Walter Benjamin’s Concept of the Image: the case of Photography

The following text is a transcription of the presentation given at the 19th Annual meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Media – 15th-17th March 2017.

(originally published in: )

With no further ado, allow me to begin this presentation on the concept of image with, precisely, an image.

 ‘This is how the angel of history must look. His face turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe (Benjamin, 2006, p. 392). This well-known quotation from Walter Benjamin’s On the Concept of History, drawing from Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, is not a metaphor. What Benjamin provides us with is not an interpretation of history, but its image. The angel gives himself to look; he appears to us, he sees and, in so doing, is looked back at. The angel means to help, but a storm pushes him forth and all he can do is look. He sees that which only through him we are able to envision: the chain of events that unfold before us as the disaster they are. Yet, the image remains. The image that is the image of an angel as the face of disaster is everything.

My presentation aims at introducing a concept of image – I’ll just make clear that I’ll be referring to VISUAL images – on a historical materialist perspective. More specifically, this will be achieved through Walter Benjamin’s philosophy, which provides us with a rich ensemble of topics that allows us to think of the meaning, or meanings, uses and importance of the image not only for philosophical reflection, but for a practical and materialist building of our understanding of the world. Apart from Klee’s painting, I will use the specific case of photography to address the concept of the image, providing you with some photographs that will follow the development of my talk.

Photography was an important topic for Benjamin, and this importance can be understood without the need for a reconstruction of his thought. It is a commonplace, after all, that modernity, one of Benjamin’s central topics, is a visual phenomenon. The visual turn – and Benjamin was central for authors of visual culture to declare that – showed us that the development of modernity was closely connected to techniques of vision and visualization, which granted vision a particular and important place in culture and social organization. Authors like Nicholas Mirzoeff, Joanthan Crary, W.J.T. Mitchell, Scott McQuire and many others, have shown us how, from the Renaissance to the nineteenth-century, art, philosophy and science reinterpreted and gave new meanings to vision. From the development of perspectival painting to the development of anatomy and physiognomy, apprehended epistemologically by empiricism and idealism to the birth of the observer, the centuries following European Renaissance provided a fruitful development of new technologies and philosophical understandings of vision. The camera obscura, for instance, remained an almost absolute model of metaphor and explanation of vision and observation, in science and art, from the 1500’s until the mid-1800’s, with the invention of photography. Although known ever since Plato, at least, the camera obscura abolishes, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the interlacing of nature and representation. With the development of Cartesianism, Empiricism, Newtonian physics and so forth, the camera obscura becomes ‘a model simultaneously for the observation of empirical phenomena and for reflective introspection and self-observation’ (Crary, 1992, p. 40). In short, the growing epistemological split between subject and object found a fertile ground for scientific rationale in the mechanism offered by the camera obscura.

Likewise, in the political scenario, vision became an increasingly important topic. Thus in the second quarter of the nineteenth-century, Thomas Carlyle, coined the term “visuality” introducing vision in the historical discourse. In his idea, “visualizing” meant ‘the production of visuality, or the making of the processes of “history” perceptible to authority’ (Mirzoeff, 2011, p. 3). To “visualize” meant, this way, to maintain the moral spirit of Anglophone imperialism, becoming the source of a discourse concerned with and self-understood with evolution and progress, meeting the flourishing positivism and incipient evolutionism of the era.

As we know from Benjamin, the 19th century was that of an ideology of progress. Looking at the building of Paris under the Haussmann administration, Benjamin showed us how an overwhelmingly diverse ideology was behind the “strategically embellishment” of the French capital. Presenting his plans on canvas and exhibited as if monuments, portraying the wide perspectives allowed by the enlargement of the streets, leading the gaze all the way up to ‘a church, a train station, an equestrian statue, or some symbol of civilization’ (Benjamin, 1999, p. 24), Haussmann’s Paris testifies the centrality of vision in 19th century Europe, with the crowning of modernity.

