Cover photograph: Dan McCullin
I am currently half way through ‘On Photography‘ by Susan Sontag (1933-2004), a collection of essays which were first published in the New York Review books between 1973 and 1977. Sontag received her BA from the College of The University of Chicago and did graduate work in the realms of philosophy and literature at Harvard University and Saint Anne’s College, Oxford. Throughout her career she published four books, wrote and directed four full-length feature films, directed several plays and was a human rights activists for nearly two decades. A highly accomplished woman who has also won multiple awards including the 2003 Peace Prize of The German Trade. I know it’s slightly unconventional to review a book whilst you’re only half way through it, however Sontag’s writing is not only incredibly inspiring and insightful, but also executed in such a fashion that I felt the urge to share my appreciation.
The book was first published in 1977 and this only heightens my admiration for the publication and the author. Sontag is writing about themes way ahead of her time; she essentially predicts the selfie-age, claiming humans since the Victorian era have been narcissistic with their photographic portraits. Of course, cameras have been available to the general public since the 19th century and therefore a history had been fully established by the time Sontag was writing. Throughout her essays, she discusses the power relations conjured through photography, the concepts of truth and fiction, the dissemination through magazines and bourgeois circuits as well as photography as a political and social tool. One of my favourite lines so far is
‘To photography is to appropriate the thing being photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power‘ (Sontag, p.4)
The reason I think this phrase appeals to me is because it is incredibly relevant to our Social Media dictated society today. There is a constant interplay between power and knowledge online, feelings of superiority created through social posting. Interestingly, Sontag also dissects the cultural attitudes to photography; discussing how incredibly hard-working societies such as the Americans and Japanese use the camera on holiday as a supplementary tool. Given the fact the pace of life is incredibly fast and constantly moving in these societies, Sontag claims that as tourists, they do not know how to slow down. The camera therefore becomes a substitution to satisfy the work ethic; it becomes a tourist device which allows them to click away with multiple shots, easing their work-free, holiday-going conscience.
As well as insightful remarks about society in relation to photography, Sontag of course goes into some of its histories, with particular focus on Diane Arbus with her documentation of freaks and outcasts, who claims ‘photography was the liscense to go wherever I wanted and to do what I wanted to do‘ (Sontag, p.41). Walk Evans and James Agee are also discussed in depth with their famous Let Us Know Praise Famous Men, as are other varying photographic documents of America. Given the author was not only writing in a post-World War, post-atomic, but also during the Cold War era, photography’s role in war plays a prominant role throughout the essays. As does photography’s artistic roots in Surrealism, the parallels of which are drawn and perfectly encapsulated in this quote – another favourite of mine
‘America, that surreal country, is full of found objects. Our junk has become art. Our junk has become history.‘ (Sontag, p.67)
It is a truly brilliant book (so far!), both for those familiar and unfamiliar with the history of photography.It can act as both a starting point and and a furthering of reader’s knowledge. I would also say it is worth reading for the simple pleasure of admiring Sontag’s revolutionary thinking, given the context in which she was writing.