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Passionate and gracefully outspoken throughout her career, Susan Sontag became one of the most important â¦ Like Sontag, Walker discounts the shallow manipulations of most Surrealist photography in favour of what might be called a ‘documentary’ surrealism, though his treatment of the subject is obviously far more complete than hers. This, somewhat inevitably, leads her to a discussion of the fraught relationship between photography and art, one that she argues hasnât really been a matter of accommodating the different roles falling to photography on the one hand and to the traditional âfine artsâ like painting on the other, but fundamentally reimagining them in light of the new capacities that photography made available. And, in many respects, the book is nearly unique. 149). First appearing in Rolling Stone magazine, the complete interview was only published after her death. Your email address will not be published. At the same time, most readers would probably find it difficult to parse the line of argument actually taken in the book, which is perhaps more known for its near endless quotability, than for what, precisely, Sontag has to say. It also ranges widely â if, at times, very selectively â across the history and practice of photography. Change ), You are commenting using your Google account. Sontagâs On Photography is one of the most quoted academic works on the subject of photograph, and generally comes up any time youâre having a serious discussion about photography. ( Log Out / But, for all that, the relentless pace at which the medium has changed in the intervening years has meant that the limitations of Sontagâs approach, often considerable in themselves, have become all the more significant as time goes on. Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato's Cave, still ... photography came along to memorialize, to restate syrnlY)li- cally, the imperiled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life. In China, there can only be one point of view, nothing else is permissible, but, she says, âa capitalist society requires a culture based on images. This, too, is something Cott asked her about, noting the kind of words she used to describe it in the book: “package, possess, colonize […] consume […] aggress.” (RS, pg. Essay #6: The Image World. 52-53. Susan Sontag, In Platoâs Cave from the book: On Photography Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato's Cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth. 52) there is precious little evidence of that enthusiasm in the text. 161) So, while the core of her argument might be most neatly summarised by the idea that, as she says, âimages consume reality,â (OP, pg. Susan Sontagâs fame was always paradoxical. Passionate and gracefully outspoken throughout her career, Susan Sontag became one of the most important literary, political and feminist icons of her generation. In her monumental 1977 collection of essays dedicated to the photographic medium, Susan Sontag wrote: âPhotographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it.â If we were to define documentary photography, this statement might just be the right description, because in its essence, it is a form of image-making aiming to chronicle the events and â¦ The penultimate essay in the book, Photographic Evangels, examines the often contradictory views about the medium that have been held by some of its more forward-thinking advocates. While the summary of her argument that I have presented here might be of use to anyone in need of a guide to the book, the fundamental limitations of Sontagâs position should be readily apparent as well. Similarly, Sontag’s language when talking about the medium is often seen as having a decidedly condemnatory ring. [iii] It is much more plausible to say that photography is not merely appropriating (or âcollecting,â or âcolonisingâ) the real world, but just that it can be used in this way, and yet, for her, photographyâs use as appropriation becomes simply photographyâs appropriation, without any regard for the different contexts in which this might occur â or rather, by collapsing all those different contexts together. 49-60. Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email. [v] What she doesnât fully acknowledge, however, is the extent to which photo-journalistic images in particular are âanchoredâ by written texts. [iv] To her, Arbus appears as the logical endpoint of photography’s inherent tendency towards a colonisation of the real, with the photographer aggressively co-opting other people’s lives and then inserting them as mere characters in her own aesthetic melodrama without any sense of responsibility for how they are depicted. Among these, she contrasts Diane Arbus's work with that of Depression-era documentary photography commissioned by the Farm Security Administration. The Morals of Vision: Susan Sontagâs âOn Photographyâ Revisited (Part 2) June 20, 2017 Bruce Davidson, Susan Sontag, 1971. 