Contemplating documentary · Walter Benjamin

Contemplating documentary

Themes: comments by Benjamin on art and the reproduction and commodification of it


The subject of the commodification of photographs is a delicate one I feel, as many photographers, in order to do their work, must somehow ply an income to their skills set. This means inevitably selling work in one form or another. Stanley Green’s statement about the work of Natchway seen in a ritzy New York gallery…‘it made me sick’… (Green cited in OCA manual, Documentary fact & fiction). is a case in point for how this commodified use of photography can come unstuck. It is very understandable to have such a reaction I believe, especially under those circumstances. This is somewhat surprising, as seeing interview with Natchway as he gives the impression of a concerned photographer.


Benjamin describes in his work The work of Art in the age of mechanical reproduction, a scenario whereby art suffers a fall from grace from being a symbolic and culturally significant object that has meaning in time and place, to then being reproduced, decontextualised and commodified. Of Photography he applies this critique saying:


‘…But as man withdraws from the photographic image, the exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to the ritual value…’ (Benjamin, 1935).


The general thrust of Benjami’s argument in relation to photography and art forms in general appears to be that there is a cultural and social shift in understanding of a work of art, once that it is mass produced. This seems to lead to a cheapening of its cultural value but increase in its value as commodity as it has price placed upon it.


A more contemporary commentator has to say this about the commodification of art:


‘Conversely a commodified piece of art comes into being by the creator asking a single question “What will sell?” Art becomes a lie when the artist wants to sell you work so they can pay the rent and feed themselves, a worthy purpose for their money, but under dire financial pressures it’s unlikely the artist will produce their first creative impulse…’ (Holland, 2018.)


The commodification of the the work of the artist seems not unrelated to the removal of the the photograph from its cultural and ritual context. In as much as a photograph goes up for sale and ends up as an original in a private collection, I think that this them changes the nature of that piece of work into something of a collectable and sellable item. The message in the photo, the work and intent of the photographer then perhaps gets depreciated as the monetary value of the piece takes over.


Benjamin, W. The work of Art in the age of mechanical reproduction (1935) [online] [accessed, 2020]

Green, S. BJP (October edition 2010) OCA documentary fact and fiction (part 5:102)

Holland, J. The commodification of art (2018) Dissent voice [online] [accessed, September 2020]

Published by Truevisionphotography

I'm a student photographer studying through the OCA a UK based arts university. I'm in the foundation year of my studies and enjoying it immensely. I'm also a yoga teacher and co-founder of Bodhiyoga a buddhism based yoga teacher training program that runs in the UK and Spain each year. As a photographer I'm interested in all forms of fine art. I find the arts really important in my life. I love nature and aim to be in the outdoors as much as I can. Generally I think that all the different strands of my life are flowing to towards self development in the greatest sense of the term. The arts, buddhist practice yoga and meditation are all tools to that end. I feel committed to communication the these values in the world both through the visual arts as well as teaching.

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