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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 718

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...

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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 it has suggested that one can hold the entire world in one’s head in a kind of anthology of images.

In “America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly,” Sontag undermines the euphoric humanism of Walt Whitman through an extended analysis of the work of Diane Arbus, whose photographs undermined the rhetoric of the photographic portrait through her studies of the freakish and marginal populations of American culture. In the process, Sontag notes, Arbus’ work contributes to a tendency of art in capitalist countries to blunt or suppress moral and sensory queasiness and thereby reduce impulses for social and economic reform. “Melancholy Objects” begins with the observation that photography, because it is the most realistic of all the arts, is viewed as the most facile, as well as the most democratic—a double combination which makes it the perfect vehicle for unmasking the social realities and class distances behind the faces on film. This section provides an extended examination of the archetype pictures of the Weimar period artist August Sanders, who inventoried the German people with his photographs during the interwar period.

Sontag begins “The Heroism of Vision” with the observation that nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs but that many have discovered beauty. Yet the chapter deals primarily with the tensions created between competing notions of photographs as aesthetic objects cut off from history, championed by such photographers as Edward Weston, and photographs as committed historical objects, present in the work of Lewis Hine, which reflect particular ideologies and values within a social context. It is this sort of discussion that has been responsible for Sontag’s greatest intellectual impact on the world of art. By tracing the decline of the hopes of early modernists such as Weston in favor of the socially connected polemics of more committed photographers, she has helped to reshape the view of the art during the last half of the twentieth century. Such a discussion also contributes to an understanding of the fallacies of such terms as “neutrality of the camera” and reveals the intent of all photographs, even those seemingly most naïve.

The last two chapters, “Photograph Evangels” and “The Image-World,” place all the previous sections into a more formal theoretical setting. Sontag discusses the tradition of photography in ways that demonstrate how it has shaped modern sensibilities and defines the ways in which images have organized the world of perceptions, including the relationship between the material realities of the world and the ghostly images of it captured by the photographic process. The book concludes with “Brief Anthology of Quotation,” which contains observations by and about photographs and photographers.

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