19: On Photography

Short REVIEW

 
What is true of photographs is true of the world seen photographically - Susan Sontag
To take photographs is to find the structure of the world - to revel in the pure pleasure of form - Henri Cartier Bresson
The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem - Walter Whitman

'On Photography' is a  collection of five essays and an anthology of quotations originally published in the New York Review of books by famous writer and activist: Susan Sontag.
Sontag who penned the famous novel 'In America' (2000 National Book Award for fiction), was also a recipient of the Prince of Asturias prize, Peace Prize of the German Book Trade and the Jerusalem Prize. Her wonderful talent in the construction of poetic worlds of the highest intellectual fortitude on fictional themes and cultural analysis is undeniable, yet the command and articulation of equally beautiful constructs about photography is nothing other than surprising, indeed, 'On Photography' is a record of the use of her mental capacity when pointed and fascinated with another artform. 
Sontag's writing is a rich multilateral world of knowledge where topics are analyzed with two distinctive modes, the first one being candid subjective observations, and the other, a wealth of literary, popular and filmic references (Antonioni, Hitchcock, Vertov, William Carlos Williams, Whitman, J.G Ballard, Nabokov, Balzac, Godard, Warhol but to name a few) that help display a rich tapestry of intellectual depth throughout all essays.


This freezing of time - the insolent, poignant stasis of each  photograph - has produced new and more inclusive canons of beauty - Susan Sontag


Her capacity to elucidate topics does not only permit to analyze the expected topics: photography and its contents, themes and materiality but also: its historical upbringing in industrial societies, photography as an artform and cultural artifact, photography as technological documentation, moral apparatus, mechanical eye and selective multiplier of the meaning of life.

A nostalgic-ridden cultural analysis and mighty intellectual display, 'On Photography is an ordering of thoughts discussed mostly though the works of American and European photographers at the beginning of the XXth century, with special attention to the philosophies and idiosyncrasies of Walker Evans, Alfred Stieglitz, Jacob Riis, Diane Arbus, August Sander, Henri Cartier Bresson and Edward Weston.

Even though 'On Photography' was published in 1977, it is unbelievably prescient of the contemporary image-ridden instagram-addicted generation and its modern anxieties, i.e. The blurred boundary between experiencing an event and the documenting itself of the event through the ubiquity of smartphones and their apparent consequenceless and endless photographing


Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted - Susan Sontag
In the past, a discontent with reality expressed itself as a longing for another world. In modern society, a discontent with reality expresses itself forcefully and most hauntingly by the longing to reproduce this one - Susan Sontag
That most logical of nineteenth-century aesthetes, Mallarmé, said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph - Susan Sontag

 

 

Starting with the Daguerreotype technique, photography's entrance in the art world is defined by its juxtaposition with other mimetic mediums, for what else can photography accomplish when compared with a highly-realistic painting? Photography does offer a  frozen slice of the unrecordable with its potential for transforming society by being able to carry reality with it not only a depiction of it; a duplication of reality and demystification of the vangloried human experience, exposing our atomistic, fragmented worldviews one millisecond at the time.


The contingency of photographs confirms that everything is perishable, the arbitrariness of photographic evidence indicates that reality is fundamentally unclassifiable - Susan Sontag

Sontag was highly political and was not afraid of calling photography a bourgeois practice, she denounces the manipulation of images into what Foucault called the production of subjectivity.


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 - Susan Sontag
Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them -  Susan Sontag


About fashion photography, the creation of celebrities and the machinery of desire:


To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have, it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed - Susan Sontag
Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one - and can help build a nascent one - Susan Sontag


With every photograph our mental repertoire of what's acceptable or deplorable extends. Taking a picture of something alters it and documents its ending. Anyone can alter the meaning of a picture retrospectively. Taking a picture of something involves distance between the photographer and the event (one cannot act and document simultaneously) It is with these seemingly simple explanations that Sontag arrives at wonderful conclusions:


Photographs are of course artifacts. But their appeal is that they also seem, in a world littered with photographic relics, to have the status of found objects - unpremeditated slices of the world - Susan Sontag
A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck. It drifts away into a soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of reading - Susan Sontag


In 2004, the world lost one of its most clarvoyant intellectuals and cultural thinkers: the wonderful Susan Sontag.
Essays: In Plato's Cave, America seen through photographs darkly, Melancholy Objects, The heroism of vision, Photographic evangels.
 

 

images. Edward weston - Pepper no.30, Edward Weston - Cabbage leaf, Harold Edgerton archive-MIT, william eugene smith - minamata series, Diane arbus - circus, alfred Stieglitz winter fifth avenue,  August Sander - Bricklayer, Jacob Riis - New York Slums


 

SUSAN SONTAG

On Photography

penguin

ISBN 10 - 0140053972