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.

 

An Interview With Myself

Introduce yourself

Hello, I’m Brian. I like to take pictures and I nearly always have a camera in my hand.

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How and when did you get into photography?

I’ve been taking pictures since I was a child, so most of my life. Digital photography wasn’t around when I started and my parents didn’t have much money so I couldn’t photograph as often as I would have liked. I remember borrowing their cameras when I was little, and learnt about exposure, shutter speed and aperture using a Zenit-EM. When I started working I bought myself a 35mm Canon SLR, then digital came along and I was delighted to switch over. I have taken many thousands of photographs since then.

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How would you describe your work and what are the ideas behind your images?

I have tens of thousands of images in my archive, some good, some not so good! In terms of genre I tend to switch a lot and have tried landscape, beauty, fashion, portrait, street, and documentary photography. Some of those are single images which stand-alone, while others are groups of images that work together. I usually start off with an idea of some kind, either for a single image or a project, and try to construct my pictures around that idea. However, they are not deeply conceptual and things don’t always come out exactly the way I intended!

Some of my images feel a bit safe, and I really have to push myself to produce more gritty, edgy work. Interestingly, the type of camera I use can make a difference. If I’m going for a snapshot aesthetic, using a compact point-and-shoot seems to help me achieve that. If I’m looking for something more crafted and painterly where quality is essential, I’ll use a DSLR. That’s not always the case, but it’s often a starting point.

My work is often described as quiet, calm, and peaceful. These are actually personal qualities of mine so perhaps it’s true that photographs are really a reflection of the photographer and not just about the subject.

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What do you think of genres in photography? Do you consider yourself a documentary photographer, street photographer, or portrait photographer?

Probably a combination of all those things, so essentially just a photographer.

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Which photographers inspire you?

So many! William Eggleston, Garry Winogrand, Stephen Shore, Alec Soth, Martin Parr, David Bailey. That’s naming just a few famous ones. Less famous contemporary photographers who inspire me are Bieke Depoorter, Carolyn Drake, Mark Power, Peter van Agtmael, Rob Bremner. I’ve just realised most of those are Magnum photographers.

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Would you describe your body of work as consistent?

Probably not, because I like to try different things. I do struggle with this at times, as everyone says to make it as a photographer you need to specialise. However, in my defence I recognise that I don’t need to be a professional photographer to make good pictures. Actually, I think it’s probably easier not to be a pro, so you can keep experimenting and shooting in any direction you like, free of commercial pressure of any kind.

I have noticed that my work is sometimes pictorial, sometimes documentary, but nearly always moody with lots of contrast, depth, and layers. Perhaps that’s where some consistency starts to come in, but I do mix things up and change my style quite a bit. I have been known to go minimal!

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Do you prefer single images or projects?

I like both, but there’s something incredible about the project work of photographers like Alec Soth, Bieke Depoorter and Carolyn Drake. When you get a great series of images the whole collection adds up to so much more than the sum of the parts. Synergy!

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How do you stay motivated?

I sometimes go through dry spells where I’m uninspired and don’t feel like making pictures, but I always come out the other side. Taking my cameras on days out or holidays usually helps to unblock my creativity.

Advice for people getting into photography?

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to be a pro. You can make beautiful images in your spare time and have a tremendous amount of fun, stress-free, while doing so. Also, don’t get too hung up about only shooting one thing. It’s so easy to get stuck in a pigeon-hole as a street photographer or horse photographer or whatever. Just be a photographer and shoot whatever you want to!

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Rediscovering my Canon G9

Ten years ago I bought myself a Canon G9 compact, and absolutely loved it. Me and that camera went everywhere together, but inevitably when I got my Canon 6d the G9 was relegated to ‘The Drawer’, where it has resided ever since.

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I recently rediscovered it, charged it up, and tried a few test shots. I’ve been working in London recently, and couldn’t be bothered to take a heavy DSLR with me along with my luggage, so I decided here was a perfect chance to slip the Canon G9 into my bag and give it a workout in the city.

 

I was delighted with how the little camera performed, and loved the way it was so small and discrete, attracting virtually no attention as I snapped away. It feels great in your hand, small but substantial. I’m not about to sell my DSLRs and lenses, but I am convinced that the Canon G9 still has a place in my arsenal of photography gear.

One of the things I found I could do with it was produce images that had more of a sense of urgency and immediacy than the ones I create with my DSLR. I can get similar images if I attach a flash head to my DSLR, but there’s something raw and honest and rough-around-the-edges about the on-camera flash of the G9 that makes for a grittier vibe.

 

In terms of limitations, the Canon G9 has a few that the Canon 6d doesn’t suffer from. The biggest one for me is the fact it has a tiny sensor vs. the 6d’s full-frame – which means you seriously lose out on depth of field, and the quality of low-light shots is also severely limited. The G9 is also noticeably slow compared to the 6d – there is a lag of a few seconds between switching it on and being able to take a picture, and then you have to wait until the picture is saved to the card before you can take another one … delays like this inevitably lead to missed shots.

Overall though, I found that as long as I worked within the G9’s constraints, it was possible to get some great pictures with it – far better images than I can get with a mobile phone camera.

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From now on, I’ll be making sure my G9 is always fully charged and ready!

