Susan Sontag: On Photography (6947 words)

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Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977) began as a series of articles—most of them reviews of books of or about photography–that appeared in the New York Review of Books between 1973 and 1977. Though Sontag is obviously well acquainted with canonical figures in the history of the medium (Daguerre, Talbot, Cameron; Stieglitz, Weston, Lange; Abbot, Avedon, Penn), her immediate prompt was an exhibition of Diane Arbus photographs at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1972. Not far in the background, however, is the national trauma of America’s military involvement in Vietnam, of which Sontag was a passionate critic (see Nelson 106-09, Menand 689-90). Her experience in the anti-war movement may well account for the extent of her political skepticism in On Photography. It may account as well for the importance she assigns to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, a loosely-Marxian essay frequently cited by Sontag scholars as a primary inspiration for her extended ruminations on photography and modernity (see McCole, Bruss, Mitrano). According to biographer Benjamin Moser, the publication of On Photography marks the beginning of Sontag’s “mature phase” (349), though the continuities between Sontag’s early work and On Photography may be nearly as striking as the differences.

Against Photography

Sontag begins On Photography by reference to Plato’s Republic, specifically to the parable of the cave, which begins Book VII. She began Against Interpretation (1966) on a similar note, alluding to Plato’s discussion of mimesis in Book X, where art is denigrated as exhibiting second-hand knowledge, as imitating objects that are themselves imitations of Ideal Forms. Sontag’s subsequent defense of art is itself quasi-Platonic, attacking interpretation on the premise that interpretation impoverishes the world by substituting “a shadow world of ‘meanings’” for immediate aesthetic engagement. Comparing excessive interpretation to industrial pollution that “poisons our sensibilities”, Sontag draws the Platonic conclusion that we should do “[a]way with all duplicates” (7). She takes this advice literally in On Photography, to the extent that the book lacks illustrations apart from those on the book jacket or paperback cover.

Like Plato’s Book X discussion of truth in painting, his cave allegory proposes to illuminate the relationship between “the visible realm” and “the intelligible realm” (508b-c), though visibility for Plato’s cave-dweller captives is initially limited to wall-cast shadows. Equally to the point, Plato’s elaboration of a hierarchy of intelligibility serves the larger goal of describing the nature of justice, the lineaments of a naturally just polis, and the elements of the justly balanced and governed psyche. The following overview of On Photography, accordingly, pays special attention to the political/ideological models Sontag invokes in her analysis of photography. (The titles in parentheses correspond to the titles of the chapters as originally published in the New York Review of Books.)

“In Plato’s Cave” (“Photography”)

Sontag’s first chapter comprises a series of emphatically declarative statements regarding the status and uses of photography. “[T]he camera record incriminates”; “the camera record justifies” (5). “Images transfix. Images anesthetize” (20). Because photographers obey standards “of taste and conscience” (6), photos “are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are” (6-7), despite photography’s purportedly “more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality” (6). Like other mass-art amusements, amateur photography “is mainly a social rite” (8), a means “of certifying experience”—via family or tourist photos, say—while also “refusing” or distancing it (9). This voyeuristic, non-interventionist passivity, together with its ubiquity, amounts to “photography’s ‘message,’ its aggression” (7).

Photography’s promise from the beginning, Sontag avows, was “to democratize all experiences by translating them into images” (7). The pejorative aspect of this claim is coherent with her chapter’s title, because Plato charts (mostly in Book VIII of The Republic) the devolution of political constitutions, from best to worst. Royalty, in which the city’s wisest and most capable citizen rules alone, is followed, successively, by aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny, with the key factor in this devolution being the corrupting effects of greed. Sontag’s repeated linking of photography to profligate consumption couldn’t be more Platonic.

Plato’s cave parable is overtly concerned with the education of potential rulers or guardians. Per Sontag, “being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images” (3). Taking a photograph establishes “a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge” (4); as an integral component of rationalized social bureaucracies, photography helps to “[redefine] knowledge—as techniques and information” (22). Because “moral feelings are embedded in history” (17), which photography’s nominalism and ubiquity undermine, the knowledge provided by photographs can “never be ethical or political knowledge” (24).

