Notes from Susan Sontag On Photography

I recently came into possession of a copy of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, and was delighted to see it contained hand-written notes made in pencil by a previous owner. It has that wonderful musty ‘old book’ smell, and I’m finding it fascinating to go through, picking up on some of the notes and highlights.

The copy itself isn’t that old. It’s a Penguin Modern Classic with a reissued date of 2008, so it’s no older than that. The original was first published in 1977.

Essay #1: In Plato’s Cave

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Another interesting underline in the first essay:

  • The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed.

Essay #3: Melancholy Objects

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Some more interesting underlines from Essay three:

  • Photography is the inventory of mortality.
  • Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.
  • Photographs turn the past into an object of tender regard, scrambling moral distinctions.
  • A photograph could also be described as a quotation.
  • Photographs – and quotations – seem, because they are taken to be pieces of reality, more authentic than extended literary narratives.
  • Photographs furnish instant history, instant sociology, instant participation.
  • A set of photographs that freezes moments in a life or a society contradicts their form, which is a process, a flow in time.
  • Life is not about significant details, illuminated in a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.

The following seems to sit very nicely with documentary photography, which I’m particularly interested in:

The photographer’s ardour for a subject has no essential relation to its content or value, that which makes a subject classifiable. It is, above all, an affirmation of the subject’s thereness; its rightness (the rightness of a look on a face, of the arrangement of a group of objects), which is the equivalent of the collector’s standard of genuineness; its quiddity – whatever qualities make it unique.

Essay #4: The Heroism of Vision

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Some interesting underlines from essay four:

  • It became clear that there was not just a simple, unitary activity called seeing (recorded by, aided by cameras) but “photographic seeing”, which was both a new way for people to see, and a new activity for them to perform.
  • The proper moment is when one can see things (especially what everyone has already seen) in a fresh way.
  • Moralists who love photographs always hope that words will save the picture.

A particularly wonderful line that really speaks to me about my own practice:

Photographic seeing meant an aptitude for discovering beauty in what everybody sees, but neglects as too ordinary.

Essay #5: Photographic Evangels

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Some interesting underlines from essay five:

  • Despite the efforts of contemporary photographers to exorcise the spectre of art, something lingers. For instance, when professionals object to having their images printed to the edge of the page in books or magazines, they are invoking the models inherited from another art: as paintings are put in frames, photographs should be framed in white space.
  • Photography, like pop art, reassures viewers that art isn’t hard; it seems to be more about subjects than about art.
  • Photography entered the scene as an upstart activity, which seemed to encroach on and diminish an accredited art: painting.

Essay #6: The Image World

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Sontag’s essays on photography are considered one of the classic starting points for anyone wanting to learn more about photography than simply how exposure, focusing, and post-processing works.

To-date I have read most of the essays, and have found them hard-going and academic, often needing to re-read sections multiple times in order to understand what is being suggested. Having said that, I do believe what I have read has made me think a bit more about why, what, and how I photograph something – and I am now especially more aware of the thorny issues of representation and otherness.

The book ends with a ‘Brief Anthology of Quotations’, and I will end this post with my own favourite quote, by American photographer George Tice. This pretty much sums up my own photographic experiences:

As I progressed further with my project, it became obvious that it was really unimportant where I chose to photograph. The particular place simply provided an excuse to produce work … you can only see what you are ready to see – what mirrors your mind at that particular time.

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