Spicy Breakfast Biscuits

I should perhaps add the word ‘Christmas’ to this title, because this is a ‘biscuit’ recipe containing mincemeat and various other spices that never fail to bring the spirit of Christmas to the tastebuds.

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Firstly, let me say I’m absolutely not a baker. This is only my third ever attempt at cooking something sweet, so Paul Hollywood needn’t lose any sleep. However, if you’re feeling a bit peckish, don’t jump in the car and drive to the nearest supermarket for triple chocolate cookies, try knocking one of these up instead. They’re pretty healthy, and are oat-based – which suits me, being the porridge fiend that I am.

I made one of these yummy biscuits (actually the size of a decent cookie) with just:

  • 50g oats
  • 2 teaspoons of mincemeat
  • 1 teaspoon of all-spice
  • 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon of nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon of chilli flakes (optional, but worthwhile!)
  • Between 50ml and 100ml of milk (I used Oatly oat milk)

Mix everything up into a thick paste using the teaspoon, using your judgement as to how much milk to add. You’re looking for a fairly thick consistency so you can set the biscuit into shape without it running. Add the milk bit by bit so you can get it just right.

Spread the mixture onto some greaseproof paper into whatever form you want (I went for a traditional round biscuit shape), then stick it on a shallow baking tray and into an oven pre-heated to 120 degrees Celsius. Leave them in there for 20-30 minutes, checking them a few times during the last ten minutes to make sure the result looks similar to the above picture.

When done, let it cool for a short while so you don’t burn yourself, then either eat warm or stow away for another day if you’re iron-willed enough. (I wasn’t.)

Why do photographers take pictures?

I attended an interesting talk last night that asked a couple of questions I’ve never really considered before in terms of my own practice as a photographer.

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As a photographer, do you enjoy the thrill of the chase involved in finding a good picture or do you enjoy the final image more?

For me, the final image is everything. While I do enjoy wandering around and taking pictures, it can be quite painful and frustrating at times. Looking at the final image either on screen or in print is what makes it all worthwhile.

Do you take pictures with a view to recording what is happening now, always with an eye on how your pictures will be viewed several years in the future, or do you take pictures simply for the sake of taking them at that moment?

I definitely take pictures with an eye on how they will be viewed in the future. I used to be very particular about excluding things like logos and cars and street fashions, simply because the currency of the subject matter makes it too familiar to be remarkable. It was a while before I realised that in twenty years time images of these subjects will in fact be very interesting.

I’m curious to hear how others answer these questions!

Finding your purpose in life

This thought kind of follows on from this one, where I question the reliability of asking yourself to think back to when you were at your happiest. While I still think it’s near impossible to answer this question – and indeed find your purpose in life – I do think there are some questions you can ask that will help you on your way.

This list of seven strange questions from Mark Manson is particularly interesting.

I especially like questions #2, #3, #4, #6, and #7…

  • What is true about you today that would make your eight year-old self cry?
  • What makes you forget to eat and poop?
  • How can you better embarrass yourself? (This one needs some explaining, so read the article by Mark).
  • If you had to leave the house all day every day, where would you go and what would you do?
  • If you knew you were going to die one year from today, what would you do and how would you want to be remembered?

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Probably still not going to give you reliable answers – because your thoughts will always be coloured by recent experiences – but an interesting exercise in navel gazing nonetheless!

Why you don’t really know when you were at your happiest

I had an interesting conversation with a client recently. She was advocating the practice of sitting quietly and asking yourself to think back to when you were at your happiest. The idea is that when you find that moment, you should plan your life to go forward in that direction.

While this is a nice idea in principle, I think it’s fundamentally flawed because we can’t reliably determine when we were at our happiest.

At any given moment, our thoughts and decisions are coloured by what is going on, or what has recently gone on around us. This uncontrollable mental filter changes the way we think, so with such grand questions it’s highly likely we will come to different answers on different days.

 

The only way to reliably determine when we are/were at our happiest is to engage third parties for triangulation. Yes, we can come to a decision on our own, but would independent observers reach the same decision?

Keeping a journal or blog can help, but our interpretation of what we have written can again be coloured by recent events.

An independent viewpoint is key. The difficult part is finding the observer who has known you long enough, and well enough, to be objective and honest.

What’s this blog about?

Let’s just say it’s multi-purpose.

Keeping a journal over a period of time is useful for reflection on how we behave. Reviewing a series of entries looking for recurring themes, common feelings, consistently helpful or problematic thoughts, ideas, and action-tendencies can reveal a lot about us, and provide input to a roadmap for modifying our behaviour.

That’s one of the reasons for starting this blog. The self-reflection parts are not meant to be of much interest to anyone but myself, but I suppose there are some curious types (like me) who will read it because they like to observe.

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Another reason for the blog is for keeping notes about what I’m doing and where I’m going with some of the things I’m working on or thinking about – like a public notebook I suppose.

Cultivating a regular writing habit is a good thing. I have been exercising my body regularly for several years now, and am trying to think of this blog as a kind of exercise for the mind.

I also simply want to record some of my personal experiences in words and pictures, so that when I’m an old man, I can look back and remember some of the things I’d long forgotten, what I’ve done, where I’ve been, who I met. (Assuming I get the chance, of course.)

I’ll try to add one of my own archive photographs along with each post to keep things visually interesting and add a bit of variety!