“America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly” (“Freak Show” and a portion of “Shooting America”)

Sontag takes Walt Whitman’s avowal—in the 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass—that “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem” as a deliriously democratic prophecy of “populist transcendence” (27), of which standard subsequent American artists could not help but fall short, even as they sought to honor Whitman’s all-embracing generosity of spirit. The photography of Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, and Walker Evans can be seen as obeying “the Whitmanesque mandate” (29), with the Steichen-curated “Family of Man” exhibit, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955, serving as its melancholy “last sigh” (31).

Evidence to that effect was on view in the 1972 MoMA exhibit of photographs by Diane Arbus. Her portraits of “assorted monsters and borderline cases” (32) challenged or repelled viewer identification despite their depictions of similarity (photos of couples, twins, triplets); in promoting equivalence, Arbus and Steichen alike “render history and politics irrelevant” (33). Though Arbus, like numerous art photographers, typically photographed victims or outcasts, her “dissociated way of seeing” (35) derives its authority from the eccentricity of her subjects coupled with “their detachment and autonomy” in the face of the camera (36). Per Sontag, the America seen darkly in Arbus is an “idiot village” (47). Equally to the point, what seems like liberation from arbitrary aesthetic and moral taboos risks becoming, at least in Arbus, “a subtraction from the self” that deadens sensibility and makes one—by diminishing-returns ethical logic—“less able to react in real life” (41).

“Melancholy Objects” (“Shooting America”)

By contrast with Surrealism in painting, poetry, even overtly surrealistic photographs (Man Ray’s, for example), photography as a medium is “natively surreal” (51). By virtue of its penchant for the accidental or contingent, and its juxtapositions of reality and fantasy, of conscious and unconscious, photography qua photography provides “a reality in the second degree” (52).

Sontag takes the Freud-loyal universalism of Surrealist aesthetics as itself a sign that surrealism is “a bourgeois disaffection” (54), likewise the surrealist fascinations with poverty and sex, though “[c]lass was the deepest mystery” (54), as much for Baudelaire’s touristic flâneur as for Atget’s camera or Weegee’s or Avedon’s. While some photographers (like August Sander) function “as scientists”, in producing photo-documentary inventories of the world, others (those associated with the New-Deal era Farm Services Administration, say) evince a moralistic concentration on socially-disadvantaged “hard cases” (59). Similarly, while European photographers—in their emphasis on the picturesque, the important, and the beautiful— sought in their photographs “to praise or to aim at neutrality”, American photographers, on Sontag’s account, evince a “less stable connection with history”, simultaneously “more hopeful and more predatory” (63). Even when muckraker photography effects social change, it is not always positive and betrays a romantic “impatience with reality” (65).

Sontag concludes “Melancholy Objects” by pointed reference to Walter Benjamin and his quixotic efforts to conflate Surrealism and Marxism. Though Benjamin’s mania for collecting books and quotations can be seen as a work of cultural “salvage” or “renew[al]” (76) in the wake of inter-war Europe’s descent into barbarism, Sontag nonetheless avers that Benjamin’s surrealist interest in things and his eschewal of empathy mark him as a forerunner of photography’s indiscriminate and irresistible mania for “de-creat[ing]” (77) the world and the past by re-creating or fixing it photographically. Photography thus “antique[s] reality” and disorders history (80); everywhere ruins, everything trash, junk-store kitsch. If Marx urged the priority of changing the world over merely understanding it, photography provides an irresistibly painless third option: collecting (pictures of) it.

“The Heroism of Vision” (“Photography: The Beauty Treatment”)

Sontag takes “finding something beautiful” (85) as a basic prompt for picture taking and observes that photography’s history can be written as a struggle between “beautification”, in the fine-arts sense, and “a moralized ideal of truth-telling” derived not only from science, but from nineteenth-century literature and journalism as well (86). The “heroic” aspect of photography, accordingly, involves its quasi-anthropological invitation to go in search of “striking images” (89), which can be as readily found around the corner as on safari or in photographically frozen moments that render the previously invisible now visible. The resulting democracy of images yields a “fictive unity” of “heterogeneous subjects” in accord with “the ideology of humanism” (110).

