the creative dimension of freedom, then, is to insert a fundamental qualification or hesitation into the ideas of both the masterful agent and agency as the activation of intentions already there. The creative element is located somewhere between active and passive agency.” (WILLIAM E. CONNOLLY)


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