Yesterday I decided to put aside all my prejudices and hostility about her views on photography and purchase a hard copy of On Photography. I am already regretting that decision and so after reading In Plato’s Cave – the first essay – I had to get some help by having a look at what Liz Wells, Ashley la Grange and Mark Durden had to say about this controversial figure.
The first thing to note, of course, is that Susan Sontag was not a photographer but a filmmaker and novelist hugely influenced by the modernist tradition of the time. After her years studying at Chicago, Harvard and Oxford she moved to Paris and was caught up in the French intellectualism of the 1960’s. She was heavily influenced by Roland Barthes who legitimated her interpretation of interpretation and freed her from any anxiety about meaning.
Her writing style is clearly polemical with no regard for the conventional academic norms of evidence, analytical rigour or care in attribution. Indeed, as I read through her essays I was surprised by the lack of sustained argument, indeed as I progressed, I became uncomfortably aware that all I was reading was a sequence of quotable quotes – things one could say about the subject of her choosing but all deeply contestable.
Her many books included On Photography a collection of essays, perhaps the most influential, but also one that has alienated photographers over many decades – as Mark Durden explained:
“Small wonder so many photographers hated and still hate her book.”
I have to admit to being in this camp although I have been curious to find out more about her world-view and issues with photography. It would be impossible to summarise them all here so I have necessarily had to be selective in what I include. One point to make is that On Photography does not contain any photographs, nor does it draw attention to any specific images. By this simple strategy Sontag removes her writing from contest or refutation, she is not criticising any given image but photography sui generis. By doing this, in my view, she empties her writing of meaning.
For me, Sontag’s views are full of contradiction. On the one hand she sees photography as being an act of non-intervention, with the photographer taking a passive role. The photographer is depicted as a voyeur, which to me is not a (mentally) passive engagement and she also suggests that we are “self-possessed which, to me, cannot be passive. Similarly, she charges the camera with being a predatory weapon that violates people who are its subject, because those subjects cannot see themselves as the camera views them. She argues that cameras have replaced guns on safari and:
“. . . when we are afraid we shoot. But when we are nostalgic we take photographs.”
She also suggests that photographers were not below seeking out pain and suffering but the same could be said of writers too. The attraction to situations of pain and suffering has many motivations: it can be as voyeur, it can be as a witness or it can be to offer solidarity with those in pain or suffering.
As far as society as a whole is concerned Sontag claimed in 1977 that people were “image junkies” requiring experiences to be confirmed by a photograph. There is no doubt that people use both the pen and the camera to record their experiences, partly as a means of coming to terms and finding personal meaning in the events or places they confront. They also do it because they are human and as such have a desire to communicate with themselves through time (recollection) and with others. The ubiquity of the camera phone underlies this central truth, as humans we have a passion to record and to communicate and they are two sides of the same coin.
Although her previous charge was that the photographers’ role was passive she argued they were responsible for fragmenting and dislocating reality and had a moral obligation towards their subject matter. She then seems to contradict herself again by implying that meaning can be sought through the photograph, if it is well composed and accurately traces a person, place or event. So, in this jumble of contradictory ideas are we any the wiser about photography? For me the answer is no but I will give her the benefit of the doubt, read a few more of her essays and see what others have to say. At the moment I remain unconvinced with the musings of this controversial figure.
Durden, M (ed) (2013), Fifty Key Writers on Photography, Routledge, Oxford
La Grange, A (2005), Basic Critical Theory for Photographers, Focal Press, Burlington
Sontag, S (1977), On Photography, Penguin, London
Wells, L (1996), Photography A Critical Introduction, Routledge, Oxford