Richard Brown: on Sontag



DSC04901After my first assignment, my tutor recommended that I read a few books on the philosophy of photography, Sontag’s book,  Susan Sontag: On Photography, being one of them.  (the others were;- Berger, J. (1972)  Ways of Seeing London and About Looking; ELKINS, James What Photography Is; TAGG, J. 1988. The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories; Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida and BATCHEN, G Photography Degree Zero: Writings on Camera Lucia.)

I had already started to read the Sontag book and, frankly, had given up on it as I found it to be really hard going.  However I thought I would give it another go and would, briefly, put down my further thoughts. When reading her book you have to bear in mind when it came out, 1977, and clearly a lot has changed since then, particular with the arrival of digital photography.  For instance Sontag mentions  “the increasingly popular use of the camera to produce slides”   slides now are a very minor part of photography (although I know there are some at my camera club who may disagree)  but  have been replaced by another form of projected image the digital file via projectors.

But this is not the only thing that has changed.   I think that, generally, people are more aware of the capability of the photo to lie and not always be the reality it purports to be illustrating.

While I agree with a lot of what she says (although maybe it could have been said a lot clearer) there are points she makes that I am not sure I do agree with. For instance her assertion that repeated exposure to photos of atrocities renders them less real to the viewer says, I think, more about her, than the viewing public in general.  This is perhaps borne out by Eva Kollisch’s statement in the film Regarding Susan Sontag  that “She was not a sensitive person”

My own view is that a photograph of a starving child still has the ability to impact on this particular viewer – what has changed, maybe, is my resignation to the likelihood that this will happen again and again.  The McCullin shots Sontag cites were, for most people, I suspect the first time they had seen images of this nature and were made aware of the situation in Biafra.  With the media nowadays providing this information and this type of image on a fairly regular basis we may not be as shocked as those first time viewers but, depending on how empathetic we are, the images still have an impact and I think this is illustrated by the reaction to Live Aid and to subsequent charity appeals like the Tsunami and as this is being written, the earthquake in Nepal.

On the other hand her comment at the end of Plato’s Cave that “today everything exists to end in a photograph.” was, now we are in the age of the selfie; mobile phones Facebook and Instagram, grimly prophetic.

I found her take on Arbus interesting and, I think, in the main spot on in identifying Arbus as a photographer who is an outsider (in spite the latter’s seeming protestations to the contrary) as there is, to me, no real connection with the subjects in her photos.

There are certain phrases where I think she nails photography and others when she doesn’t usually where she appears to be making sweeping generalisations.  For instance A photograph could also be described as a quotation, which makes a book of photographs look like a book of quotations.” (p71) I think this can the case but is too general a comment in that I believe that there are a lot of photographs making a statement.   One that sprang to mind while I was writing this was the famous photo of the student in Tiananmen Square – I don’t consider that a quotation (which to me is something repeated, often out of context) , its a statement – “here’s what happening”.

I’m still thinking about her assertion that “Although photography generates works that can be called art – it requires subjectivity, it can lie, it gives aesthetic pleasure – photography is not, to begin with, an art form at all.” as again I’m not sure I agree with itSontag contends that photography is not an art like say, painting and poetry, but this ignores how those medium arose.  To my mind (and I know this is debatable) Painting was a means initially of recording something (here’s how we hunted the mammoth) and poetry evolved from telling stories that recorded events in the community.  Photography is also a recording medium that has evolved (in a much shorter space of time) to encompass making artistic statements as well.

What was certainly useful to me, was her referring to photographers I was unfamiliar with and as a signpost to photographers worth looking at (and there were many), and as a source of some great quotes, I think its an essential book.

As indicated earlier I also watched the film on Sontag Regarding Susan Sontag to see if it gave me any further insight into her and while there wasn’t a great deal of time in the film devoted to On photography it nevertheless gave an indication of the personality of the writer, although it did seem to dwell a lot on her relationships.  My overriding impression (and this could be completely wrong) was of someone intellectually sharp but somehow quite unemotive, and this is I think reflected in this book.  There does not appear to a passion or enthusiasm here for the subject, more a series of intellectually objective (and arguably this can be a good thing) exercises which could have been applied to any topic.  As such, her writing did not engage me but that is not, as I said earlier, to say I disagreed with all she wrote although it was struggle to continue reading at times.  It’s likely that I will return to it at a later stage to re read, to see in the light of my own development (assuming there is any!) whether my view changes.


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