I have previously written about Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. I have to admit to enjoying that book but On Photography my latest read is riddled with contradiction and irreconcilable views and assertions. It seems like a series of musings designed to shock the reader. Rather than attempt to summarise this wide-ranging book I have picked out excerpts that interest me and have some relevance to my photographic practice and my views on photography.
The first chapter entitled In Plato’s Cave considers the veracity of a photograph. Unlike writing and painting, photography is considered to be pieces of reality – there was something there at that moment in time. It is this perceived closeness to reality that sets the photograph apart from other forms of visual presentation. Sontag suggests that:
“While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selected transparency.” (Sontag 1977:6).
It is the indexicality of the photographic image and the perception of truth attributed to it where Sontag sees the power and control of the camera and the photographer over its subject.
“Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience.” (Sontag 1977:6).
To me, this means that photographers have a significant interest in the way that an image might be viewed, however later she diminishes the power and control that the photographer really has. She references Dorothea Lange in this respect and appears to be referring to The Migrant Mother in terms of Lange’s ultimate choice of image from the selection on her contact sheet:
“Dorothea Lange . . . would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film – the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their own notion about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation and geometry.” (Sontag 1977:6).
She argues that he camera is a ‘tool of power’ and has the effect of compromising a person’s ability to experience an event whilst pursuing the photographic evidence of that event having occurred. And yet, she goes onto say that:
“Photography is essentially an act of non-intervention.” (Sontag 1977:11)
And concludes that the presence of the camera and the photographer has the effect of prolonging the suffering of the subject. She continues that the camera violates its subjects by seeing them in a way that they are not able to observe themselves.
However, as Ashley La Grange points out (2005):
“The camera doesn’t rape or even possess though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate . . . all activities that . . . can be conducted . . . with some detachment.” (La Grange 2005:43).
In The Heroism of Vision Sontag returns to the claims to truth that have been made of photography making it all the more important that truth is maintained and not compromised. She refers in particular to the practice of false captions and the struggle of photographers, particularly those in the modernist tradition, between beautifying for example the landscape, and the need to tell the truth.
I was drawn to Sontag’s view that photographs are fragments, or traces (a phrase also used by her) and that the context in which they are viewed ultimately determines their meaning:
“One of the central characteristics of photography is that process by which original uses are modified, eventually supplanted by subsequent uses – most notably, by the discourse of art into which any photograph can be absorbed.” (Sontag 1977:106).
She goes on to suggest that photography is more like other art forms in the sense that realism is not what is really there but what the artist/photographer chooses to see and select and that its perceived closer relationship to reality is misconceived.
Having rendered photography as an assault on the subject and the camera an instrument of power Sontag refers to the photographer as almost irrelevant in the case of ordinary and utilitarian photography. I find myself thinking so which is it? Can the wielder of power, the individual who is directing the assault, also be irrelevant?
And finally, while Sontag claims that the subject is more important in photography than other art forms, that the many contexts in which photographs can be viewed, lessens the subject’s dominance.
I find myself very confused and unclear. However, I have a thought: maybe it is not me who is confused – it may be Sontag. As I reread ‘On Photography’ and listen to it as an audiobook (how devoted is that?) I am struck by how true the book was to the Sontag that comes through in the history of her life.
Much of what is in On Photography has been written to shock and as I reflect upon it, I read internal conflict, a narcissistic desire to gain attention, and an overwhelming sense of contempt for the photograph, the camera and the photographer. I also sense a contempt for reason and the normal cannons of logical consistency and validity in argument. But then maybe I still don’t quite get what it means to be post-modern.
LA GRANGE, Ashley. 2005. Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Abingdon: Focal Press.
SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. London: Penguin Books.