Over the past couple of years I have read and re-read Walter Benjamin’s iconic essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction - originally out of duty and consequently out of enthusiasm. The essay, written on the cusp of the Second World War, endeavours to understand the relationship between human visual experience and mechanised image production and reproduction, and its assessments contend with issues which still fascinate and perturb us to this day. It is a complex piece of theoretical writing and its arguments accentuate various diverse situations each time it is explored.
My most recent encounter with Benjamin’s Work of Art essay was actually through a recollection triggered during a discussion with David Pisani and Zvezdan Reljic; two personalities whose cynical determination I found to be quite engaging. We conversed about the versatility of the camera as a means of image production and the multiplicity of printing techniques which exist. By conversed I mean that David and Zvezdan told me about their photographic practice and I, as someone whose memory of film photography is limited to a handful of years during the late 1990s, listened eagerly to their statements and criticisms (the first being a criticism of the paper on which this magazine is printed).
David is a professional photographer who specialises in architectural photography, although his shots of the human form are equally examined. Zvezdan spent a number of years studying graphic design in Belgrade and is also a photographer. Almost every Maltese household is inadvertently familiar with his work in publishing (think Sunday Circle and The Architect). These two friends and colleagues eventually decided to materialise a joint ambition to set up a publishing house specialising in art books, Ede Books. So far they have published four books, three on photography (featuring the works of Gilbert Calleja, Elise Billiard and David Pisani) of excellent visual quality and a poetry collection of succinct Bukowskian wisdom written by Karl Edgar Consiglio.
The pair organise an intensive film photography workshop called Workshop f/1.4 for a maximum number of six students per class which are structured synchronically as theoretical debates and technical sessions. This approach to artistic and creative education is lacking in today’s global education system. Even worse, the fundamental symbiotic relationship between theory and practice which breeds intellectual creativity and originality is being eradicated by the same institutions which themselves supposedly promote research and excellence. The alienation of theory from practice and vice versa was the subject of Dr. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci’s recent essay The Intellect of Art, in which he argues that knowledge of craft and theory/philosophy must uncompromisingly be combined in order for one to create ‘an individual baggage of awareness’ and to thus nurture one’s capacities for artistic creation.
Dr. Schembri Bonaci is himself addressing this challenge with the MA in Fine Arts course newly launched by the Department of History of Art at the University of Malta. He is dealing with traditional elements of the art academy within a contemporary context and, importantly, without negating the developments of the past century and a half. Which brings me to an essential question which David and Zvezdan pose during the workshop’s primary session – Why film photography in a digital world? Why use ‘old’, ‘primitive’ photographic techniques when digital progress has led us into a new era of image production? We discussed this at length since it was an issue which clearly irked Zvezdan and David and is something they are humbly tackling with Workshop f/1.4.
To retain the past and never challenge it is equally as troubling and dangerous to artistic production as is its conscious nullification. Technological progress allows for new and continuous possibilities, yet these must always consider the tradition which led to such developments. Manet reinterpreted Titian and Velázquez, Picasso reinterpreted Manet, Picasso catalysed a whole string of art idioms. This is just one of the many conversations in the visual arts which crosses boundaries of history and tradition. Benjamin, whilst eliciting the differences between painting and photography, argues that photography has rendered painting socially obsolete since a painted image lacks the reproducible character of photography. On a social level, reproducibility has radically changed the way we see and our knowledge of images. However, painting itself was never rendered obsolete but, as proven by history, constructed a new aesthetic language which could not be visualised by photography.
These problems of old/new, past/present also exist within the sphere of photography itself. Print photography, as David rightly argues, must continue to be studied and developed within the digital age. Repudiating or, even worse, forgetting such techniques would neglect a whole sphere of knowledge and impoverish the discipline of photography. Knowing the history of an artistic discipline, as well as having an awareness of other related disciplines, is the key to abolishing mediocrity in the arts. Luckily this holistic approach is being implemented by David and Zvezdan in the instruction of photography and by Dr. Schembri Bonaci in fine arts postgraduate education. Like Benjamin, one must theorise and study differences which emerge from technological innovation and which directly affect the creation and experience of art. Various modes of image production will assume different and transmutable functions. However, each opened door cannot and never should be closed.
Written by Nikki Petroni
Photo by Jacob Sammut
Prints by Zvezdan Reljic – See more of his work here.
This article can be found in #5 of Patron Magazine.
 Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, ‘The Intellect of Art…’, Malta Review of Educational Research (Special Issue on Artistic Research at the University of Malta edited by Dr. Raphael Vella), 8,2 (2014), 285.
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