In Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay, “A Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” he argues that the reproduction of an art object diminishes its "aura," or unique position in time and space. What this means is that if you make something with your hands, you only have a singular of that thing, so that makes it something special. It is "one of a kind."
Daguerreotypes were invented at about the same time as photography. Daguerreotypes are like photos in that they used a special type of process to create an image of the world. Where daguerreotypes and photographs differ is that photographs are created from a negative, and from this negative, you can create multiple "positive" image copies. Daguerreotypes are a positive process, so you only get one positive image, and so, each one is unique.
In the age of analog film photography, it could be argued that the original "negative" had an aura and that any prints made traded aura for accessibility (or perhaps for reproducibility). By this extension, I would argue that no digital image is really an original — no digital image has an aura. It is very easy to copy and paste many copies of a file and to share these across multiple screens.
What is still unique, at least more so, is the printed image. Surprisingly so, in fact, as fewer prints are made than digital images created. It would therefore stand to reason that in the digital age of photography, an image only really has an aura if a limited run of images is created — either as personal mementos or as is the case in limited edition art prints. Although there may still be multiples, each image still holds more gravitas than the digital.
I recently got into film photography, and I really jumped into the deep end with a large format camera. The thing is a monster. It is big, clunky, and unwieldy — and I absolutely love it. I can slow down and take my time. I literally only get two images from a single film holder. The resolution and detail are incomparable to anything digital.
But is the inherently improved image quality what makes them special or the fact that I only have a single negative (and although I could make lots of copies, it is cost-prohibitive to do so)? Of course, I do silly digital things like get them scanned, so where is the aura then? In the negative?
I am getting carried away with rhetorical questions.
I am not sure, really.
But I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!