Published in 1973, On Photography (Amazon UK and US) is a collection of essays by Susan Sontag, most/all of which appeared in the New York Review of Books. When I started college in 1990, roughly half the age of the book ago, we were assigned the first chapter to read. As I’ve been thinking about photography a little over the past few months I thought it was time I read the whole thing. It’s all good, but that first chapter, which you might be able to cough find online, was the most interesting to me. I think this book, or something like it, is well worth a read if you feel your photography habit is caught up in the purely technical, buying bits of kit, angle. Here are the bits from the whole book that jumped out at me while reading…
In Plato’s Cave
In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.
In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are. Those occasions when the taking of photographs is relatively undiscriminating, promiscuous, or self-effacing do not lessen the didacticism of the whole enterprise. This very passivity — and ubiquity — of the photographic record is photography’s “message,” its aggression. … There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.
…like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.
It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had. Photographs document sequences of consumption carried on outside the view of family, friends, neighbours.
Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.
Between photographer and subject, there has to be distance. The camera doesn’t rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate — all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment.
The old-fashioned camera was clumsier and harder to reload than a brown Bess musket. The modern camera is trying to be a ray gun.
All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.
Cameras began duplicating the world at that moment when the human landscape started to undergo a vertiginous rate of change: while an untold number of forms of biological and social life are being destroyed in a brief span of time, a device is available to record what is disappearing.
17-18 “A photograph … cannot make a dent in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and attitude.” Photos of Vietnam had an effect in America, but only because there was already an anti-war sentiment. Journalists felt supported in their efforts. But there was little similar feeling around the Korean War, so there weren’t the same kinds of photos published.
19-21 We become inured to terrible events because we become over-familiar with them through photographs. “In these last decades, ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.”
The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalised pathos of time past. … Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.
Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. … Of course, photographs fill in blanks in our mental pictures of the present and the past. …[but] understanding is based on how [something] functions [not merely how it looks]. And functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand.
America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly
30-31 Walker Evans took photographs of down-to-earth subjects, eg subway riders, sharecroppers, both Victorian houses in Boston and stores in Alabama.
Evans wanted his photographs to be “literate, authoritative, transcendent.” The moral universe of the 1930s being no longer ours, these adjectives are barely credible today. Nobody demands that photography be literate. Nobody can imagine how it could be authoritative. Nobody understands how anything, least of all a photograph, could be transcendent.
Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible. By getting us used to what, formerly, we could not bear to see or hear, because it was too shocking, painful, or embarrassing, art changes morals — that body of psychic custom and public sanctions that draws a vague boundary between what is emotionally and spontaneously intolerable and what is not.
The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed.
Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision.
Some photographers set up as scientists, others as moralists. The scientists make an inventory of the world; the moralists concentrate on hard cases.
59-62 August Sander began a photographic catalogue of the German people in 1911. The photographs “imply a pseudo-scientific neutrality.” The Farm Securities Administration project, in America, from 1935, “was concerned exclusively with ‘low-income groups.’” It was
unabashedly propagandistic … to demonstrate the value of the people photographed. Thereby, it implicitly defined its point of view: that of middle-class people who needed to be convinced that the poor were really poor, and that the poor were dignified. … Though the poor do not lack dignity in Sander’s photographs, it is not because of any compassionate intentions. They have dignity by juxtaposition, because they are looked at in the same cool way as everybody else.
62 A footnote: In 1942, Roy Emerson Stryker sent a memo to his staff:
We must have at once pictures of men, women and children who appear as if they really believed in the U.S. Get people with a little spirit. Too many in our file now paint the U.S. as an old person’s home and that just about everybody is too old to work and too malnourished to care much what happens.
The Heroism of Vision
86 The first technique for retouching negatives was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855, the before and after portrait astounding the crowds. “The news that the camera could lie made getting photographed much more popular.”
