Monday, February 6, 2012

Cult value/exhibition value and photography

For many reasons I enjoyed the article by Walter Benjamin. I really enjoyed the points he brought up during his discussion of stage actors and screen actors. But, as much as I want to talk about that, I think I'll save it for class because one other point of discussion has stuck in my mind.

In part V of Benjamin's article he brings up the idea that works of art can be "received and valued" on two different levels. He terms them the cult value and the exhibition value. He explains that as art is reproduced its initial purpose is lost. Benjamin generalizes at the end of this section that "photography and film are the most servicable exemplifications of this new function."

As I was reading Part VI, which discusses the cult value and exhibition value of photography I had a memory of a fairly recent episode of "American Pickers" enter my mind. In this episode Danielle joins Mike for a pick and ends up buying an album of post-mortem photography.

If you are curious, I believe this is the episode it appears in. :)

Post-mortem photography was popular when the first photographic methods (daguerreotype and carte de visite) became available, and died off once the methods became more reproducible. If you read through the history it is interesting to draw the parallels between this early photography and cult value, and later "snapshot" photography and exhibition value. Many of the families who took pictures of their family members after their death did so because of the importance of documenting their lives, and keeping record of the family at the time. Photography was so expensive at the time that post-mortem photos were probably the only ones ever taken of these people. These intimate portraits held a lot of cult value in the 18th century, now however people buy them (and sell them) for their exhibition value (hense the episode of American pickers and some websites online like this one).

I'm not going to post a photo here, but if you are curious here are links to a google image search, and a slideshow/video. Viewer discression advised!!!

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