On Photography By Susan Sontag

On Photography

By Susan Sontag

Read in August 2012

This book of Susan Sontag is also a compilation of six essays.  Some are slightly easier to read and comprehend than others, but overall, I find them difficult.  While reading I made detailed notes (hand written) on four of these.  For the other two I simply tried to read and understand.  However, I think that although much more time consuming writing notes whilst reading is better for understanding and making a summary afterwards.

  • In Plato’s Cave
    In this essay, she takes the reader from images on a cave wall to everything being photographed.  Photographs are a means of possession and photography is generally not practiced as an art form by the masses, but is a mechanism of holding power.
    A photograph of an event records it of ever even though the event itself has ended.  The person photographing the event cannot participate in the event, however, recording the event is more than passive observation.
    The concept of photographs being momento mori: it captures a moment in time, a persons mortality etc.  Photographs record what is disappearing in a fast changing world.
    In order to have an impact on public opinion, photographs have to convey a context of feeling and attitude.  However, due to their proliferation one is anaesthetised to what should be a shocking event.  One also often feels remote and insulated from the event.  Due to their number they have become a pollutant.
    “Only that which narrates can make us understand”.
  • America Seen Through Photographs, Darkly.
    Photographing something confers on it some importance.  However, there has been a move to photograph not only beautiful things but ugly and plain too.  Diane Arbus showed this having written that what one notices in people is “the flaw”.
  • Melancholy Objects
  • The Heroism of Vision
    In 1855 a means was developed to retouch a negative.  Now photographs could lie.  As photographs claim to be true, retouching them falsifies reality.  This leads to the conflict of beautification versus telling the truth.  Now photographs have become the way in which things appear to us, changing the concept of reality and realism.
    Photographers went out to find different and striking images.  Between 1820 and 1835 close-ups were prolific showing magnificent forms.
    The fundamental difference between painters and photographers is that the former construct whilst the latter disclose.
    Photographs are often of beautiful things but also find this beauty I ugly.  But, the painter of portraits has the task of embellishing the subject.  The reaction against beauty has expanded our view of what is aesthetically pleasing.
    She expands saying that a ‘photograph changes according to the context in which it is seen’, due to the moral and emotional weight it is given.  And, ‘the meaning diminishes as the context changes and becomes less relevant’.
  • Photographic Evangels
  • The Image World
    A key activity in society is making and consuming images, which are preferred to the real thing.  Photographs carry an authority due to the nature of images captured by camera.  This is different to a painting where the artist interprets as scene – a camera simply captures the light waves from that scene.  Photography does not depend on the image maker like painting as it is simply a optical-chemical or electronic process.  This partially comes back to the original relationship between images and the object where they were both seen to have the same qualities.  Today however, there is a tendency to attribute real things with the qualities of images.
    Photographs a surrogate possession of a thing, form part of a relationship to an event, or a means of acquiring information.
    Photographs can provide information we do not see and cannot be recorded through writing.  Today we know that our grandparents looked like through images that were not available before.  In the past a paining may have been commissioned of a family member, but this was embellished to make them look good and proclaim their social standing.  Based on this one was needed.  Today photographs confirm that the subject exists, so one can never have enough.
    The camera continues to allow us to participate in events but remain alienated.  Photographs arouse feelings that are different to those that occur in real life for the same event and so we may be disappointed when we see the real thing.  However, also, a photographer chooses what to show us whilst in real life we may choose not to look.


Although photographs capture events, the pollutant nature of the enormous numbers of photographs insulates and anaesthetises us from these events.  Photographs are however, a means of possessing another.
Since this book was written, in 1977, the ease of capturing an image has resulted in an exponential proliferation of photographs instantly available.  How much more is the effect of insulating us from events?

There is no doubt that photographs inform us to an extent not previously possible – one only has to think of recent photographs of the galaxy and those of Mars.  These are highly processed data that are transmitted many millions of miles.  How different is this really to manipulating images in a computer?

Since writing in the mid 70’s there has been enormous development in digital cameras and the manipulation of images.  The ‘beautification’ of images is common and no longer is the maxim, a photograph cannot lie’ true.  There is no doubt that when looking at a beautiful photograph of a model that there is a tendency to assume that the model actually looks like this, which is almost certainly incorrect.

Finally, how often do we see images that horrify us.  These can be from al sorts of events.  However, one has to question how often are these staged?  And because of this we hardly react to them.

There is in my mind some evidence that, due to the changes in photography with the advent of digital cameras and digital manipulation, we need to carefully review how we interpret an image and this may well be different to the way of interpretation of 35 years ago.


1 Response to On Photography By Susan Sontag

  1. Pingback: Two Recent Books I have read « dougslr

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