At the time I vaguely knew about the history of mining in South Australia at the time. Copper mining was a turning point in the colony’s economic fortunes. Mining was part of the colony’s Enlightenment narrative of rationality and intellectual progress.
I was reading Walter Benjamin’s “Little History of Photography” (in Selected Writings, Vol 2, 1931) at the time and interpreted it as text that marks the beginning of the critical discourse on photography, a seminal critical theory of photography. It analyzed the history of photography not from any of the classical aspects of art-historical or literary theory, but rather in terms of a historical theory of perception. Moholy-Nagy, the abstract-constructivist Bauhaus teacher, argued in terms of photography and a new vision–a new way of seeing things as a consequence of the advance in photographic technology and technique.
Likewise Benjamin’s construction of the history of photography was guided by the idea of a continual change in perception and experience brought about by the invention of ever new photographic techniques which he subsequently tied to developments in industrial capitalism. Photographs were capable of exposing untoward social conditions. Atget plays a crucial role in Benjamin’s ‘Little History of Photography’, where the photographer is credited both with having been a precursor of Surrealist photography and with having ‘initiated the emancipation of the object from aura’.
Benjamin interpreted Atget’s empty city streets as ‘cleansing’ the atmosphere of early portrait photography, ridding it of its overstuffed furniture, props and costumes, thereby vanquishes the mythologising, oppressive effects of aura as it lingered in traditional portrait photographs and the inﬂuence of pictorials. Atget rids his photographs of human beings, thus removing the last vestiges of the ‘aura’ that inhered in the ‘human countenance’ of bourgeois subjects.
Benjamin held that the density of information provided by Atget’s photograph is a new, potentially powerful form of knowledge for the inhabitants of the city, that is different from the ‘free-floating contemplation traditional work of arts. Atget’s photos of the peripheral, outmoded, and ephemeral objects of the everyday world change our perception of the social conditions of the city. The widening of perception is associated with the emancipation of photography from other arts.