On Photography began with a single essay in which Susan Sontag wanted to explore some of the problems, both aesthetic and moral, presented by the omnipresence of photographed images in her culture. As the essay became more complex and historically expansive, it suggested others, and over five years Sontag eventually wrote a series of essays in which she traced the traditions and meaning of photography. As she later was to write, the argument sketched in the first essay evolved full circle through digressions and documentation into the more theoretical last essay, where the collection ended.
As a result, Sontag—along with such other literary culture critics as Roland Barthes, John Berger, Walter Benjamin, and Marshall McLuhan—helped to rewrite the ways in which people see the role of photography in modern society. For her, the term “modernism,” with its ahistorical tendencies, has distorted and disguised both the social uses and the nature of photography, obscuring from the photographer and viewer alike the propagandistic and exploitive nature of the medium, especially under capitalism. Sontag has always defined social criticism as an active, not a passive, occupation. Her role in essays such as those contained in On Photography is to evaluate the place of the medium in the human experience and, in the process of discussing that place, to explain the influence of photography and the photograph, making clear those elements of the medium that have traditionally been diverted by formalist/aesthetic approaches.
In the anthology that finishes her book, Sontag has included two quotations that sum up the contradictory nature of the way in which people have thought about the photographic image. Writer Franz Kafka in conversation is quoted as complaining that photography concentrates on the superficial and that it obscures the hidden life, providing not a more acute way of seeing but rather an overly simplified one. Meanwhile, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer remarks that since the outer appearance is the picture of the inner, the expression of the face reveals the whole character. These quotes, like the book itself, do not make any particular reference to women or women’s social position in the modern world, but the sum total of Sontag’s observations do have direct application to women’s issues.
If there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that women are defined in some measure by the visual images of them—both still and moving—that are purveyed by society, it is of some import that those images are not separable from historical and cultural contexts and, moreover, that the context changes through time. Such observations remove images of women from some sort of timeless category of fixity and suggest that what has been done can be undone, or at least made over, in the future. If women have been imprisoned by the photographic images of the past, then the future holds open the possibility that such confining definitions can and even should be changed. If photographs, as other art objects, bear moral implications, then photographic images can be read in more progressively ideological ways—ways that can suggest, for feminists, a reclaiming of the historical past. Finally, if photographs do not determine one’s reading of them but rather provide a site for individual appropriation, then they also will allow women to reclaim lost ideological ground, first stolen from them by male-dominated notions of eminence in art (with its accompanying ideas of power, control, and subservience).
These arguments are not spelled out in Sontag’s On Photography, but they do evolve naturally from her conclusions, even if they are tentative, about the nature of the photographic image and one’s dialectical relationship to it. Such discoveries offer women liberating possibilities of enormous proportions.
Now Susan Sontag has shown us in elegiac words how far we are enlightened or unenlightened about photography. The book itself does not include a single picture. What fills the space is a progress of six essays followed by an album of verbal insights into the picture-making mystique by famous men and women, most of them writers.
Nowhere does the author take us on a tour of the Rochester mansion of George Eastman, although she does provide an etymology of the ugly word kodac. Each of her paragraphs is itself a photograph, in fact; one placed after another in a long series. The arrangement is such that the same images keep showing up. And the medley of social philosophy, photography’s history and aesthetics (or its absence), and the psychology of pictures as aids to misunderstanding develops on every page. Sontag does not actually write a history of cameras, but in two dozen different places we are afforded verbal snapshots of that history, while the psychology of photographs repeatedly appears on the pages.
Once inside On Photography we learn that the author is downhearted about the shutter business. And she will not stop saying so. While her basic indictments of photography and photographic reality are sharp, her own insatiable joy in repeating them in slight variants—who cherishes eighty-seven mugs of a clothesline thief?—makes us lose interest, even makes us wish for a photograph every five pages. Another way of evaluating Sontag’s performance is provided us by our memory of the layout in Plato’s cave, which she alludes to in the first and last essays. Her relentless strictures about photographers, their weapons, and their ubiquitous products amount to verbose graffiti on Plato’s famous walls. In fact, if The Republic did not lead us to a different conclusion by the described position of the fire, for example, we might think from now on that the cave chamber was circular. For reading On Photography is a not-so-merry merry-go-round-and-round.
Again and again photography’s predatory nature is attacked, and artistic seriousness is denied the photographer’s efforts. Yet Sontag does not deal directly with a central issue: if photography transforms the world, then some aesthetic trophy is due it regardless of the vitiation of personal seeing and other social and psychical disturbances caused by the camera. As for a primary reason for her skirting of this matter, no more obvious one exists than her actual tendency to treat the entire lot of photographers as homogeneous, even as she appears to single out individual talent like Diane Arbus.
One example of a corrective to this simplicity on Sontag’s part would be the November 13, 1976, number of The New Republic, in which Walker Evans has a perceptive say about himself just two days before his death. In place of sharper distinctions in On Photography Sontag restates one of her old and still sensible requests; in the final essay, as overwritten as the rest, she calls for a silence to the shutters, a plea for “an ecology not only of real things but of images as well.” On Photography is against photography.
Unlike Plato’s allegory in which the super student escapes the dark region, later to...
Berger, John. “Uses of Photography: For Susan Sontag.” In About Looking. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980. This chapter, written in 1978, contains Berger’s overwhelmingly positive response to Sontag’s book. He used his reading of the essays as a stimulus to his own thinking about photography.
Bruss, Elizabeth W. “Susan Sontag.” In Beautiful Theories: The Spectacle of Discourse in Contemporary Criticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982. In this long essay on Sontag’s theoretical writings, Bruss mentions the large number of detractors who find her essays lacking in readability and coherence, as well as far too instinctive to be conclusive. Nevertheless, Bruss finds her essays engaging and thoughtful.
Evernden, Neil. “Seeing and Being Seen: A Response to Susan Sontag’s Essays on Photography.” Soundings 68, no. 1 (Spring, 1985): 72-87. Although he finds Sontag’s book to be one of the most insightful contributions to the understanding of photography, Evernden questions her emphasis on the act of photography as basically one of aggression; he suggests that a more pluralistic approach might be more useful.
Green, Jonathan. “Only a Language Game.” In American Photography: A Critical History 1945 to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1984. Along with the writings of Allan Sekula, Sontag’s On Photography helped to initiate a change in the ways in which photographs are made and read by challenging the ultimate value of photography as art and its role as an instrument of knowledge, communication, and culture.
Sayres, Sohnya. Susan Sontag: The Elegaic Modernist. New York: Routledge, 1990. Sayres comments on the disjunctive nature of Sontag’s essays, which makes them difficult to summarize but representative of Sontag at her best, both aloof and fascinated. She argues that Sontag’s conclusion is that photography has provided a modern sensibility that was not chosen and with which one cannot argue.