Representation of the Urban Memory as Surrealist Photographic Images in Berlin Childhood around 1900

Document Type : Research Article


Assistant Professor, Faculty of Cinema and Theater, University of Art, Tehran, Iran.


Problem statement: Notions of space, place, and city are key concepts in the writings and works of Walter Benjamin, philosopher, and theorist related to Frankfurt School. Especially in his works, Benjamin studies the perceptual experience of facing modern urban spaces. The book Berlin Childhood around 1900 possesses a prominent status among his writings about European cities. The book originated from the unfinished project A Berlin Chronicle and is a memoir of his childhood experiences in Berlin in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. To find a suitable way to represent his childhood memories of the metropolitan experience, Benjamin uses the capacities of modern reproductive technologies such as cinema and photography. The present study draws a comparison between the literary style of the book used for describing the urban spaces of Berlin and the photographic style of Eugène Atget in depicting Paris. Benjamin considered Atget as one of the pioneers of Surrealist photography and believed that Atget’s cityscapes were illusory and phantasmic.
Research objective: The present study tries to demonstrate the key role of new technologies, and especially photography, in the literary style and structure of Berlin Childhood around 1900. The study is to highlight the social-political implications to which Benjamin had alluded by adopting a photographic-surrealist approach in representing the urban memories of his childhood.
Research method: Data for this study were collected from bibliographic databases, by applying a descriptive-analytic method.
Conclusion: This study shows that these photographic pictures are interpreted not only in relation to the past but also to the present and future. The Surrealist “silent” and “cleared out” images Benjamin recalls from a faraway Berlin, obtain their meaning in contrast to the pompous propaganda of the Nazi Party for constructing a utopia from the heart of the First World War’s ruins.


Benjamin, W. (1986). Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (P. Demetz, Ed.). New York: Schocken.
Benjamin, W. (2001). One-way Street, and Other Writings (H. Farazandeh, Trans.). Tehran: Markaz.
Benjamin, W. (2003). Zum Bilde Prousts (O. Mehregan, Trans.). Samarghand, 2, 107-124.
Benjamin, W. (2006). Berlin Childhood around 1900 (H. Eiland, Trans.). Cambridge: Belknap Press.
Benjamin, W. (2011). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Ekran-e Andisheh: Faslhaee dar Falsafe-ye Cinema [The Screening of Thought: Episodes of Film Philosophy] (P. Yazdanjoo, Ed. & Trans.) (pp. 33-81). Tehran: Markaz.
Benjamin, W. (2017). Language and History (M. Farhadpour & O. Mehregan, Trans.). Tehran: Hermes.
Benjamin, W. (2019). On Photography (A. Rahimi Pourazad, Trans.). Tehran: Herfeh-Nevisandeh.
Dant, T. & Gilloch, G. (2017).  Pictures of the past: Benjamin and Barthes on photography and history. In Historiography & Photography (M. Ghafouri, Trans.) (pp. 135-166). Tehran: Agah.
Darby, D. (2000). Photography, narrative, and the landscape of memory in Walter Benjamin’s Berlin. The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory, 75(3), 210-225.
Eagleton, T. (2018). Walter Benjamin: Or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (M. Amirkhanlo & M. Maleki, Trans.). Tehran: Markaz.
Eiland, H. (2006). Translator’s foreword. In W. Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900 (pp. vii-xvi). Cambridge: Belknap Press.
Gilloch, G. (1996). Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Grøtta, M. (2012). Reading developing images: Baudelaire, Benjamin, and the advent of photography. Nineteenth-Century French Studies, 41(1 & 2), 80-90.
Huyssen, A. (2015). Miniature Metropolis: Literature in an Age of Photography and Film. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Jennings, M. (2009). The Mausoleum of youth: Between experience and nihilism in Benjamin’s Berlin childhood. Paragraph, 32(3), 313-330.
Lathey, G. (2016). Enlightening city childhoods: Walter Benjamin’s Berlin and Erich Kästner’s Dresden. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 24(4), 485-493.
Leslie, E. (2000). Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism. London: Pluto Press.
Leslie, E. (Ed.) (2019). Introduction: Walter Benjamin and the birth of photography. In W. Benjamin, On Photography (A. Rahimi Pourazad, Trans.) (pp. 45-125). Tehran: Herfeh-Nevisandeh.
Lichtenstein, T. (2011). Twilight Visions: Surrealism and Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press.
MacFarlane, D. (2010). Photography at the threshold: Atget, Benjamin and Surrealism. History of Photography, 34(1), 17-28.
Pensky, M. (1993). Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Rugg, L. (1997). Picturing Ourselves: Photography and autobiography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sontag, S. (2013). On Photography (N. Shidvash & F. Azarang, Trans.). Tehran: Herfeh-Nevisandeh.
Sontag, S. (2019). Under the sign of Saturn. In W. Benjamin, On Photography (A. Rahimi Pourazad, Trans.) (pp. 343-357). Tehran: Herfeh-Nevisandeh.
Szondi, P. (1978). Hope in the past: On Walter Benjamin. Critical Inquiry, 4(3), 491-506.
Thacker, A. (2017). Lost cities and found lives: The ‘geographical emotions’ of Bryher and Walter Benjamin. In E. Kilian & H. Wolf (Eds.), Life Writing and Space. London: Routledge. 
Walker, I. (2002). City Gorged with Dreams: Surrealism and Documentary Photography in Interwar Paris. Oxford: Manchester University Press.
Sramek, P. (2013). Piercing time: Paris after Marville and Atget 1865-2012. Bristol: Intellect Books.