Susan Sontag on Photography

As a fine art photographer, I constantly find myself coming up against several important theoretical voices that have contributed to our field. Susan Sonntag’s essays “On Photography” is an important piece in that body of work.

Susan Sontag’s thoughts on photography were prescient when she wrote that “today, everything exists to end in a photograph.” It’s not quite how she meant it, but it seems people in the days of social media are incapable of living the moment… thousands of phones come out at every concert and sporting event. It is a permeable border to citizen’s journalism. People are somehow trying to preserve a moment rather than experiencing it. They’ll take a picture of the celebrity although pro-shooters will capture that moment much better and have it uploaded to the internet before the rest of us get home. I have always recommended to young photographers that if they shoot anything at such events, focus on the people around them… That will be a much more interesting and creative historic document. Or, as she put it in a rather snarky way: “Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.”

Much of what Susan Sontag wrote struck me as very condescending. “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.” I prefer Robert Frank’s take on it, when he said in 2008 that “there are too many images…Too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art anymore. Maybe it never was.”

Of course, Sontag still thought of the photographer as a documentarian, not someone who stages image… which of course is ironic because she later became the life-partner of Annie Leibovitz, one of the great creators of staged and constructed images. Sontag wrote that “the painter constructs, the photographer discloses.” That’s nonsense when you back off the assertion that photography is defined by a caught moment. There is more to photography than a well-trained eye that perfectly captures the moment serendipitously stumbled upon. “Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…One can’t possess reality, one can possess images–one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past. The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.”

Well, that isn’t true.

Some of us create our images, rather than prowl around hoping to find one… although this is the point where many parse the difference between a photographer and an artist. Photography as an art form is about creating a narrative, rather than capturing one. Sontag writes that “all photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” This sounds almost native-aborigine. The artist does not destroy, rather he brings stories to life. Especially when the goal is to engage in the retelling of myths, the images come from gifted ears and eyes that hear and see the song and dances of life. To freeze them is not to kill them, but rather to keep them alive.

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