On Sontag’s analysis, the search for ever more shocking images obeys a law of diminishing returns; striking today may be cliché tomorrow (99). Beauty likewise is subject to change over time, in the way ugliness can become beautiful when photographed (85, 103). Equally important is the way photography impacts knowledge and its acquisition. Because a “photographer discloses” or reveals reality, by contrast with the painter, who “constructs” it (92), an essential aspect of photographic pleasure involves knowing which part of reality the camera has captured (93). Weston’s 1931 “Cabbage Leaf”, where the title is crucial in prompting the frisson of recognition, exemplifies the point. Likewise, because meaning in general is context-dependent, a matter (per Wittgenstein) of use (106), the silence and portability (reproducibility) of photographs renders their meaning fragile, leading moralistic critics to hope (again, Sontag quotes Benjamin) that captions (or words more generally) can confer “revolutionary use value” and thus rescue any particular image from photography’s general tendency to beautify the world via formal/technical perfection (107).

By privileging “seeing for seeing’s sake” (93) along modern-art lines, “photographic seeing” (89) ups the visual ante not only by devaluing other sensory modalities, but by upending the logic of verisimilitude, to the point where “photographs have become the norm” by which appearances are measured (87). Moreover, in fragmenting reality, especially via closeups, photography distorts; hence Weston’s female nudes, in their contorted poses and Weston’s restricted framings, are seen as abstract forms, while his weirdly similar closeups of peppers are erotically suggestive and, ironically, more individualized. Such an emphasis on “the thingness of human beings [and] the humanness of things” effects a transformation of “reality into a tautology” (111). The ease with which photography beautifies is a consequence of “its relative weakness as a means of conveying truth” (112).

“Photographic Evangels” (“Photography in Search of Itself”)

Sontag notes how defensively “contradictory” are the accounts photography’s evangelists give “of what kind of knowledge [photographers] possess and what kind of art they practice” (115). Perhaps the deepest issue underlying the ambivalence involved—as between intentional and intuitive approaches to taking pictures, say, each plausibly a form of (sociological, psychological) “realism” (120)—is the question of what photography reveals about the world or about the sensibility of a particular photographer (122).

Symptomatic of photography’s equivocal (supplemental) relationship to reality is the coincidence of photography’s ready acceptance by the art world (museums, art-book publishers, etc.) and the apparent indifference of various high-profile photographers to the aesthetic assumptions that presumably follow. Even when early photographers appealed to fine-art canons, the criteria were far from stable or compatible: beauty, duplicity, impersonality, originality. Similarly, claims that photography unveils the previously hidden are finally consistent with modernism’s “revolt against ordinary standards of seeing” (126). Because anything can be photographed, photography is naturally “promiscuous” (129). Museum exhibits that emphasize photos of trivial subjects or that include anonymous or “functional” (132) photos alongside those by well-known photographers “[diminish] the importance of subject matter” à la pop art and “[loosen] the photograph from its connection with a single photographer” (137). What lures patrons to photo exhibits is less particular photographs than “photographic seeing” itself (136).

The art-historical relationship of photography and painting, a lively topic throughout On Photography, is especially prominent in “Photographic Evangels”, not least for bringing Walter Benjamin’s Marxian-materialist concept of “aura” into play. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Benjamin expresses a prophetic hope that photography and film will destroy the cult-monetary value that “uniqueness” typically accords to hand-made art objects, thereby ousting “a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery” (218), resulting in a “liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage” (221), which heritage he takes (circa the mid 1930s) as complicit in the rise of Fascism. Though Sontag agrees that “the work of art” depends less than ever “on being a unique object” (147), she also holds that photographs acquire an aura-like patina or pathos with age—“Given enough time” (140).