98 Bauhaus designers were dazzled by industrial and scientific photography, but this approach has not prevailed.
In the main tradition of the beautiful in photography, beauty requires the imprint of a human decision: that this would make a good photograph, and that the good picture would make some comment.
99-100 Avant-garde close-up and abstract photography of the 1920s and 1930s “have become clichés of a merely photographic way of seeing.” It used to take an intelligent and literary eye to interpret them, but now they’re understandable by anyone.
It is now clear that there is no inherent conflict between the mechanical or naïve use of the camera and formal beauty of a very high order, no kind of photograph in which such beauty could not turn out to be present: an unassuming functional snapshot may be as visually interesting, as eloquent, as beautiful as the most acclaimed fine-art photographs. This democratising of formal standards is the logical counterpart to photography’s democratising of the notion of beauty. …beauty has been revealed by photographs as existing everywhere.
Because each photograph is only a fragment, its moral and emotional weight depends on where it is inserted. A photograph changes according to the context in which it is seen: thus Smith’s Minamata photographs will seem different on a contact sheet, in a gallery, in a political demonstration, in a police file, in a photographic magazine, in a book, on a living-room wall. Each of these situations suggests a different use for the photographs but none can secure their meaning.
Socially concerned photographers assume that their work can convey some kind of stable meaning, can reveal truth. But partly because the photograph is, always, an object in a context, this meaning is bound to drain away.
The caption … is expected to speak for truth. But even an entirely accurate caption is only one interpretation, necessarily a limiting one, of the photograph to which it is attached. … It cannot prevent any argument or moral plea which a photograph (or set of photographs) is intended to support from being undermined by the plurality of meanings that every photograph carries…
111 Photography discloses “the thingness of human beings, the humanness of things.”
The force of a photograph is that it keeps open to scrutiny instants which the normal flow of time immediately replaces. This freezing of time — the insolent, poignant stasis of each photograph — has produced new and more inclusive canons of beauty. Buy the truths that can be rendered in a dissociated moment, however significant or decisive, have a very narrow relation to the needs of understanding. Contrary to what is suggested by the humanist claims made for photography, the camera’s ability to transform reality into something beautiful derives from its relative weakness as a means of conveying truth. The reason that humanism has become the reigning ideology of ambitious professional photographers — displacing formalist justifications of their quest for beauty — is that it masks the confusions about truth and beauty underlying the photographic enterprise.
116 How much does someone need to know and understand their subject in order to get a good photograph?
Picture-taking has been interpreted in two entirely different ways: either as a lucid and precise act of knowing, of conscious intelligence, or as a pre-intellectual, intuitive mode of encounter.
But even when ambitious professionals disparage thinking — suspicion of the intellect being a recurrent theme in photographic apologetics — they usually want to assert how rigorous this permissive visualising needs to be. “A photograph is not an accident — it is a concept,” Ansel Adams insists. “The ‘machine-gun’ approach to photography — by which many negatives are made with the hope that one will be good — is fatal to serious results.” To take a good photograph, runs the common claim, one must already see it. … But, despite their reluctance to say so, most photographers have always had — with good reason — an almost superstitious confidence in the lucky accident.
What is exciting “are photographs that say something in a new manner,” Harry Callaghan writes, “not for the sake of being different, but because the individual is different and the individual expresses himself.”
As photographers describe it, picture-taking is both a limitless technique for appropriating the objective world and an unavoidably solipsistic expression of the singular self.
Either way, the photographer is seen as “a kind of ideal observer,” a stance which “implicitly denies that picture-taking is an aggressive act,” something photographers usually feel obliged to do. Ansel Adams urges that we say we “make” a picture, not “take” one.
133 Unlike with paintings and painters, we expect the creator of a photograph to be a “discreet presence.”
The very success of photojournalism lies in the difficulty of distinguishing one superior photographer’s work from another’s… These photographs have their power as images (or copies) of the world, not of an individual artist’s consciousness.