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On Photography, reconsidered

February 21, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

On Photography, by Susan Sontag. Picador, 1977.

Anyone with a serious interest in photography has probably encountered Sontag’s On Photography. I first read it about ten years ago, and thought I should re-read it as part of my homework in the run-up to the publication of Combat Camera. When you write a novel that deals extensively with photography, you should be prepared to talk intelligently about the subject. This is not a review, then. It’s simply a reaction.

On Photography is a serious and intelligent book that is continually thought-provoking. That the thoughts it provokes may often be along the lines of “You’re full of shit, Sontag” hardly diminishes it; one measure of its quality is the mental resources Sontag forces you to muster to argue against it.

At its best, On Photography is brilliant: page after page, it presents brilliant ideas concerning how we look at photographs, what photographs mean to us, and how photography alters our world.

At its worst, however, On Photography is disingenuous intellectual sleight of hand, a game of now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t in which Sontag continually shifts the goal posts to support her generalizations, and constructs houses of cards based on premises that she never fully examines.

Photography is a broad and complex subject. From Aunt Matilda’s snapshots of little Johnny’s birthday to Robert Capa’s photos of the first wave hitting Omaha beach, from the deliberately constructed work of Ansel Adams to the happenstance captures of unmanned surveillance cameras, from studio to street riot: all this is Sontag’s subject. From all this, she takes her evidence wherever she finds it, and applies it wherever it suits her.

For example, her insistence that photography is inherently aggressive, a premise that seems sensible when you consider Bruce Gilden popping his flash in your face on the street, but seems somewhat less so when the happy tourist couple asks you to take their picture with their camera. Oh, but that’s apples and oranges, you say; Sontag isn’t talking about holiday snapshots. Except that she often is, especially when critiquing photography as an acquisitive activity through which we attempt to collect the world — a context very close to that in which she calls it aggressive.

It is easy to prove anything when you’re selective in this way. Fruit are sour, for example; consider the lemon. Never mind the apple, the peach, the pear, or the lemon’s close relative, the orange. I’m going to keep you distracted by talking about lemons just long enough to get your head nodding in accordance with this notion that fruit, in general, are sour. Then we can move on.

Sontag constructs houses of cards, such as the notion that we perceive photographs as more real than reality, a claim that rests (in part) on the fact that survivors of traumatic events often say it was just like a movie. Look, says Sontag: we don’t feel that the event was real unless it was like a movie! But this is not what those people are actually saying — by comparing events to a movie, they’re either saying that it seemed unreal, as a movie is, or they’re admitting that their only other experience of trauma is through film. Specious interpretations of this sort pop up too often in support of suspect ideas.

And those generalizations! All photographs are touching if they’re old enough; it is a fact that many superb photographs are made “by photographers devoid of any serious or interesting intentions”; nobody has ever “discovered ugliness through photographs.” We read often this, many of that, and so on, with never a scrap of supporting evidence to suggest that often is not, in fact, occasionally, that many is not a few, that all is, in fact, all.

It’s natural to finish this thing feeling somewhat manipulated. I’m reminded of an anecdote Thomas McGuane told of Sontag: he had read a book she blurbed enthusiastically, and when he met her, he thanked her for her recommendation. She sneered that it was a very bad book; when he asked why she’d given it such a glowing blurb, she said that she wanted people to find out just how bad it was for themselves. This was a woman who kept copies of her published essays in her purse and handed them out to impress people at parties. It is not difficult, in this light, to see parts of On Photography as disingenuous exercises in self-promotion: look at me, I’m an intellectual.

And you can tell I’m an intellectual, because I insist that all obvious things are untrue:

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. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no.

This is Sontag tipping her hand, as she also does here:

Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else: all that is necessary is to frame the subject differently.

Pick a card, any card, and I’ll show you just how wrong all your ideas are.

Sontag is deeply skeptical of humanist photography, which aspires to show us that at some level we’re all members of the “family of man”; she’s deeply infatuated with Diane Arbus, whose photography is a catalogue of human freaks. Humanism, she insists, is sentimental — and therefore, it must also be untrue. Arbus is the real deal; we’re all freaks, suffering in a permanent state of alienation.

It’s a point of view belonging to a certain time and place: to New York in 1977, and to that circle of thinkers so afraid to be labelled sentimental that they actively seek the opposite. But science, a field not known for deeply sentimental thinking, supports the humanist premise, and the view that we’re all alienated freaks belongs not to humanity but to it’s context, to the times and places where it becomes true. The fact that humanism can be sentimental does not mean that it must be sentimental, nor that it’s premise is false.

On Photography is not aging gracefully. Two of its key ideas, points to which Sontag continually returns with hammer in hand, have been overtaken by events. Photographs are no longer treated as precious relics, in the digital age; they have become disposable because of their sheer volume. And this was becoming true even in the 1970s, although Sontag failed to take note of it. The Polaroid was a disposable photograph.

And photography is no longer a “bourgeois” activity in an age where everyone owns a camera — indeed, it is no longer a “Western” activity, as international photojournalism has increasingly relied on local stringers. In fact, photography was not a “Western” activity in 1977, either; it was only that the work of Indian photographers, for example, was not seen by New York intellectuals who perceived the world as terminating just beyond the boundaries of Manhattan.

This, perhaps, is the key weakness of On Photography: it seems to be unaware that the one thing that is constant in the world of photography is change. It is so fixated on describing how we look at and think about photographs that it never considers the more important question of how our understanding of photographs may be changing, and in turn, changing us.

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