The prospect that there may be “no such thing as a bad photograph” (141) raises issues both aesthetic and historical. The purported “truce” whereby photography relieved painting of the burden of verisimilitude is a case in point (144-45), especially to the extent that “innovativeness” (like “presence” or “aura”, Benjamin notwithstanding) is a value criterion applied to painting and photography alike (139). A key difference, Sontag notes by reference to T.S. Eliot’s concept of “tradition” (in which each work added changes every other work in the canon), is the “more rapid sequence” of change in photography (141) and (perhaps consequently) the greater the difficulty photographers have in establishing a recognizably coherent body of work. More crucially, photography “is the prototype” of “the transformation of arts into meta-arts or media”. That “[n]ow all art aspires to the condition of photography” (149) accords with the modernist “notion of art which says that art is obsolete” (148).

“The Image-World” (“Photography Unlimited”)

Sontag evokes the prospect of “an image-free way of apprehending the real” by reference to Plato and Ludwig Feuerbach, specifically the latter’s proto-modernist complaint that his 1840s era knowingly preferred “the image to the thing, the copy to the original” (153). “[P]roducing and consuming images” (153) became habitual because photography “revives” in a desacralized era “the primitive status of images” wherein reality and image manifest “the same energy or spirit” (155), the latter as “trace” or “emanation” of the former (154). This quasi-ontological link subtends photography’s multi-form powers of acquisition and control, hence its psychological value (allowing us to preserve images of cherished objects or people or to confirm our sense of identity or of exemption from death or disaster) and its instrumental value as a source of (mostly second-hand, implicitly partial) information.

In the concluding paragraphs of “The Image-World”, Sontag comments on the “compensatory” and “addictive” qualities of photographs (161), also on the way photographs can yield disappointment when we encounter their original subjects in person or can prove more disturbing than the experience of the event depicted might have been (168). Though the urge to take and view photographs may be lust-like and “self-devouring” (179), it is a plausible response to the progressive weakening and complication of reality in the wake of Feuerbach, Balzac, Proust, et al. By way of sociological contrast, Sontag discusses at length how photography functions in Mao-era China, her main example being how Chinese journalists attacked Michelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Kuo (1972) film documentary. Where the Chinese view of history and photography alike is resolutely didactic, favoring evenly-lit, center-posed group shots, of families, sports teams, etc. (172), the mode of “photographic seeing” favored in the capitalist West craves variety and diversity of subject and style. Where capitalist photography prizes “the interesting” (175), the “master idea” in China (shades of Plato!) is “the good” (178).

Sontag’s repeated claim that photographs not only “reproduce the real” but “[recycle] it” (174) may seem, in context, accusatory. Because photography is “unlimited”, nothing short of “historical amnesia” (178) along Maoist lines offers any respite from its relentless de-Platonizing (179). In her last paragraph, moreover, she famously advocates “an ecology not only of real things but of images as well” (180). This ending seems not only abrupt but apocalyptically desperate, as Sontag eventually concedes in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Then again, it is not exactly the ending, because Sontag practices what she has just preached by curating “A Brief Anthology of Quotations”, eschewing the last word for the sake of recycling (in “Homage to W. B.”) at least some of the passages (from texts by photographers, journalists, novelists, etc.) that inspired her to ponder the history and future of photography—and may yet inspire us.

Reception/Critique

The Platonic inheritance of On Photography is not limited to its concern with political or moral virtue. Its dialogic method—in which a skeptical voice questions received opinion in the hope of reaching knowledge of the good—depends upon the acknowledgment and confirmation of interlocutors or readers whose cultural experience is a primary source of evidence. This dramatistic invitation is likely a primary reason why On Photography was extensively reviewed and, with notable exceptions in photo-community publications, generally well received (see Starenko). Because Sontag’s interrogative approach was unmistakable, her skeptical dicta eminently quotable, even cursory reviews seldom distorted Sontag’s approach beyond reason. It was no surprise that On Photography was awarded the 1977 National Book Critics Circle award for criticism. It was somewhat more surprising, if equally telling, that an on-line arts journal headlined a 2019 editorial with the claim that “Susan Sontag’s Radical Views Still Shape How We See Photography” (Cohen).

