This seminal collection of essays have increasingly encouraged in myself, a broader and deeper level of thinking on the political, ethical and moral impact of the photographic medium within an advanced capitalist system and society.
Although the book only contains a single front cover photograph I have gained an understanding and awareness from several readings over the last three years that have helped to inform and motivate my own approach to photography.
In Susan Sontag’s own words, “it all started with one essay – about some of the problems, aesthetic and moral, posed by the omnipresence of photographic images: but the more I thought about what photographs are, the more complex and suggestive they became.”
The first essay In Plato’s Cave really acts as a curious introduction to the role and impact of photography within an advanced society from which I started to gain a greater sensitivity and responsibility in how, what and why we photograph.
America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly becomes largely an argument that references American culture that is relevant given the soft power that American popular culture exercises across the developed world.
Sontag uses her critique of Diane Arbus’s work to illuminate certain traits of how American and Western photography, and culture, views the other “Arbus’s photographs – with their acceptance of the appalling – suggest a naivety which is both coy and sinister, for it is based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other. Bunuel when asked once why he made movies, said that is was ‘to show that this is not the best of all possible worlds’. Arbus took photographs to show something simpler – that there is another world. The other world is to be found, as usual, inside this one.” (Sontag, S.1977.34)
In the third essay Melancholy Objects Susan Sontag argues how photography became obsessed with class and ultimately viewed the world through it’s bourgeois biased lens in a downward looking direction.
Sontag believed that the surrealist enterprise in photography was never more than a fleeting fancy of the bourgeoisie, and that “poverty is no more surreal than wealth” and (poverty) was little more than a fascination of ‘a reality hidden from them’ and as a consequence (the poor) were a complete mystery to the middle-class flaneur. (Sontag, S. 1977.58/55)
The Heroism of Vision discusses how a photograph always becomes about the subject and that the notion of realism is never really separated from the image. This led to the elitist authority of the masters of photography and followed the principles of modernism and their “didactic cultivation of perception,” although the realism derived from photography was initially “supposed the unmask hypocrisy and combat ignorance.” Sontag, S. 1977/85-112)
The fifth essay entitled Photographic Evangels confirms photography’s status as an art form although there is a clear space existing between photography made to express and photography made to record information; yet most of the debate supporting photography’s core mission “attempt to paper over the difference”. (Sontag, S. 1977.118)
The Masters of Photographers developed the concept of photographic seeing implying that the artist could gently see and observe what other mortals could not whilst only a limited number of significant photographers ever actually admit to photography’s exploitative streak.
However photography acts as a medium for art much in the same way that language does. Photographs can be simple passport photos or medical X-ray images much in the same way that words can make up a simple shopping list. It is not an art form in it’s own right in the way that sculpture or poetry are.
The final concluding essay The Image World begins with the time-honoured definition of a modern society as one which holds a primary function as a producer and consumer of images “that have extraordinary powers to determine our demands upon reality and are themselves coveted substitutes for firsthand experience become indispensible to the health of the economy, the stability of the polity, and the pursuit of private happiness.” Sontag, S. 1977.153) Sontag then draws upon 19th century German philosopher Feurbach describing how the qualities and very essence of photographic imagery creates this authority.
Derived from the fact that these images are actual traces derived from what has taken place, from a reality we reconnect with the primeval powers of imagery through photographic images in a way that could never be achieved by a painting.
Photographs are a way of gaining knowledge that can be acquired entirely independent of actually being there and so this changes the nature of reality from one based in the experience to one that is fundamentally image led.
Photographs allow participation in our world but by looking they detach us, alienate us from the reality of others.
People are even often disappointed when they see the real thing as oppose the image; Emotions derived from viewing images are different to those created by something we experience firsthand.
Echoing the words of Walter Benjamin Sontag states, “A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivize reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers).” (Sontag, S. 1977.178)
Ultimately it seems as though Sontag sees that no ultimate differentiation between the real world and the image world will survive, “Images are more real than anyone could have supposed” and that the structures and functions of photographic images must be included as well as understood for us to fully see the real world. (Sontag, S. 1977.180)
To summarise this book is not necessarily a simple task as the essays are crammed full of huge statements and viewpoints but I have tried to distil the content into workable perspectives that add an additional depth to my work.
Whilst the work may not as structured or scientific as say Barthes’ theory of semiotics I have felt a genuine connection with how Susan Sontag described and saw photography over 40 years ago.
Sontag, S (1977) On Photography (reissued 2008) London: Penguin Classics