The reproduced photograph somehow always reaches us as a cliché: it bears within the very economy of its circulation a fading of its effect. This weakness of photographic realism does not have anything to do with the aesthetic revulsion that Barthes in “Shock Photos” claimed to experience when viewing atrocity photographs tainted by the overzealous rhetorical intervention of their moralizing authors. Barthes’ precious aestheticism displaced onto photographers a fault that actually resides in the very nature of the photographic image. For the published photograph, even on first viewing, always intimates the uncanny feeling that it belongs to a type we have seen before, but it intimates this not because of any specific aesthetic deficiency on its part but because of its very reproducibility. From the moment of its publication, indeed, from the moment of its inception, the photograph joins an effluvium of banality.
As Walter Benjamin had already grasped in 1936, photography destroys distance but also devalues what it brings closer to its avid consumers. The stripping of the world, its pornographic exposure to the public gaze grants effortless access to the farthest recesses of the earth and even makes visible features that the unaided human eye could never apprehend (such as the gait of a galloping horse). But this unhiding of the world, this forcible unveiling–which is part of the larger scientific project of quantifying the visible–also reduces the object of its attention to a flattened and ultimately insipid representation. Photography becomes a fetish that magnifies the domain of the visible at the expense of what exceeds the visible. It functions, alongside other technological marvels, as a means to profane and miniaturize the world, formerly a source of awe, now diminished to what fits inside an iPhone screen.
What never occurred to Barthes is that the very nature of photography implicates it in atrocity. Had he really wanted to find shock in a photograph he could have found it in the way every photograph, no matter its intention, contributes to the profanation of the world, to the loss of its transcendent dimension.
The true deficiency of photographic realism, like that of modern realism in general, is that it is impotent against the chronic unreality of the modern world that this realism seeks to counteract because this peculiar condition derives not from lack of forensic records of modern life and its atrocities but rather from the modern world’s disconnection from the sacred. The modern world, reduced to a strictly material world ruled by money and infested by the human worms that money breeds, is a world in which nothing is sacred and therefore nothing is of any significance. Realism’s attempts to give a true “objective” picture of this world only adds to its squalor by dimming whatever remains of the memory of a different world inhabited by a different and nobler humanity.
The photograph, a marvel of representation, enters the world precisely at the moment that the world becomes unworthy of representation. The result is that photography proceeds to desecrate whatever still retains the slightest connection to the sacred, winkling it out of the obscure places in which it had survived and making a meal of it for the consumers of modern “spirituality.”