Though Regarding the Pain of Others brought Sontag’s name back into visual-culture prominence after a period of decline, the extent and degree of On Photography’s influence remains controversial. Some historians of photography, for example, construe Sontag’s mass-culture skepticism along modernist/formalist lines, as attacking photography as a medium altogether, an anxiety especially keen among advocates of art photography. This inference is often accompanied (see Westerbeck, McCole) by reference to the pro-art formalism of Sontag’s polemic “Against Interpretation”, where translating explicit “content” into programmatic “meaning” represents a refusal of aesthetic experience, hence her apparently photo-friendly avowal circa 1964 that “Transparence”, understood as “experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself”, is “the highest, most liberating value in art—and in criticism—today” (Against 13).

Along differently modernist lines, film theorist Noël Carroll sees Sontag as an advocate of “the medium-specificity thesis” as it applies to photography and cinema. Voiced most forcefully by art critic Clement Greenberg, the modernist imperative is to emphasize the distinctive and defining features of a medium in art works produced in that medium (see Batchen 12-13). As regards film and photography, this yields a “re-presentational” aesthetic keyed to “an identity relation between the image and its model” (Carroll 38), the latter understood as playing a causal role in creating the former. Walter Benjamin’s messianic hope that “mechanical reproduction” would demystify art can be seen as a variation of medium specificity, to the extent that he saw film as demystification’s “most powerful agent” (“Work” 221). Sontag’s notion of “photographic seeing” is anticipated in Benjamin’s claim that “human sense perception is … determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well” (“Work” 222).

It is commonly objected that Sontag’s visual-culture analysis is chiefly pertinent to still photography, despite all the other forms and uses of photographic technology, though the latter can be evoked in ways that downplay the ontological link between photograph and photo subject (see Maynard, Batchen). Then again, the philosophical debate about the extent of photography’s “transparency”—whereby seeing a photograph of, say, Notre Dame amounts to seeing Notre Dame via spatial/temporal relay—remains vigorous if increasingly nuanced (see Costello). That said, Sontag’s repeated assertion that “photographic seeing” has reversed the relationship of image to reality—to the point where we judge reality by its fidelity to “the image-world” rather than vice versa—is not beyond question.

That photography has changed reality and thus our experience and knowledge of the world is undeniable. However, the typical art-historical claim that Picasso (for example) has changed the way we see the world is seldom taken literally, as involving actual modifications of optic physiology or capacity. The change involved is better explained by the fact that seeing is typically guided by purposes or expectations, many of which derive from prior visual experience. You are not likely to see something as Picasso-like if you haven’t seen (if only in a photograph) a painting or sculpture by Picasso. And likewise for Lewis Hine or Diane Arbus. According to Patrick Maynard, however, such historically-grounded developments do not amount (contra Sontag and Benjamin) to an epistemological revolution. As Maynard observes in The Engine of Visualization, “[t]he development of photo-technologies for depiction suggests that, rather than vision adapting to photography, photography has throughout its history adapted to the requirements of vision” (196). “It is one thing to accommodate to a kind of picture, another to accommodate to a way of seeing things around us” (215). Viewed in this light, “photographic seeing” should be understood metaphorically, as troping sensibility or ideology rather than seeing per se, if we want the concept to support the extraordinary weight Sontag asks it to bear.

Plato’s epistemology, we should note, is hierarchical, “imaging” being at some cognitive/ethical remove from the true “understanding” arrived at through dialectical philosophy (511e). In “The Image-World” Sontag allows that “image and reality are complementary” concepts (160), change in one implying change in the other. She uses “real”, “reality”, and “realism” in a variety of contexts most of which (not surprisingly, given her focus on photography) involve the visible world, but often in ways that imply a zero-sum perspective; more image, in short, means less reality. But how does “an image-free way of apprehending the real” not yield a form of blindness, we might ask, given the physiology of human sight and the equation of reality with the visible world? Seeing just is imaging! Plato’s version of this imperative is less problematic because the reality that most matters to him is less visual than conceptual, “the good” as the most ideal of the Ideal Forms, and because the epistemological hierarchy does not imply that images are necessarily or essentially delusional; even cave shadows are visually “real” and may provide evidence of realities not in the immediate field of vision.

