On Photography Critical Essays

Susan Sontag


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

On the front cover of the first paperback edition of On Photography, there is an early photograph, possibly a daguerreotype, of a couple holding yet another photograph or daguerreotype of what appears to be a mother and three children; it is a work of culture which is a self-reflexive reflection. The image is a piece of the world, of the past, and it immediately invites speculation and invites—or rather demands— interpretation. The reader’s almost instinctive reaction to the cover photograph bears out Sontag’s analysis in the text that follows. Intrigued, frustrated, baffled, yet charmed and moved, when people examine photographs they experience such confusing, often contradictory reactions that it is little wonder that culture critics increasingly have been compelled to analyze the photographic image and the human responses to it.

Sontag’s On Photography is made up of seven interconnected but quite separate essays, plus a brief appendix of quotations about photography. Because of the aphoristic style of the writing and the fragmentary nature of the chapters, this book is extremely difficult to summarize. At best, what can be done is to touch on her central points in each of the chapters and to allow her ideas to coalesce by accumulation.

The opening, “In Plato’s Cave,” establishes the parameters for the rest of the book through a series of almost epigrammatic observations about the nature of photography and its impact. Sontag notes that photographs have taught people a new visual code and enlarged their notions of what is worth looking at or what one has a right to observe—thereby creating both a grammar and, more important, an ethic of seeing. The most far-reaching result of photography is that...

(The entire section is 718 words.)