Susan Sontag

On Photography

“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.”

Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933 – December 28, 2004) spent her writing life placing a wedge of consciousness between our lazy collective actions and their implicit effect on society. From her warning on the falsity of metaphors as they relate to illness, to a rumination on the falsity of images as they relate to memory, and her 1977 publication, On Photography that exposes the contradiction and complexity of this pervasive art form.

Sontag delivers us to the dawn of this yet-unheralded art form when the convergence of chemistry, optics and, as it happens, botany, created an entirely new mimetic process.

That age when taking photographs required a cumbersome and expensive contraption-the toy of the clever, the wealthy, and the obsessed-seems remote indeed from the era of sleek pocket cameras that invite anyone to take pictures. The first cameras, made in France and England in the early 1840s, had only inventors and buffs to operate them. Since there were then no professional photographers, there could not be amateurs either, and taking photographs had no clear social use; it was a gratuitous, that is, an artistic activity, though with few pretensions to being an art. It was only with its industrialization that photography came into its own as art. As industrialization provided social uses for the operations of the photographer, so the reaction against these uses reinforced the self-consciousness of photography-as-art.

"Frontispeace for Anna Atkins' "Photography of British Algae." Featured in Susan Sontag's "On Photography" in the Examined Life Library.
Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions collected and published by Anna Atkins in 1843. Widely considered as the “world’s first photographic book” this assemblage of specimens made by Atkins included 411 plates of plants from Atkins’ collection. Image from William Henry Fox Talbot’s personal copy of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions courtesy of the Science Museum Group.

While painting was “handicapped from the start by being a fine art” and only traded in originals, photographs, eventually, could be reproduced indefinitely and accomplished by anyone.

Photography quickly took its place as a social medium of self-capture and self-expression.

Gazing on other people’s reality with curiosity, with detachment, with professionalism, the ubiquitous photographer operates as if that activity transcends class interests, as if its perspective is universal. In fact, photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle-class flâneur, whose sensibility was so accurately charted by Baudelaire. The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.

In viewing the space as distanced by the camera, the walker/photographer also becomes apart from the landscape and able to lend a critical eye. But it is this engagement of photographer and scene that we must remember is present in the photograph.

"Winter – Fifth Avenue" by Alfred Stieglitz." Featured in Susan Sontag's "On Photography" in the Examined Life Library.
“Winter – Fifth Avenue” by Alfred Stieglitz, 1893 “Alfred Stieglitz proudly reports that he had stood three hours during a blizzard on February 22, 1893, ‘awaiting the proper moment’ to take his celebrated picture.”

Sontag argues that photographs give people an “imaginary possession of a past that is unreal”. It is a short stretch from self-expression to ownership, and indeed, it is this facet of human desire that is exposed and manipulated in photography.

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge and, therefore, like power. A now notorious first fall into alienation, habituating people to abstract the world into printed words, is supposed to have engendered that surplus of Faustian energy and psychic damage needed to build modern, inorganic societies. But print seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world, of turning it into a mental object, than photographic images, which now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

"Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C." by Diane Arbus. Featured in Susan Sontag's "On Photography" in the Examined Life Library.
“Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C.” by Diane Arbus, 1962. Sontag writes: “Arbus’s work expressed her turn against what was public… conventional, safe, reassuring – and boring – in favor of what was private, hidden, ugly, dangerous, and fascinating. These contrasts, now, seem almost quaint.”

Looking at the surfeit of photographic images in today’s society, it is not the photography nor the photographic medium that is new (although the technology has democratized access) but rather the means of publishing photos. The means have exploded exponentially. Photos are no longer paper piles in archives, instantly findable, visible, traceable, and corruptible.

When Sontag wrote On Photography almost fifty years ago, this change was already imminent.

[Photographs] help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure. Thus, photography develops in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism. For the first time in history, large numbers of people regularly travel out of their habitual environments for short periods of time. 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, neighbors. But dependence on the camera, as the device that makes real what one is experiencing, doesn’t fade when people travel more. Taking photographs fills the same need for the cosmopolitans accumulating photograph-trophies of their boat trip up the Albert Nile or their fourteen days in China as it does for lower-middle-class vacationers taking snapshots of the Eiffel Tower or Niagara Falls.

"Lower Paradise Valley" by Ansel Adams. Featured in Susan Sontag's "On Photography" in the Examined Life Library.
“Lower Paradise Valley” photograph by Ansel Adams, 1925. Sontag references Ansel Adam’s photographic language to demonstrate the innocence/predatory duality of photography: “Ansel Adam’s description of the camera as an ‘instrument of love and revelation’; Adams also urges that we stop saying that we ‘take’ a picture and always say we ‘make’ one.” Photo courtesy of The Ansel Adams Gallery.

Sontag’s work takes its strength from a desire to expose – perhaps all at once – the complexity of things that have a batted-aside moral component. On Photography holds up an art form and exposes its nuances and thus, its flaws.

How do we weigh the means by which we use photography as evidence against how easily it can be manipulated?

How do we use photographs as memory for those of us who have none, in the absence of anything better?

How do we see the hand of the artist in this often authorless art form?

Andy Warhol self-portrait, 1972. Featured in Susan Sontag's "On Photography" in the Examined Life Library.
Sontag wrote On Photography only a few years after Andy Warhol took this self-portrait, about which he wrote in his autobiography: “When I did my self portrait, I left all the pimples out because you always should… Always omit the blemishes – they’re not part of the good picture you want.”

German critic (and celebrated flâneur) Walter Benjamin wrote a seminal thought-piece on the reproduction of art and how it effects the original. In it he posited that:

A work of art has always been reproducible. Man made artifacts could always be imitated by men. Replicas were made by pupils in practice of their craft, by masters for diffusing their works, and, finally, by third parties in the pursuit of gain. Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.

From Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

According to Benjamin, even if art is exactly reproduced, it becomes new. Likewise if it is moved from its original space – if the dialogue with space it has in situ is no more – it becomes new. We then assume it is impossible to ever experience the art in total purity and we become even farther from that purity with each reproduction.

Sontag dedicates her last chapter of On Photography to Benjamin’s life-long, and unachieved, master oeuvre: “a work consisting entirely of quotation” in this case, pertaining to photography. Lines like Man Ray’s “I photograph what I do not wish to paint and I paint what I cannot photograph” and Nietzsche’s “To experience a thing as beautiful means: to experience it as necessarily wrongly.”

Imitation – even reproduction – can be a beautiful thing.

Susan Sontag