A primary epistemological claim of On Photography is that photographs cannot provide ethical or political knowledge. Photography grasps “how something looks”, whereas understanding grasps how something functions in time. “Only that which narrates can make us understand” (23). Put another way, “history” arguably serves as Sontag’s god term, which proves considerably less positive or encouraging than the “good” (or “God”) posited in Plato. Indeed, Sontag’s informal survey of political ideologies (democratic, surrealistic, humanistic, Marxist, Maoist) is a catalogue of disappointments, of ideological hopes gone sour. If moral efficacy depends upon the ideological contexts in which particular photos are received, as Sontag asserts, then ideological uncertainty cannot help but be discouraging, for undercutting the “relevant political consciousness” that alone “determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs” (19).

Sontag’s anxiety about photography’s role in human history anticipates scholarly uncertainty about Sontag’s place in photography’s history. In some regards, as noted above, Sontag can be read as adopting a formalistic perspective, even a McLuhanite “medium is the message” position. In Burning with Desire, his deconstructive study of photography’s origins, Geoffrey Batchen contrasts formalist approaches to a more postmodern perspective in which “all meaning is determined by context”, so that “‘photography as such’ has no identity and photography’s history has no unity” (viii). Though Sontag herself has expressed skepticism about postmodernism, discounting a version of it as “provincialism” in Regarding the Pain of Others (110), Batchen’s description of the postmodern as privileging cultural/ideological context over technological determinism certainly captures a crucial aspect of Sontag’s argument. Moreover, this affinity also sets the stage for considering critiques of Sontag from those who share her concern about the ethics of socially-concerned photography while rejecting or at least contextualizing Sontag’s fear that the “shock” effect of atrocity photos is so fragile as to render taking them all but unconscionable. The most forceful expression of this view is that of Susie Linfield, whose The Cruel Radiance is expressly written “against the photography criticism of Susan Sontag” (xiv).

Two elements of Linfield’s argument—in which she links documentary photography and human rights as symptoms alike of political failure or absence—require attention here: the epistemological burden of photography and the question of ethical agency, especially as the latter bears on how atrocity photos can be used to help construct the “relevant political consciousness” that Sontag and Linfield both see as urgently necessary. In the former case, Linfield cites Bertolt Brecht (as do Benjamin, Sontag, et al.) to the effect that a photo of the Krupp works tells us “next to nothing” about the company’s institutional role in Weimar politics or in Germany’s interwar economy (21). True enough, but why should anyone expect it to? Per Linfield, “[p]eople don’t look at photographs to understand the inner contradictions of global capitalism” (22). Put another way, why insist that, if photographs “can’t tell us everything, they must tell us nothing” (88)? Similarly, why describe “photographs as uniquely incomplete and uniquely misleading” (159)? What object or performance of any sort conveys truth in its entirety?

Though photography may be limited as a source of understanding, it excels, per Linfield, “in offering an immediate, viscerally emotional connection to the world” (22). How shopworn those connections may become over time is uncertain, though Linfield (46) and Sontag (Regarding 105) both acknowledge that evidence in support of the desensitization thesis (at least as regards still photography) is hard to specify. Deborah Nelson and Judith Butler both suggest that the emotion that matters most for Sontag is less “shock” per se than “frustration” (Butler 99), specifically regarding the question of agency. In Nelson’s case, moreover, the passage she cites from On Photography confirms that some “shock” effects can last a lifetime. The life in question is Sontag’s; the photos were of Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, which she encountered (probably in an illustrated magazine) in a Santa Monica bookstore in July of 1945. “Nothing I have seen”, Sontag writes, “ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously” and (as Nelson reads the passage) mostly because the twelve-year-old Sontag could think of no way to “relieve” the “suffering” (On Photography 20, Nelson 108); there was nothing she could do.