75) Indeed, to criticise this ‘sensibility’ and its failure to deliver a new vision of the world implicit in the ‘surrealist’ ambition is also a critique of modernity itself, of the hopes invested in technological development and in ‘progress’ generally. In On Photography, Susan Sontag claims, âJust as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder,â making a startling, yet valid accusation that a camera is a weapon, able to manipulate and take ownership of anything in its path. The title, On Photographs, alludes to Susan Sontagâs influential and groundbreaking On Photography. First published in 1977, it brings together a series of nonfiction pieces originally published in The New York Review of Books between 1973 and 1977. Also, Sontagâs own Regarding the Pain of Others, Penguin, 2003, especially chapter 7, where she briefly reconsiders some ideas from On Photography. A complex person, Sontag fiercely guarded her privacy, despite her boldness in the literary world. I began reading Susan Sontagâs book to think more deeply about documentary work. 82), The next two essays, The Heroism of Vision and Photographic Evangels, are further variations on this theme. ), Penguin, 2013, pgs. And that brings us, at last, to the final essay in the book. I recently read it while developing an aesthetics class that is â¦ [iv] It is amusing to find in one of her later notebooks a list of likes and dislikes where being photographed and taking photographs both fall firmly into the latter category. And they depict an individual temperament, discovering itself though the cameraâs cropping of reality.â (OP, pg. This generality is also perhaps its most fatal defect. It connects you with others. “Photography,” she tells us, “has become the quintessential art of affluent, wasteful, restless societies.” (OP, pg. 48), whose most tangible result is the calculated deadening of our moral response to the world as it is pictured, an ideological slight-of-hand perpetrated by the photographer as the – often all too willing – agent of larger social forces. 69) and, needless to say, those societies have a vested interest in the majority being satisfied with ‘mere’ images, of the simulated engagement with the world that photography has facilitated. While the medium operates in ever more diverse contexts, fulfilling ever more diverse roles, the lack of specificity in her argument, its totalising drive, canât be made to accommodate these changes, just as it couldnât fully accommodate the medium as it stood when she wrote the book. 97) fulfils her old gripe about the appropriating tendencies of the medium, dividing reality into a series of photo-opportunities that claim a kind of moral uplift, but that ultimately makes this impossible, precisely because of how photography operates on our relationship to the world around us. […] Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention.” (OP, pg. Sontag makes one (largely valid) assumption about how photography might be used and applies it generally to the whole medium, as though she is describing a universal property. Susan Sontag â Quotes from âOn Photographyâ mickyates April 10, 2019 ContextualResearch , Critical Research Journal , Critical Theory , Documentary , ICWeek11 , Ideas , Informing Contexts , Media Theory , Photography , Portrait , Quotes Leave a Comment It makes you eager. Sontag discusses many examples of modern photography. Susan Sontag attempts to argue that the American photographers have shifted from presenting the American experience as vital and inclusive (Walter Evans, Steichen) to cold and disinterested (Diane Arbus). In her monumental 1977 collection of essays dedicated to the photographic medium, Susan Sontag wrote: âPhotographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it.â If we were to define documentary photography, this statement might just be the right description, because in its essence, it is a form of image-making aiming to chronicle the events and â¦ She was, on the other hand, a passionate collector of film-stills, a detail not without its own significance. The forces at work in that society are historically unique to it, or to the Western world at any rate, and elaborate a particular set of ideas about what is real. It is required reading for anyone interested in Sontag, presenting a more rounded and indeed more sympathetic portrait of her than is usually the case. The lack of differentiation between the conclusions she is able to draw by looking at often rather diverse areas of photographic practice is in itself telling. What concerns her is the way in which photography modifies â and distorts â our relationship to the world around us, obscuring the connections that make understanding ârealityâ possible on a social, historical and political level, in favour of an âimageâ that is, quite literally, depth-less. Similarly, Sontag sees the rituals of family photography and of tourists with their cameras as a way of controlling and collecting the visible world according to the logic of a given social order, helping to reinforce its values. ', and 'Do stuff. The key point here is the way in which these hopes would sour, and in time be reduced to an aesthetics of marginalisation, making a spectacle of what they would have ostensibly redeemed. Previous Post: End of the Pier: Martin Parr in New Brighton, Next Post: The Morals of Vision: Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ Revisited (Part 2), Long Reads or why Susan Sontag is so 1980 – Stuart Murdoch, What We’re Reading: Week of 3rd July | JHIBlog, One topic different perspective. In this context, and given when the book was