Magic in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Posted: March 9th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Adam | 2 Comments »

In Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit or “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” he mentions the analogous properties of photographers and magicians. The mystification of the chemical and mechanical processes of photographic reproduction techniques have elevated the photographer to a wizardly status amongst the non-tech population. Even in the age of CS3, photographers are often regarded as guardians of secret tomes of arcane information, which oddly enough, is in some sense very true. As the silver halide crystal passes the torch on to the pixel, many Photographers continue to horde useless clockwork devices, brew smelly, toxic concoctions, and dedicate hours of their lives reading and recording strange combinations of numbers and letters on dials and data sheets. The end result of this seemingly alchemical ritual is a unique object, which is itself something admittedly magical; a piece of sequestered, reconstituted reality, compressed and re-formatted for portability and distribution.

The art director of the Harry Potter films, Stuart Craig, was wise to pick up on this bit *actual* magic and went to lengths to include a very well-costumed and outfitted wizard-photojournalist in many scenes of the “…Goblet of Fire” movie. Attending the strangely seductive Rita Skeeter, our Daily Prophet freelancer seems to have at his disposal a number of pre-war era magical cameras,replete with all the trappings of steampunkery; redundant cables and lenses, brass fittings, bellows and even a cast-iron tripod (?). Now, anyone who has had the good fortune to see any of the Potter movies knows the purpose of this camera is to produce magical, animated photographs which seem to display and loop 5 or so seconds of time. Now, although not explicitly stated, it is assumed that within the wizarding world, technological innovation has pretty much not progressed past the Victorian age. However, the magical community also seems to have been able to pick and choose which Muggle technologies it integrates into its secretive realm.Assuming that the photographic technology of the Potter universe was adapted from the mechano-chemical Muggle process (and not merely an example of convergent evolution), how have wizards and witches successfully married the opposing methodologies of science and the occult? Let’s start with what we know about this properties of this unholy union:1). Magical cameras use simple lenses to focus and capture light, not souls or spirits2). Magical cameras look really badass3). Magical cameras use film (see picture below)This last is particularly perplexing. Given that the photograph produced from this film will display the motion of a scene whose light is focused upon its surface, how is the film able to record this movement without itself moving, (as in a motion picture camera)? My hunch is that wizardly photography employs the same powerful spells of multi-spacialism evinced in other incredible contraptions through the Potter story, i.e. the Weasley’s magical tent, which though no larger than any other tent while folded, contains many full-sized rooms (including kitchen) when pitched. Though the magical world seems yet to have mastered the concept behind the radio or telephone, their knowledge of quantum physics seems to greatly outstrip our own. No doubt employing some Latinate nonsense words, witches and wizards seem to have long ago discovered how to layer space upon itself, allowing multiple objects to exist in parallel, or inside each other. Using this technique, coupled with the pseudo-scientific methodology of Potions-mixing, it would be possible to create a magical photographic emulsion in which multiple layers of emulsion exist simultaneously upon one frame of film, each behind another. Over the course of several seconds, light from the camera’s lens would pass through each consecutive layer of bewitched emulsion, exposing that sub-frame to a slightly different image than the frame in front of it. Given the extreme variation in exposure time between sub-frames however, it must be assumed that this magical film would have a push-pull processing ability far greater than any Muggle film, an innovation no doubt achieved by a Slytherin alum Potions genius, the likes of Horace Slughorn, or the indefatigable detective of Harry’s delinquency, Severus Snape.

The existence of magical imaging necessarily implies an extant form of wizardly printing. Though the Potter movies have made clear that magical color photographic printing is possible (remember the picture of Harry’s parents dancing in the snow?), the majority of photographic reproduction seems limited to the black-and-white, animated images of the Daily Prophet. Given the bold, sans-serif typefaces and distressed appearance of many of the letters used in printing this daily journal of wizardly affairs, it may be assumed that this publication is produced by a moveable-type printing press, with hand-set cast blocks of pewter letters, much like a pre-modern Muggle paper. Assuming this is the case, one must assume that some kind of magical lithography or etching is used to transfer the picture from the magical film to a magical metal plate. Again, multi-spacialism would seem here to be a plausible explanation for the reproduction of such an image, as a letter-press type device may be used to ink each individual sub-plate and impress the surface of magical paper stock with each consecutive image. Each newspaper may then be bewitched to shuffle the multiple layers of its surface upwards, to display only the space upon which the magical photograph was printed. Through this selective inter-spacial rotation, the image would appear to move, as in a well-crafted flip-book, while the printed letters would remain static on the page. The exclusivity of monochromaticism in magical printing may be due to a lack of understanding the relationship of RGB to CMYK color.


2 Comments on “Magic in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

  1. 1 brosa said at 11:02 am on March 10th, 2008:

    i think you might fit in well in some comp lit classes while you are at school. i thought it was my role to quote benjamin, but that’s cool….

    this is both remarkably good and ridiculously silly, which is probably the paragon for what this blog should be.

    kudos, snickers.

  2. 2 adam said at 8:06 pm on March 12th, 2008:

    whoa dude!


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