Nelson and Linfield, it bears saying, both observe how sentimentality seems especially problematic for women intellectuals of Sontag’s generation. Linfield links this avoidance of sentiment directly to the legacy of Bertolt Brecht and his critique of naturalistic theater, where “emotional involvement” with the action, as Sontag evokes Brecht in her Against Interpretation chapter on “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson”, is the main attraction. The alternative is Brecht’s “Alienation Effect”, in which empathetic identification is “counterbalanced” by formal devices “promot[ing] distance, disinterestedness, impartiality” in the service, at least ostensibly, of proletarian didacticism (177-78). On Linfield’s analysis, “alienation” of a similar sort is exactly the cure for what ails documentary photography because the informational poverty of the still photograph gives the viewer something she can do, especially in instances that prompt indignation or outrage. By contrast with moving images, which “tend, in short, to sweep us into them, sometimes against our will” (165), the stillness of still photographs “creates a space between image and viewer… that the viewer can use: to separate herself from, and if necessary resist, the image and its maker”. This separation is “alienation in the best sense of the word” (164) and it permits “the photographs’ ambiguities” to serve “as a starting point of discovery; by connecting those photographs to the world outside their frames, they begin to live and breathe more fully. So do we” (29).

Fascist Aesthetics, etcetera

From the beginning of her career, Sontag was deeply attentive to films and film culture, not to mention her on-again/off-again vocation as a film director. Sontag’s interest in photography as a medium was all but inevitable and continued until her death, as Regarding the Pain of Others attests. At least a few of her other photo-centric essays deserve brief mention by way of conclusion.

The crucial instance here is “Fascinating Fascism” (1975), which first appeared in the New York Review of Books and was subsequently included in Under the Sign of Saturn (1980). The books under review were two, the 1974 English-language edition of Leni Riefenstahl’s The Last of the Nuba (mentioned very briefly in “Photography in Search of Itself”) and Jack Pia’s SS Regalia (1974). Sontag takes Riefenstahl’s photographic celebration of a declining Sudanese tribal culture as ideologically “continuous with” her Nazi-era filmmaking (Under 86) and construes Pia’s illustrated catalogue of SS uniforms and insignia as encouraging a dangerously sadomasochistic version of “Being-as-Playing-a-Role”, which Sontag had described in more innocent if also gay-specific terms in her 1964 “Notes on ‘Camp’” (Against 280).

This about face on “camp” raises the issue of how On Photography’s media skepticism differs from Against Interpretation’s advocacy of “an erotics of art” that would teach us “to see more, to hear more, to feel more” (14), especially when seeing more, at least per the logic of On Photography, can lead to feeling less. In “Sontag’s Captions: Writing the Body from Riefenstahl to S&M”, Bonita Rhoads addresses this question by linking Sontag’s “prosecution” (951) of Leni Riefenstahl as the avatar of “fascist aesthetics” to her On Photography attack on Diane Arbus. Rhoads views both women as Sontag stand-ins, figures Sontag deployed (however subconsciously) to critique herself; hence Sontag-the-aesthete scores Riefenstahl for portraying the Nuba as “a tribe of aesthetes” (Under 88).

The case for taking Arbus as Sontag’s double is arguably the stronger, which makes her critique of Arbus all the more puzzling, especially in view of Sontag’s other writings on photography. Rhoads adduces three essays in addition to “Fascinating Fascism”: “Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures”, Sontag’s rhapsodic 1964 defense of Smith’s “poetic cinema of shock” paean to “intersexual, polymorphous joy” (Against 227, 230); “Certain Mapplethorpes”, Sontag’s artist-friendly rumination on how it feels to be photographed, which introduced Robert Mapplethorpe’s Certain People (1985); and “A Photographic Is Not an Opinion. Or Is It?”, which introduced Women, a 1999 photo-collection by Annie Liebovitz (Sontag’s late-in-life partner). All three, it bears saying, study in various ways the still asymmetrical politics of gender imagery, often by addressing non-heteronormative sexualities. It thus seems profoundly unlikely that Sontag’s antipathy toward Arbus in “America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly” was entirely or solely a function of the latter’s depictions of sexual minorities in the 1972 MoMA show.

