Originals and copies

Object: letterpress
A copy for the sender: letterpress from circa 1900. The double-column, black varnished spindle press with gold decoration was used to make copies of letters. The letters were transferred by exerting pressure from the rear into a copy book made of very thin paper which was moistened sheet for sheet.
Deutsches Buch- und Schriftmuseum der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek Leipzig, Photograph: Michael Setzpfandt

Originals and copies

On the value of authenticity

The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical – and, of course, not only technical – reproducibility.

Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1935

Reproducing a second version of a text that is preferably identical – a copy or duplicate – is an age-old desire in cultures that use the written word. In correspondence, sender and recipient want to access the same document, whether an attestation, contract or certificate. There are very different degrees of authenticity. Some forms focus only on the wording, while others strive to achieve an identical document that comes as close as possible to the original. Procedures for authentication and certification, e.g., by a notary, are among the practices used in societies in which the written word plays a role. And yet, in our digital era, what is original and what a copy? How can we determine the authenticity of a data file, something displayed on a screen or a computer printout?

In his famous work, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction from 1935, Walter Benjamin names photography in particular as a technical media in art: “Because a multiplicity of identical copies can be developed from an original photographic plate, it makes no sense whatsoever to ask which of these copies is authentic.” In doing so, he describes the dissolution of the old categories of original and copy in the age of reproduction media.