Essential Reading: On Photography – Susan Sontag

Due to  work commitments since Xmas, I’ve been on a study break which has now ended. Despite the workload and lack of time behind a camera, I had every intention of using the time I had away from home to work my way through the Essential Reading List. As with most plans, this one did not survive first contact! I only managed this one book, and even then, it was prompted by an email from the library requesting that I return the book ASAP. I wasn’t able to post it back from the middle of the Jordanian desert, so I knuckled down and read it so that I could return it as soon as I got home.

I’d not heard good things about this book from the student community. I’m not a big fan of academic texts that use big words for the sake of it when short ones will do, and all of the reviews from my peers made out that this book was tough going for those new to higher education. I have to say that this led to some misconceptions. Truth be told, I found this book to be relatively light reading. Yes, it got quite heavy in places, but it was mostly understandable, and most importantly, it was thought provoking.  It made me think about what photography meant to me, and it challenged many of the moral and aesthetic issues surrounding the art form. I really enjoyed it.

On the whole, it was quite easy reading. Parts of the second chapter become a little lucid, particularly in her discussions of surrealism. I had visions of Sontag writing under the influence of LSD. After all, it was written in the 70’s! Given its age, the book is dated, and this is most noticeable in the use of many un PC terms that just wouldn’t be found in a book these days. There is still an awful lot of relevance to the topics discussed, but there is obviously no reference to digital media/imagery, and I couldn’t help but think about how Sontag’s ideas or opinions may have changed or been reinforced with the advent of digital photography.

There are a handful of names that recur frequently throughout the book, and these are names that have cropped up throughout my studies over and over again, i.e. the Masters of photography (Stieglitz, Evans, Avedon, Weston etc). One name tends to be discussed more than most and this is Diane Arbus. It’s a name I’ve heard, but not one whose work I’m familiar with. Or at least I wasn’t familiar with it. I’ve still to see any of Arbus’ work, but I feel that I’ve seen it all, and more importantly, I feel like I understand it, and her. My next port of call is to research her work, because Sontag’s discussion of it is fascinating. She also raises comparisons between the work of Arbus, Whitman, Warhol and Plath – more photographers to research.

It was interesting to read Sontag’s thoughts on de-sensitization of violence or the taboo, through saturation of images. It is not something that I wholeheartedly agree with. I’ve seen many horrific images, and am still shocked and appalled when I see them. However, her use of pornography as an example is hard to argue with. I’m led to believe that Sontag reverses her opinion on the ability of photographs to de-sensitise people in “Regarding the pain of others”, but as I’ve not read it yet, I can’t comment.

Other areas of the book are just as in-depth and engrossing. Sontag discusses ways of seeing, the beautification of subjects, even those considered ugly, and abstraction. “What it once took a very intelligent eye to see, anyone can now see” is a memorable quote fro the book and for me it it holds 2 possible meanings. Firstly, the artistic eye of the photographer is the intelligent eye, and his/her creation of images is available for all to see. Secondly, I think it hints at the lack of originality in photography. We see a striking image and want to copy/emulate it, make it for ourselves. Everything has been photographed, in every conceivable way. All that is left is to take inspiration from others.

The last memorable quote from the book that I want to note down is taken from Wittgenstein. He argued for words that “The meaning is the use”.  This relates to the context of images, and is highly relevant to the subject of this course. In short, it means that context changes meaning.

As a follow-up to the book, I’m going to look at some of the highlighted photographers and their work, before reading Sontag’s other book, Regarding the Pain others.

Bibliography: Sontag, S (1972). On Photography. Penguin Group, USA.


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