To judge by the chapter’s original title (“Freak Show”), it seems likelier that Sontag was reacting to Arbus’s catalogue-text description of (at least some of) her subjects as “freaks”, which may have seemed unhappily close to Sontag’s journal-confessed fascination with (her terms) Cripples, Freaks, and Mutants, as Moser observes in describing Sontag’s portrait of Arbus as a self-portrait (352-54). Likelier still is the prospect that it was less the “idiot village” on display that triggered Sontag’s distress than it was the idiot villagers in the MoMA gallery whose “test of hardness” reactions she found offensive (On Photography 40). Moser is probably closer to the mark when he writes of Sontag as a citizen of that village who, all the same,

understood the obscenity of looking at what she saw as people displayed as freaks. And she was skeptical of the process that allowed viewers to see them—scrutinize them, study them, collect them, be shocked by them, mock them—without the slightest risk that they might return the favor. (355)

Rhoads takes issue with Sontag’s art-historical assessments of Riefenstahl and Arbus alike. Sontag’s frequent appeal to history renders such charges all the more significant. Yet the prognostic value of her analysis of “the fascist longings in our midst” (Under 97) is hard to deny, especially by contrast with the hopes expressed in Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay. Benjamin prefaces his decay-of-aura argument with the claim that his “theses about the developmental tendencies of art” will be “completely useless for the purposes of Fascism” (218). Yet Sontag’s description of the “characteristic pageantry” of fascist aesthetics sounds unhappily like her descriptions of “photographic seeing”: “the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force” (Under 91). Though Sontag’s On Photography call for an “ecology” of images portends planetary collapse later rather than sooner, if we are lucky, the association of photography with the Holocaust—not to mention with more everyday instances of genocide and ethnic cleansing—is hard to shake. “Mechanical reproduction” has neither redeemed art nor eradicated the appeal of fascism, not even in America, or at least not in the idiot village that Trump-era America has increasingly become.

One last prediction needs acknowledgment. By way of describing the momentum of technological development in his “Work of Art” essay, Walter Benjamin adduces Paul Valéry as foretelling a time when “we shall be supplied with visual and auditory images, which appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand” (219). Nowadays, the hand in question would be holding a smartphone, while the images taken or viewed would be entirely digital and socially networked. More crucially, what Nathan Jurgenson has called social photography is defined less as the production of “stand-alone” (9) physical objects than as part of the “global flow of image-speak” (14). As Jurgenson makes the point in The Social Photo, “[p]hotography is social photography to the degree that its central use is more expressive than informational, when the recording of reality is not its own end but a means for communicating an experience” (17). That such uses can have baleful political consequences is something Sontag addresses (in prophetically similar terms) in her “Regarding the Torture of Others” (2004) analysis of the infamous Abu Ghraib photos. Her claim that “the photographs are us” (131) has been more than confirmed in the tyranny-by-Twitter practices of Donald Trump and numerous of his social media followers.

In the “On Style” chapter of Against Interpretation Sontag allows that “we never have a purely aesthetic response to works of art” (23), though more aesthetic is implicitly better. In On Photography, by contrast, she describes photographs as being interpretations of reality, despite their as-if magical reproduction of the real. She also claims that narrative arts are better yet at promoting historical and political understanding. Accordingly, we can say her tune has changed, especially if we conclude that she finds photography a harbinger of cultural doom, a nightmare instance of the “One Culture” she had promoted in the 1960s. Caution is necessary here. Moral issues are always near to hand in the essays collected in Against Interpretation, however much Sontag privileges the aesthetic point of view. Her On Photography critique of the medium is equally as much a defense of art in the face of photography’s “things-as-they-are” ubiquity (119), though a defense informed by passionate anxiety about where the politics of culture are taking us. Though her rhetoric may seem no less hyperbolic in retrospect than initially, time has proven her unhappily prescient. On Photography is arguably more relevant than ever.

Works Cited

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Citation: Poague, Leland. "On Photography". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 23 September 2021 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=3061, accessed 24 May 2022.]

3061 On Photography 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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