 I wish I could investigate the development of modernity with more attention – as I ´d wish to be able to spend some time on the images I’m showing – but time forces me to push towards my main topic. So far, thus, I have spoken of vision and visuality, and its centrality on European culture from the 16th century onwards, specifically. Important in this centrality is the fact that vision was, and is, understood in relation to an object. One has a vision of something; one visualizes a thing or a person. That said, vision relates to images.

For the effects of this presentation, we must understand that modern culture is one in which all things have a visual façade. In other words, it is a culture expressed visually. Modern Paris is, indeed, a political enterprise, but it is so also because it is a visually materialized enterprise. Paris is an image.

 What is an image, however? The visual turn represented an increasing concern with the role and meaning of the visual for social and cultural analysis. Nonetheless, it came to displace ‘moral and political panic onto images and so-called visual media’ (Mitchell, 2002, p. 170). In this track, every image can become ‘an exemplary indication of the ideological nature of representation’ (Crary, 1992, p. 26). Not responding to the question, visual culture soon lead to a parallelization of image and ideology. This is where we Benjamin’s critique comes back with strength. According to this critique, the relation between image and ideology unfolds from social relations of production. The understanding of images as indicators of ideological agency disregards the social relations of production of the image. Conceptualizing the image, thus, becomes not a question of  abstract knowledge, but of investigating the material relations that take place in society, especially if, today, the imagetic face of such society has been more than proved important to understand. Photography, in this sense, is a turning point to the concept of image.

According to W.J. T. Mitchell (2001), images introduce value to the world by way of a surplus value. ‘The image has a value, but his value is more fugitive than the value of a painting, of a statue or of a physical monument that can be pulverized, burnt […] the image subsists – in artwork, in texts, in a narrative or in memory’ (Mitchell, 2001, p. 208). In this sense, the angel of history subsists the Angelus Novus. This means images provided a life of their own, have what Benjamin calls a historical index. The historical index attests the importance of images not only as historical material, but also as a thing provided with an epistemological condition. Images are integral part of our world and are connected to any of our activities, be they scientific, religious or banal. Just think of geometry and graphs, painting, manuscripts. Every scientific, aesthetic or philosophical inquiry relies, to some extent, to images. In what touches upon culture, be it in anthropology, sociology, philosophy or visual studies, images are constitutive elements in the understanding of a given society. Visual images not only bear proof of the reality of a people’s culture – when it come to the researcher -, it is also a product of that culture, an assessment of their existence.

The concept of image, thus, precedes the distinction among mental, visual and material images ‘as well as the differentiation  of scripture and pictures and the separation of concept (Begriff) and metaphor’ (Weigel, 2015, p. 344). In Benjamin’s terms, image links itself not to “representation but to a simultaneous cognition (Erkenntnis) or insight (Einsicht)” (Weigel, 2015, pp. 344-345). As a phenomenon which properly stands for writing (Schrift), image consequently is able to ground an epistemology. This enables the image not to have a fixed meaning. Benjamin was polemically against ‘the aesthetic field and its ways of crystallising meaning in the figure of the image’ (Ross, 2015, p. 5). This idea, however, is a difficult one to apprehend. If image itself is understood as an absolute, sort of self-sufficient entity – or philosophically speaking a monad – then any attempt on describing its properties becomes useless. If we are to understand and think alongside Walter Benjamin, we must depart from the fact that, for Benjamin, the concept of image emerges beyond the opposition form∕content and concept∕metaphor. The image, in fact, consists on being a third (ein Dritte) which is situated outside both concept and metaphor, stretching the very shape ‘in which experiences, history, and reality become cognizable’ (Weigel, 1996, p. 47), and in which they are constituted ‘as a resemblance between the figures of the external world and those of abstract knowledge’ (Weigel, 1996, p. 51). Closing off but not closing up, image hitherto ‘is potentially an agent of historical understanding’ (Abbas, 1989, p. 53). That means images do not stand for the embodiment of things “as they really are”. On the contrary, they are questioned reality, a trace of history that makes its caesura possible as displacement of historical experience. Image – excuse the metaphor – is an instantaneous flash of the world. Not because it shows the “way things are”, but because it instantly allows to experience something. Leaving something “aside”, being that which it is and somewhat something more the image is

to be thought of entirely apart from the categories of the “human sciences”, from so called habitus, from style, and the like. For the historical index of the images not only says that they belong to a particular time; it says, above all, that they attain to legibility only at a particular time (Benjamin, 1999, p. 462).

