Susan Sontag – On Photography

Susan Sontag


– 1933-2004

– Partner of Annie Leibovitz

– Controversial but influential figure

Sparked controversy with her comments of the September 11th attacks.

–       It was published immediately after the attacks. People weren’t ready to hear this, even if they now agree with her opinion.

–       It was a brave move, considering when it was published

In the early 1970s Sontag began to write about photography, in a series of essays. She was gripped by the problems, principally aesthetics, of interpreting images. She explored whether photographs gave what they seemed to be delivering: a slice of truth, a piece of reality.

She raised questions about truth and authenticity in photography.

The book On Photography consists of 5 essays. Each questioning and raising questions on areas of photography.

Essay titles

–       Plato’s cave

–       America seen through photographs, darkly

–       Melancholy objects

–       The heroism of visions

–       Photographic evangels

Published in 1977. It is a study of the force of photographic images, which are continually inserted between experience and reality.

It received the national book critics circle award for criticism.

Her essays explored the value of the photographic image and the act of picture taking in modern culture.

She says

–       Images provoke emotional responses

–       We invest the image with significant power

–       A single image can serve a multitude of purposes and appear in a range of settings and mean different things to different people

Despite being published over 40 years ago, her words still resonate and in the media and image saturated world we now live in, possibly are even more appropriate.

Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it…the camera record incriminates…photographs became a useful tool of modern states in the surveillance and control of their increasingly mobile populations. In another version of its utility, the camera record justifies. A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort, but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture.

Sontag 1977 p4

Today the photograph isn’t necessarily thought of as the truth. We assume the image has been edited, manipulated. However, photographs are still entered as evidence in a court of law.

This leads to the discussion of how far images can be manipulated and if the viewer should be made aware of the level of manipulation.

Photographs which fiddle with the scale of the world, themselves get reduced, blown up, cropped, retouched, doctored, tricked out. They age, plagued by the usual ills of paper objects, they disappear, they become valuable, and get bought and sold, they are reproduced. Photographs which package the world, seem to invite packaging. They are stuck in albums, framed and set on tables, tacked on walls, projected as slides. Newspapers and magazines feature them; cops alphabetize them, museums exhibit them; publishers compile them.

Sontag, 1977 p4

Photographs are in everything we do. Without them we would be lost. You see images everywhere you look, in media, advertising, and decoration. If there weren’t images we would live in a very bland world. Books and newspapers would consist of nothing but text. You would have no family album to remember loved ones that have past, and there would certainly be advertising. What kind of world would we live in without images?


On Photography, Susan Sontag. 1977


One response to “Susan Sontag – On Photography

  1. Pingback: More on taking photographs…………..some quotations……….. | Vernon's Learning Journal·

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