Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
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...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
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...
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On Photography (Magill's Literary Annual 1978)
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...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
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...
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