written, media representation of the war in Vietnam receives a surprisingly cursory treatment, but the idea of âcompassion fatigueâ that she evokes is real enough, at least to the extent there that is often a significant difference between the aim of such images and their effect. It was first articulated by John Berger in 1978, see âThe Uses of Photographyâ in Understanding a Photograph, Geoff Dyer (ed. In A Second Flowering (1973) and The Dream of the Golden Mountains (1980), Malcolm Cowley looked back at the writers betweenâ¦ For Sontag, perhaps the best exemplar of this tradition was Edward Weston, whose views she astutely (and amusingly) compares to the woolly pontificating of DH Lawrence. It’s difficult to name any other piece of sustained writing on the subject of photography that has gained the same kind of audience, whatever else might be said about its influence one way or another. But rather than critique specific statements she uses the issue of what photographers might have said about their medium to address, in the first instance, the appropriative relation of photography to the world that is her concern throughout, and second, the mastery photographers are wont to claim over that reality, their capacity not just to record, which is what anyone with a camera can do, but to really see, the result of their own privileged creative vision: âAs photographers describe it, picture-taking is both a limitless technique for appropriating the objective world and an unavoidably solipsistic expression of the singular self. And yet, the idea that the whole culture of producing and consuming photography â the culture of photography itself â can be scrutinised critically is one that we should not be so eager to discount; our age of âfake newsâ and reality television politics probably needs it more than ever. The penultimate essay in the book, Photographic Evangels, examines the often contradictory views about the medium that have been held by some of its more forward-thinking advocates. Anyone interested in the social roles of photography will find this book fascinating and thought-provoking. ', 'I haven't been everywhere, but it's on my list. In the book, Sontag expresses her views on the history and present-day role of photography in capitalist societies as of the 1970s. This is because photography can only provide aestheticized (hence, ineffective) copies of reality, the nature of which are at any rate determined by the photographerâs own prejudices, and also because repeated exposure to these images adds up to a kind of pseudo-knowledge that in many cases just habitutates us to the atrocities or forms of otherness that they depict â all of which is perhaps true to some extent. But it is also a fairly tendential argument, in that it depends on a deliberately narrow reading of photographyâs effects, or at least on a set of assumptions about what photography should (or shouldnât) do, rather than on what it actually does. Hereâs the rub with Sontag, though: if she isnât right, she isnât entirely wrong either. 154) What she has in mind is not a simplistic duality of the real and the pictured â there is, in that sense, no ârealityâ that isnât somehow represented â but of photography as a system of information, a way of ordering and so, controlling our relationship to and understanding of the world, fundamentally defined by the characteristics of the medium and what it makes possible: âreality has come to seem more and more like what we are shown by cameras.â (OP, pg. By now the pattern that the essays establish should be obvious. On Photography is a collection of essays by American writer, academic, and activist Susan Sontag. Susan Sontag was a renowned Jewish-American writer, who was also a prolific filmmaker, teacher and political activist. ( Log Out / The way in which photographic technology has expanded over the last few decades, with the currency of images shaping the public domain in ways that Sontag couldnât even have imagined, means that the reference points the argument she wants to make are also increasingly irrelevant, but, ironically, that same growth has rendered her anxieties about the facile duplication of experience by photographic media all the more pertinent. âTo photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be â¦ Fig. Each essay - of which there are five - was originally circulated periodically in â¦ Tourism is a kind of displaced (visual) colonialism; images of suffering donât always help to alleviate it â and so on. The trouble is that the crux of her argument doesnât rest on the validity of specific claims like these, but rather on how she leverages them into a view of the medium that is, at its worst, highly blinkered and misleading. The sensibility she identifies here as characteristic of the medium – and of the times – is one that has willingly accepted the apparent dead-lock that it embodies: “Photographers […] suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it.” (OP, pg. The essay is an extended critique of this situation and its consequences, which Sontag sees a product of a particular socio-historical context, with photography as a way of ‘collecting’ and therefore shaping reality. Susan Sontag, On Photography An American writer, filmmaker, philosopher, teacher, and political activist, Susan Sontag is a singular