Tutors Talk Books: David Carl on Walter Benjamin and Reading a Photograph

February 26, 2020 | By Hannah Loomis

David Carl

Santa Fe tutor David Carl has been leading a year-long photography study group comprising faculty, staff, and alumni. Prior to the COVID-19 virus disrupting campus life, the group was meeting on a weekly basis to analyze and discuss four or five photographs Carl had chosen in advance, with a different theme defining each week’s selection. For the first session of the spring semester, the group read and discussed Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” We asked him to tell us about those meet-ups.

How did the photography study group come about?

Every year the college provides one or two opportunities for a tutor to lead a funded study group. There are lots of study groups happening all the time—on philosophy, literature, poetry, music—and I think it’s one of the most important things we do. It shows how our work in the classroom is the foundation for the life of the mind. This funding has allowed me to do a lot of reading and research, which was necessary because photography is something I knew nothing about when I began preparing for the study group.

Several years ago, when I was serving as dean of the Graduate Institute, I decided to start a summer film program. I became creatively, aesthetically, and intellectually interested in cinema as an extension of my interest in literature, which is what my PhD is in. It seemed to me that literature is about telling stories, and film is how we told stories in the 20th century, so I wanted to learn about it. I started with an interest in the narrative elements of film, but then became increasingly interested in the technical elements: camerawork, lighting and shadow, sound, and all the details that make a movie a movie. Obviously, a big part of that is the image. So from storytelling and literature, to storytelling and film, to the technical aspects of film, to the image—that was where the interest in photography came from. Photography seemed to me the place where you learn to read and understand an image. I launched myself into the study of it: One of the great gifts that St. John’s gives its whole community is a kind of fearlessness about learning whatever you become interested in.

Why is it important to think about photography?

I believe that there are better and worse ways to read a book. You can read it carelessly, and lazily, and sloppily. And I think that’s true of images as well.

Photography in particular has become such an abused activity. It’s like the difference between writing a sonnet and writing down a grocery list; one is a practical application of writing and the other is an aesthetic. Photography has become the equivalent of writing shopping lists. When I put a homework assignment on the board, students use their phone to take a picture of it, but they don’t imagine they’re doing anything aesthetic.

Some of the suggested readings for this semester are by Ansel Adams, one of the most famous photographers. He talked so much about how you have to be able to visualize—and this was in an age when every time you clicked the button there was a serious expense involved in developing and printing. Now, of course, you can take 15 shots within a one-minute window, and then pick the one that’s best. So the aesthetics of photography have changed radically since the early days where you had to set up a tripod and prepare for a multi-minute exposure, and you had to get it right because you didn’t have 15 tries.

I’m not a historian or a scholar of photography; I’m studying it to appreciate the role images play in our society today. But given the way people are using things like social media and posting pictures of themselves, the role that images play in people’s sense of identity itself has changed completely. Photographs still have a profound effect, but they don’t always get treated in a serious and thoughtful way. I tend to think of everything at St. John’s being about: How do we learn to go slower, how do we continually embody this ‘less can be more’ idea—whether we’re reading or looking or listening? How do we hear more in the piece of music, see more in the image, read more deeply? Virtually everything in contemporary society, because of social media and the internet, pushes against that. And it just makes it harder for people to even begin to take seriously the idea that you could deeply contemplate a single photograph for an hour.

As you mentioned, most of the sessions involve studying several photographs, but you began this semester by reading Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Why did you choose that piece and devote a whole session to it?

Benjamin has emerged as one of the really central thinkers of the early 20th century, and this is often considered one of his most influential short pieces. Now that we’re 85 years away we can look back and see whose thinking is emerging as increasingly relevant and whose thinking is receding from that time period. People are rediscovering Benjamin and finding his work on media and culture is as relevant today as ever. Sometimes an analysis of something which is just beginning continues to bear resonance as that thing develops further. And I think Benjamin’s thinking about media, image, and culture has done that.

We in the St. John’s program have a hard time knowing how to deal with the 20th century. We get to the 20th century, and there are all these intellectual movements that we don’t have time to give attention to. Benjamin started to be interested in things like the cinema and image and the production of culture at an early time, when we didn’t quite know how influential movies would be. And I think Benjamin was already aware that media, let’s call it [that] in the most general sense, was going to be an enormously powerful force in the shaping of cultural norms and expectations.