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Pictures of the past : Benjamin and Barthes on photography.

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article


Journal publication date02/2002
JournalEuropean Journal of Cultural Studies
Number of pages21
Original languageEnglish


This paper explores the key moments in Benjamin’s and Barthes’s analyses of the cultural significance of the photograph. For Benjamin these are; the optical unconscious, the transmission of aura, the representation of cultural and political decay and proto-surrealist political commentary. For Barthes they are; the techniques of the photographer, the studium, the punctum and the ecstasy of the image. These rather different approaches to photography reveal a common concern with history. Both authors have written about the nature of historical understanding and photography has provided both with a powerful metaphor. What emerges from their analyses of photographs is that each evokes a double moment of historical awareness; of being both in the present and in the past. For Benjamin this is the ‘spark of contingency’ with which the aura of past existence shines in the present. For Barthes it is the ‘ça-a-été’, the emotional stab of awareness that what is present and visible in the photograph is irretrievably lost in the past.

Bibliographic note

“The final, definitive version of this article has been published in the Journal, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 5 (1), 2002, © SAGE Publications Ltd, 2002 by SAGE Publications Ltd at the European Journal of Cultural Studies page: http://ecs.sagepub.com/ on SAGE Journals Online: http://online.sagepub.com/