Fotograf Magazine

Around Photography with Susan Sontag

The title of Susan Sontag’s book On Photography (which has finally been translated into Czech) may be, in a certain sense, misleading. If one takes into consideration the style and content of the book, the preposition in the title, suggesting a systematic scientific approach, might be replaced with a more appropriate, less precise, preposition. Sontag’s style is all but systematic; it does not speak ‘on’ photography but rather approaches its subject from different, often arbitrary, sides; it goes back and forth and circles around the subject. It is an intellectually free and lively essay style that does not avoid contradictions or exaggerations, a style that wanders among its many subjects towards its goal. The book consists of slightly rewritten essays that were originally published in the New York Review of Books from 1973 on. These were mostly reviews of photography books to which the book’s first six chapters refer. Few readers will have difficulty identifying the dedication for the last, seventh chapter, which consists entirely of selected quotations. The initials are those of the now famous Marxist essayist and philosopher Walter Benjamin. Sontag’s interest in his ideas (photography is treated in the essays ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ and ‘A Short History of Photography’), however, dates back to the time when Benjamin was an almost forgotten outsider of the Frankfurt School. She also treated his work in the 1980 essay ‘Under the Sign of Saturn’. Sontag was also inspired by the French semiologist and mythologist Roland Barthes, whose essay ‘Family of Man’ could practically have been written by Sontag (although it precedes her book by several years). Shortly after Barthes’ death, she edited a collection of his works translated into English.

One might ask what is the central thought or theme of Sontag’s book. ‘To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power,’ Sontag writes in the first chapter. This implied ‘Foucault-esque’ vision of photography, which equates seeing with knowing, takes on many different forms in Sontag’s writing, starting with the documentary tendencies of the 19th century and following on with the ‘Stieglitz’ canons and the pre- and post-war social and political photography projects. ‘The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own,’ Sontag continues, commenting on the way the world of today is saturated with proliferating images. Her approach often verges on a new form of aggressive, yet also ironic, iconoclasm.

Although in the 1980s she concentrated more on her literary work, she did not give up the role of cultural and social critic. In one interview she states: ‘I don’t have a problem with technological culture. I have a problem with capitalism […] the digital world produces art on a very high level. For me by far the most interesting work in photography could not be done without digital manipulation.’

From today’s perspective, it has to be stressed that in the late 1970s Sontag was able to raise many new questions and augur the beginning of the boom of critical and theoretical works on photography. The connection between the Surrealist way of perceiving the world and photography (in the work of Rosalind Krauss, for example), the role of the museum and the curator in creating the artwork (Douglas Crimp) and the ‘post-Benjamin’ reflections on the originality of artwork were turning points of the 1980s and fundamentally changed the way we perceive photography (and art) today. This is only one of the reasons why On Photography is essential reading for anyone interested in modern and contemporary visuality.

Pavel Vančát