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200 × 120 mm
160 pages
31 illustrations
21 Sep 2015

On Photography Walter Benjamin, Esther Leslie

Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘A Short History of Photography’ (1931) made bold statements about photographic pioneers such as David Octavius Hill and Nicéphore Niépce, and the social and historical context of their work. This first selection of Benjamin’s writings on photography includes a new translation of this influential essay as well as a range of Benjamin’s other writings, both published and unpublished, some of which are translated into English for the first time here.

Esther Leslie’s introduction covers Benjamin’s writing on early photographic methods and aesthetics; his analysis of the commercial studio photography of the ‘decadent’ bourgeoisie; the use of photographs in scientific research; and other innovative photographic methods such as the ‘auraless’ images of Eugène Atget and the ‘new visions’ of August Sander and Germaine Krull. Leslie discusses Benjamin’s take on the evolution of photography into a modern form, the universal fascination with the seemingly simple postcard – an interest dating back to Benjamin’s own childhood – as well as the special relationship he found between Paris and the photographic method.

As a notable philosopher, critic and uniquely imaginative thinker, Benjamin’s essays offer a fascinating critique of early photography. With a substantial introduction, contextualizing prefaces and comprehensive glossaries, Esther Leslie guides the reader through Walter Benjamin’s multifaceted engagement with the significance of photography.

‘Esther Leslie soars where many of her contemporaries fall flat. In On Photography: Walter Benjamin, Leslie has produced an attractive, erudite, readable yet sophisticated work on Benjamin . . . Leslie’s stellar work may be described as comprising the most comprehensive treatment thus far of Benjamin’s engagement with photography . . . Leslie provides a substantial overview of Benjamin followed by short introductions to his diverse writings about photography, both published and unpublished. One of the novel features of this book is Leslie’s fine translation of Benjamin’s “Short History of Photography” (1931), which overlaps many of the ideas in his more famous “work of art” essay . . . Esther Leslie’s next turn in Walter Benjamin scholarship is to focus on him as storyteller, which is likely to yield books and articles at least as superb as her current work on Benjamin and photography.’ – Jewish Quarterly

Praise for Walter Benjamin, Critical Lives series: ‘A brilliant digest of Benjamin’s life . . . It draws on a mass of texts, including his accounts of a privileged Berlin upbringing and travel diaries. [Leslie] presents a definitive portrait of Benjamin the materialist, lingers on his obsession with children’s books, and makes excellent use of German sources to detail his movements and finances.’ – The Independent

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Esther Leslie is Professor of Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck, University of London. She is the author of Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry (2007), Walter Benjamin (Reaktion, 2007) and Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-garde (2002).