The philosopher suggests, thus, that images must always be thought of historically, despite the purpose of their study or use for they carry with them history itself. Ignoring the historical index of the image leads to a view of the displayed subject∕object that equals the historicist and/or positivistic approach to culture that, for long, not only Marxist school of thought, have denounced as a failed conception of history. With Benjamin’s concept of image, on the contrary, every use, practice or study of image must be bestowed with a historical methodological principle, because every image becomes a matter of historical methodological principle.

 The mediation of a technical apparatus such as the photographic camera blurs the border between subject and object generating an image which ‘is not an imitation of things , but a time interval made visible, a fracture line where the being disintegrates’[1] (Ankaoua, p. 1). In this sense, a concept of image able to ground an epistemology may, as W.J.T. Mitchell proposes (2002, p. 172) allow the study of images to ‘send us back to the traditional disciplines of the humanities and social sciences with fresh eyes, new questions, and open minds’. As the late concept of dialectical image, the image, with its historical index can “open minds” and give us “fresh eyes” first and foremost by guaranteeing us that images can be experienced only as historical time which, as José Saramago (1998, p. 442) once resumed in a very “benjaminian” manner, ‘is like a rubber band, that stretches and contracts. Being close or far, here or there depends but on will’[2]. Thus allowing a constructive principle to arise, the image may interrupt the continuum of history, bringing forth and recognizing ‘a revolutionary chance in the fight in favour of the oppressed past’[3] (Benjamin, 2007, p. 130).


Abbas, A. (1989). On Fascination: Walter Benjamin’s images. New German Critique, 48(Autumn), 43-62.

Ankaoua, F. Image Dialectique, anachronisme et vérité.   Retrieved from

Benjamin, W. (1999). The Arcades Project. Cambridge: The Belknap Press.

Benjamin, W. (2006). On the Concept of History. In Howard Eiland & M. W. Jennings (Eds.), Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings. Volume 4, 1938-1940. Cambridge; London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Benjamin, W. (2007). Sobre o Conceito de História. In M. Löwy (Ed.), Walter Benjamin: aviso de incêndio. Uma leitura das teses “Sobre o conceito de história’. São Paulo: Boitempo Editorial.

Crary, J. (1992). Techniques of the Observer. On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge; London: The MIT Press.

Mirzoeff, N. (2011). The Right to Look. A Counterhistory of Visuality. Durham; London: Duke University Press.

Mitchell, W. J. T. (2001). La Plues-Value des Images. Étude Littéraires, 33(1), 201-225.

Mitchell, W. J. T. (2002). Showing Seeing: a critique of visual culture. Journal of Visual Culture, 1(2), 165-181.

Ross, A. (2015). Walter Benjamin’s Concept of the Image. London; New York.: Routledge.

Saramago, J. (1998). Cadernos de Lanzarote I. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.

Weigel, S. (1996). Body- and Image-Space. Re-reading Walter Benjamin. London: Routledge.

Weigel, S. (2015). The Flash of Knowledge and the Temporality of Images: Walter Benjamin’s Image-Based Epistemology and its Preconditions in Visual arts and Media History. Critical Inquiry, 41(1), 344-366.

[1] « L’image n’est pas l’imitation des choses, mais un intervalle de temps rendu visible, une ligne de fracture où l’être se désagrègue »

[2] […] é uma tira de elástico que estica e encolhe. Estar perto ou longe, cá ou lá, só depende da vontade.

[3] […] uma chance revolucionária na luta a favor do passado oprimido.

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