phenomenon and an icon of American culture criticism. The real burden of the essay, then, and what she has been leading up to, is the idea that photography interposes itself between us and the ‘real world’ in a way that merely looks like engagement, but is in fact satisfied with a symbolic, morally immobilising gesture: “Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events. She discovered her undying love for books during her teenage. Written by Felix Morrison On Photography - a collection of essays by Susan Sontag - explores what the title suggests: a take on the importance, history and nature of the medium of photography. The sheer relentlessness of this photographic economy (massively accelerated in our own time, of course) has conclusively interposed itself between us and any kind of authentically real experience, reducing us to a state of passive dependence on what Sontag calls the âimage-worldâ (as in the title of this last essay), which has come, as she says, to âusurp reality.â (OP, pg. They canât help but obscure the specific conditions under which any kind of photography is made and viewed; the result is, ironically, just the sort of distorting âequivalenceâ she is at pains to criticise. Writers Susan Sontag and Ulrich Keller have both written about the image. Sontag writes in her essay, âOn Photographyâ, that the ââ¦ambiguous relationship [between photographer and photograph] sets up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all eventsâ. Photography's inferior but inexorable version of reality is the bases of On Photography. Each essay - of which there are five - was originally circulated periodically in the New York Review of Books between 1973-1977. In order to understand why this might be, what I want to address here is the fundamental basis of Sontag’s argument – and its enduring limitations. 30) Framed in this way, the ‘advanced’ photographer is by necessity no more insightful than the snap-happy tourist, in that both are satisfied to merely collect the world, rather than trying to understand it, and worse, the self-consciously ‘artistic’ photographer most often appropriates the private realities of other people, for no less questionable ends. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race and sex,â (OP, pg. The result, in her view, is that “every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation” and is, consequently, “analgesic morally”. In a way, this photograph also foreshadows the later photograph of Sontag â¦ Sontagâs On Photography is one of the most quoted academic works on the subject of photograph, and generally comes up any time youâre having a serious discussion about photography. The opening essay, In Plato’s Cave, begins with an assumption that has become increasingly familiar, that there are – or were, then – more photographs in the world than ever and that their very pervasiveness has changed how we see the world. Change ), You are commenting using your Twitter account. In 2012, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris investigated the claims that Fenton had staged the photo. For some clue to Sontag’s motivation in undertaking the project we can turn to a long interview Jonathan Cott conducted with her in 1978. It appears that, for Sontag, the practice of photography represents a foreclosure of social, aesthetic and even moral possibilities because of the way it depends on a facile duplication of reality. 573 quotes from Susan Sontag: 'My library is an archive of longings. (Editorâs Note: Susan Sontag was, in my opinion, a seminal intellectual, and she authored On Photography, a photographerâs theory manifesto of sorts. [i] That is, the final essay written by Sontag herself. ( Log Out / In 1978 Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor, a classic work described by Newsweek as "one of the most liberating books of its time." This popularity is by no means a point in the book’s favour, especially among more academically inclined critics, or even those sick of its increasingly dated ubiquity. Because Sontag is a great writer and thinker, I came away with much more. [ii] Obviously, the film raised official objections from the Chinese authorities because of the extent to which it contradicted the myth of a glorious workerâs republic, but Sontagâs main concern is not the film itself, though she does admit it is somewhat condescending. 31, italics mine). Her conversations with her partner, and seminal author Susan Sontag, tell a beautiful story of a partners influence on an artists practice. It originally appeared as a series of essays in the New York Review of Books between 1973 and 1977. 121), Placing this assertion of an âindividual creative visionâ at the heart of how photography is positioned as art, especially and increasingly in the context of art institutions, is, for Sontag, yet another marker of the desire to legitimise what she calls its âvoracious way of seeingâ. Most original and illuminating study of the bookâs influence, both in the text by... 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Similarly, Sontag expresses her views on the `` philosophy '' of picture-taking and the meaning of essay. Like being educated by older, more artisanal images and Photographic Evangels, are further on.
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