Face to Face with the Aura: Some thoughts on temporality and spectral layers in contemporary photography

Léa Bismuth

I – Aure, HIST. PHYS. Breath, breath of air, celestial sphere.
II – Aura
A. Halo, atmosphere that seems to surround a being or envelop a thing.
B. A kind of coloured emanation or aureole that floats around the human body, particularly the head.
C. MED. The entirety of the motor, sensory, vegetative, or psychic symptoms that mark the beginning of an epileptic attack. Psychic aura. Visual aura. Aura epileptica.
D. Band of light surrounding human beings that mediums are reputedly able to see and whose colour varies according to the spiritual state of the subject.1

A great deal has been written about the aura and the effects of this dialectic phenomenon, which is hard to conceive of and essentially a contradiction, a curiosity that Walter Benjamin discussed in his celebrated essay A Short History of Photography (1931). We now know how seminal his text was for the subsequent development of photography—as an affirmation of the documentary approach be it in the broad field of artistic practices and creative photographic techniques. Here I will not try either to explore the current relevance of this idea or to examine the singularity of the work of art or the “loss of aura” (regrettable or not) connected to the question of the reproducibility that is to a large extent inherent to photography. Revisiting this question allows us to ruminate on how complex photography is, on whether the spectral nature of the medium is significant, and on the manner in which these spectral layers might manifest, if indeed they actually exist. How can we intervene in time, in that substance that brings together the incompatible—the past and the present, everything indeed that is experienced—in its own essence? Is it indeed possible to define the term “aura”—in other words, not just the aura of the work of art but the aura as such, as an auratic phenomenon? It is an unclear, ambiguous approach. Is it possible then for a photographer to encounter the aura face to face?

Numerous contemporary photographic practices take photography exactly for what it is: light, dark, and time embedded in a surface. The tools they use are the camera obscura, the Polaroid camera, silver-coated film, and the development bath. The artists, however, do not stop at a simple technical investigation of the medium; instead, they lay the ground for the future of photography in the field of contemporary art. Ultimately, it is possible to use photography to create duration, to capture the immaterial, to visualize the nebulous and the unclear. Photography is a poetic medium, because, like writing, it offers a format in which what is fleetingly perceptible can be captured. We can ask ourselves the following question: What does it mean to be enclosed within an image? We can approach the answer with a comparison: the idea of suddenly finding ourselves in the cinema no longer sitting in front of a film but inside it, in a new space that has neither beginning nor end. It is a space of pure presence and duration, like that of a dream when we sleep. If, as Bergson describes it, duration is a lived experience of time—the time that passes, as well as the time we are a repository for and in which we are the future actors—the strategies of primitive recording serve to give form to that which cannot be seen, to the ethereal and the fleeting, as a way to capture the traces of what is, strictly speaking, invisible. For although we think we see reality clearly, we move forward in it as if we are blind. In the peculiar mechanism of the camera the visible and the invisible communicate, for the few seconds in which the film is produced. The phenomenological enigma remains intact: there is an inseparable connection between the invisibility and crystallization of the photographic image; from the moment in which an element (the world) passes from one state to another (by becoming an image). It is impossible to stop the flow of time. Alain Fleischer provides a striking account of how he was witness to an extraordinary experience of nature that can serve as a metaphor to facilitate our meditations on the subject: “In the sea off the port of Reykjavik I saw a wave that I could have watched for a long time, an infinitely long time, fascinated by what I saw and even more fascinated by its duration, which I was allowed to witness, a period of time that, even before it became the cause of my fascination, formed the actual condition of a vision that has no end and which does not threaten in the short term to become dispossessed of its object: the wave that I speak of was frozen.”2 This frozen, crystal-clear wave says a great deal about recording a movement that is continuous and, normally speaking, uninterrupted. Just as if it were possible to capture the breath of a living being or the eternity of a gaze: literally its aura. The aura is thus to some extent associated with life that is suddenly trapped under the ice, just like the wave fixed in ice, in whose interior life still stirs.

“What is aura? A peculiar web of space and time: the unique manifestation of a distance, however near it may be,” writes Walter Benjamin.3 Agreed. The aura—this vague apparition, whose existence paradoxically is as visual as it is metaphysical, is that which evades any attempt to grasp it; but it is also what sticks to the retina of whoever would nonetheless be witness to its strange phantom power. The aura can be seen; it catches the eye. It can even cause dizziness or trigger a seizure. It is sometimes necessary to believe in it, as you might believe in jack o’ lanterns. It can also conjure up ancient worlds. Memories suddenly return and become magically present. Look there, quick—they are gone again in a flash! Don’t worry, if we are cognizant of the aura’s fragility, a fine trace of it will be left behind on the film, on the glass plate, on the hard drive … or in a corner of our brain.

Encountering the aura face to face means tracking oblivion, weaving space, opening time, and catching shadows in butterfly nets.

1 Different definitions of the term “aura”, from Trésor de la langue française informatisé, Littré, Larousse.
2 Alain Fleischer, Ecrits sur le cinéma et la photographie, vol. 2, L’Empreinte et le tremblement. Paris, 2009, 142.
3 Walter Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography”, Screen 13, no.1 (1972): 5–26, here: 20.

Léa Bismuth is an independent art critic and curator. Her focus is on the points of intersection between the spaces offered by exhibiting and writing. She is director of La Traversée des inquiétudes—the curatorial research programme inspired by Georges Bataille—at Labanque in Béthune (Dépenses in 2016, Intériorités in 2017, and Vertiges in 2018).