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In Pictures: Walter Benjamin’s Little History of Photography

From the IMJ Collection

  • Date iconAugust 9 2023 - March 5 2024
  • Curator: Gilad Reich
  • Designer: Libat Eden
  • Billy Rose Pavilion

Perhaps more than any other text, Little History of Photography by the German-Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) has shaped the way in which we understand early photography and the photographic act. One of the first theoretical studies of visual culture, this text laid the foundation for modern cultural criticism. Instead of regarding the artwork as a unique object, Benjamin emphasized the political and artistic potential of a new technology based on endless reproduction. In this text he introduced key concepts which were later developed in his most influential essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility” (1935).

Benjamin’s insights arose from his examination of albums and books about photography that came out in the 1920s and early 1930s. In September–October 1931 he published three short essays in a German literary journal, under the same title he would use when they appeared in book form: Kleine Geschichte der Photographie – Little History of Photography. The text was accompanied by a few images, which he had only seen as printed reproductions.

The Israel Museum is fortunate that in its rich holdings of 19th- and early 20th-century photography, every practitioner mentioned by Benjamin is represented. Bringing together works and seminal books by all of them, this exhibition offers a unique opportunity to immerse ourselves in Benjamin’s visual sources along with his ideas. Here we can see objects that are fully original – although he himself, thinking of the camera’s implications, wrote about an “age of reproducibility.”


Germaine Krull, born Germany, active Germany, France, Brazil, Thailand, and India, 1897–1985
Walter Benjamin, ca. 1925
Gelatin silver print
Private collection
August Sander, German, 1876–1964
Pastry Cook, 1928 (printed later)
Gelatin silver print
Bequest of Arnold Newman, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum
Karl Blossfeldt, Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature) 
Introduced by Karl Nierendorf 
First edition; Berlin: Ernst Wasmuth, 1928 
Israel Museum Library 
Julia Margaret Cameron, British, born India, 1815–1879 
Beatrice, 1866 
Albumen print from collodion-on-glass negative 
Anonymous gift to American Friends of the Israel Museum 
Eugène Atget, French, 1857–1927  
Masque Antique, ca. 1915 
Gelatin silver print 
Gift of Mickey Pallas, Chicago, to American Friends of the Israel Museum 
Albert Renger-Patzsch, German, 1897–1966
Iron Hand, Essen, 1929
Gelatin silver print
Promised gift of Gary B. Sokol, San Francisco, to American Friends of the Israel Museum