The Other Reality

On Photography

Posted in Annotation, MFA by aryckman on October 22, 2008

On Photography by Susan Sontag (New York: Picador, 1974)

Alexandra Ryckman
First Semester, Fall 2008

Though it is comprised of six essays, On Photography, by Susan Sontag, addresses the major concerns about photography’s relationship to society. Sontag looks beyond the sentimental notions about photography and sees how it has come to function in our society, often as a surrogate for experience.  While her commentary may seem unnecessarily harsh at times it provides a much-needed balance to the pro-photography arguments that photographers have been advocating since its invention.

Photographs are traces of the real—actual light emitted from the subject—they are “not dependent on an image maker. However carefully the photographer intervenes in setting up and guiding the image-making process, the process itself remains an optical-chemical (or electronic) one, the workings of which are automatic” (158). It is easy to accept photographs as objective truth; this is why photography is so often employed in social documentation with the hope of causing change. Photographs cannot, however, explain or reveal the truth. “If photographs are messages, the message is both transparent and mysterious” (111). They can depict but not divulge information. Images are mistaken as truthful, thus becoming exchangeable with reality.

Sontag repeatedly draws on the relationship between both photographs and reality, and how it has affected our perception of reality. The fact the photographs seem to mirror life we accept them as truth, but seldom do we consider the role of the photographer. While photographers try to duplicate reality, their own perception of that reality will impose itself in the image. The photographer has a set idea of how the subject should look. The conscious or subconscious insertion of the photographer’s ideas into an image aid in making the subject—or truth about the subject—extinct. One example of this is early photographs of Native Americans. Photographers had a specific idea about how the native people should look and felt comfortable changing things in order to gain a more picturesque image. Because of this, the truth about the Native Americans has become extinct and what is left is a false memory of the subject. “Cameras are the antidote and the disease, a means of appropriating reality and a means of making it obsolete” (179).

Photography also changes how we experience our surroundings.  By possessing pictures of our world we feel as if we can possess the world, as if possessing images is having knowledge and power. But a photograph cannot grant either of these, and it makes the world appear more available than it actually is. We feel that we experience just as much through photographs as we do the actual event. In addition, we begin attributing real life with the qualities of an image. A car crash, then, might “seem like a movie” (161). Depersonalizing our relation to the world, “the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much farther away. It offers, in one easy habit-forming activity, both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others—allowing us to participate while confirming our alienation” (167).

The act of photographing has distanced people from their own lives. Photographing is a way to keep busy, a pretend work, a way to orient yourself in places and situations where you might feel lost. It is a barrier that puts space between you and the place you are in. Sontag talks about this in relation to travel but it can extend far beyond that. It “[helps] people take possession of space in which they are insecure” (9). This concept of using the camera as a barrier strikes a chord with me, as I have found myself using it this way in my own experiences. I was relieved when my grandfather asked me to photograph my dead grandmother at her viewing. While it was awkward for me to take pictures in that situation, it kept me from standing with my family and crying which would have been more uncomfortable for me. While that was not a common situation, I use photography as a means of coping in a variety of environments, at family functions and travel.

Photographers can, as I do, use photography to deal with many situations. This speaks not only to its relation to reality, as barrier, but also to its ability to treat all events the same. Sontag refers to the ‘leveling gaze of photography’ throughout her book. Photographing makes the moment or event worthy of happening—it levels the importance of the event. “To photograph is to confer importance” (28). If all events are memorialized in the same way, through photographs, they are all of equal value. The photographs themselves will probably face the same fate; get thrown out, lost, decay, forgotten. Photography treats all of its subjects the same and turns all of them into the same thing—a photograph.

Sontag asserts that photography is the ultimate surreal experience and is the most effective surreal art because it blurs “the lines between art and so-called life, between objects and events, between the intended and the unintentional, between pros and amateurs, between the noble and the tawdry, between craftsmanship and lucky blunders” (51). Photographers have always been drawn to the extremes of life—things outside their daily lives—the rich and the poor. Both of these areas are considered unique and worthy of capturing on film—they are all the same in photographs. Beyond all subject matter being treated equally the final photographs are treated equally, there is now no good or bad taste, everything is allowed. Museums collect photography of all genres, one style is not considered an art any more than another.

This also shows that subject matter appears to us the same in photographs and has changed our notion of what is aesthetically pleasing. A cabbage leaf can become as beautiful in photographs as draped cloth, an element that has always been associated with traditional values of aesthetics in painting. “The camera’s ability to transform reality into something beautiful derives from its relative weakness as a means of conveying truth” (112). Instead of making truth beautiful it masks truth by making it into a beautiful image.

Susan Sontag’s writing hit every nerve, every concern, I have about photography and each one is sensitive. While she makes many perceptive observations, I admit this begrudgingly because she brings to light what is ethically problematic or flawed with photography, as well as pointing out some of it limitations. It makes me question photography’s role in society, in my life, and what it is actually capable of. I still like to think that photography is capable of good, that it has not “done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it” (21). Despite her harsh criticism of photography I found that the issues raised were important for me to consider, especially as it not only influences my life and work, but is a part of the process and product itself.

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