Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Susan Sontag, On Photography

In 1977 Susan Sontag published a collection of essays entitled On Photography. This book is, quite rightly, considered to be an important body of thought on the subject of Photographs and Photography. I review it now, as is my wont, some decades later.

The essays in the book were previously, separately, published, and so there is a certain amount of repeated material and thought across them. Sontag covers the same ideas over and over, but the repetition is not particularly offensive or irritating in the book. Her ideas are sometimes somewhat vague and, to my mind, poorly presented and supported. The repetition gives a sort of parallax view of what she's getting at, which is useful and important.

The most prominent theme present in the book is that Susan Sontag is very smart and knows a lot of things. It's not quite a New Yorker film review, but it's tending in that direction. These were essays written by a writer living in New York City, for other people living in New York City. The only two topics that really seem to go over well with that crowd are: Goodness, I Am Very Very Smart, and New York City Is Very Awesome, Isn't It? So, it is no surprise, really, to find this theme so thoroughly expounded. Despite all this, she manages to bring up some very good ideas, and discuss quite a few interesting things.

The next most important ideas that she hammers on a fair bit is the two contradictory views of photography espoused by photographers and the photographic intelligentsia. On the one hand, photographs represent and reveal that which is true and real. On the other hand, photographs are Art with a capital A and therefore reveal.. other things.. ideas, the photographer, some sort of higher truth, anything and everything but the proximate subject. In this age of digital photography and digital editing this seems a little trite, but vestiges of this conflict remain with us in, for instance, the world of photojournalism. There certainly remain photographers who insist that their images reveal truth, that they tell a true story. The conflict between subject or image as the dominant element remains, however. Is this a picture of a candlestick, or is it an image in which one of the graphically important forms happens to look like a candlestick?

Sontag points out (quite correctly) that photographs alter our perceptions of reality. The fact that photographs look real, and are imprints of reality, (the preceding theme notwithstanding) causes us to freight them with extra veritas. We believe a photograph more easily and thoroughly than a drawing, or a verbal description. In some ways, we see them as more real than the thing itself. Sometimes we have not seen the thing itself, sometimes we saw it for only a moment, sometimes we saw it long ago. The photograph is here, now. It alters our memory of the thing, and our understanding of the thing, more than we know, more than we admit. This is truly the most interesting idea in the book. Sontag's treatment of it goes in to some depth, and she spends a fair bit of time rather presciently pointing out the effects of more and more photographs passing our eyes day by day. She seems, some time before 1977, to have felt tremors of facebook, flickr, instagram, et al resonating down through time to wake her up at night in a cold sweat.

Most controversially, Sontag makes the assertion (repeatedly) that photography is inherently aggressive, appropriative, and damaging to that which it photographs. She mostly states these as truths, giving very little support and very little clarification of what she even means. What is the nature of the damage? She does cite some examples, of photographers damaging indigenous cultures in the act of photographing them through a process of suggesting changes and giving direction. The subjects would, allegedly, alter their dances, costumes, and so on, to comply with the wishes of the hordes of photographers swarming past to document the "dying culture". Arguably Sontag is confusing bad ethnography for an inherent property of photography. My best guess is that she is proceeding from the idea that photographs alter our perception of things to the idea that this change, in and of itself, constitutes damage. Damage, not to the thing, but to our idea of the thing, which idea is in its way much more important than the thing. It's also possible she's simply saying this stuff over and over again to create a sort of platform of repetition upon which to base an assault on pornography, an assault which never came? Whether her conception of the destructiveness of photography is the same as mine we shall never know, but her notion caused me to think it through carefully.

Sontag's thinking is muddled throughout, to be honest. There are such gems as her assertion that the camera creates a new reality, a little copy of part of reality (which is fine so far as it goes and an interesting viewpoint) and in doing so denies that reality is enough. This is the sort of philosophical-sounding fiddle-faddle that gets philosophy a bad name. Making a photograph no more denies that reality is enough than does making a pot of soup. Certainly I felt that reality was not enough - what it needed was soup, on account of I was hungry in this reality, and wanted some soup. It's true, but not very interesting. Every act of change denies the adequacy of reality in exactly the same way, the fact that the camera is making a little copy of reality is irrelevant. It certainly sounds cool, though.

The book is a maze of this sort of thing.

The value is not really in that Sontag has it all figured out, but that she's a veritable river of weird ideas, many of which are true in some sense. You simply have to do all the spade work yourself, and sort out what's nonsense and what's true. The value in her book is really in the spade work you are forced to do to make sense of it all. I believe we call this sort of thing "thought provoking."

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