Quotations from Sontag’s On Photography

September 5th, 2009 by John Leave a reply »

I recently finished reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography [ISBN 0-312-42009-9; Picador, 1973] and, in the spirit of the book itself (which includes a collection of quotations from others), I decided to record some of the most interesting quotations.

I intend to represent her points objectively and don’t necessarily agree with all her statements, but wanted to capture them here.

In Plato’s Cave

  • Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one — and can help build a nascent one. [p 17]
  • What determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs is the existence of a relevant political consciousness. [p 19]
  • An event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been if one had never seen the photographs — think of the Vietnam War… But after repeated exposure to images it also becomes less real. [p 20]
  • The camera makes reality atomic, manageable, and opaque. [p 23]
  • Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy. [p 23]
  • …the camera’s rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses. [p 23]
  • Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. [p 24]
  • …having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form. [p 24]

Melancholy Objects

  • American photography implies a more summary, less stable connection with history; and a relation to geographic and social reality that is both more hopeful and more predatory. [p 63]
  • In addition to romanticism…about the past, photography offers instant romanticism about the present. [p 67]
  • Fewer and fewer Americans possess objects that have a patina, old furniture, grandparents’ pots and pans — the used things, warm with generations of human touch, that Rilke celebrated in The Duino Elegies as being essential to a human landscape. Instead, we have our paper phantoms, transistorized landscapes. A featherweight portable museum. [p 68]
  • Photography is the inventory of mortality. [p 70]
  • A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its morings come unstuck. [p 71]
  • Photographs — and quotations — seem, because they are taken to be pieces of reality, more authentic than extended literary narratives. [p 74]
  • In modern society, a discontent with reality expresses itself forcefully and most hauntingly by the longing to reproduce this one. [p 80]
  • Photography inevitably entails a certain patronizing of reality. [p 80]
  • …film [is] …a set of photographs that freezes moments in a life or a society contradicts their form which is a process, a flow in time. [p 81]
  • Life is not about significant details, illuminated a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are. [p 81]

The Heroism of Vision

  • Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. [p 85]
  • A fake photograph (one which has been retouched or tampered with, or whose caption is false) falsifies reality. The history of photography could be recapitulated as the struggle between two different imperatives: beautification, which comes from the fine arts, and truth-telling, which is measured not only by a notion of value-free truth, a legacy from the sciences, but a moralized ideal of truth-telling, adapted from nineteenth-century literary models and from the (then) new profession of independent journalism. Like the post-romantic novelist and the reporter, the photographer was supposed to unmask hypocrisy and combat ignorance. [p 86]
  • The proper moment [to take a picture] is when one can see things (especially what everyone has already seen) in a fresh way. [p 90]
  • The assumption underlying all uses of photography, that each photograph is a piece of the world, means that we don’t know how to react to a photograph… until we know what piece of the world it is. [p 93]
  • …the habit of photographic seeing — of looking at reality as an array of potential photographs — creates estrangement from, rather than union with, nature. [p 97]
  • …it is now clear that there is no inherent conflict between the mechanical or naive use of the camera and formal beauty of a very high order, no kind of photograph in which such beauty could not turn out to be present. [p 103]
  • A photograph changes according to the context in which it is seen… [p 106]
  • …the aestheticizing tendency of photography is such that the medium which conveys distress ends by neutralizing it. [p 109]
  • Whatever the moral claims made on behalf of photography, its main effect is to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation. [p 110]
  • …the practice of photography is now identified with the idea that everything in the world could be made interesting through the camera. [p 111]
  • Despite the illusion of giving understanding, what seeing through photographs really invites is an acquisitive relation to the world that nourishes aesthetic awareness and promotes emotional detachment. [p 111]

Photographic Evangels

  • Like other steadily aggrandizing enterprises, photography has inspired its leading practitioners with a need to explain, again and again, what they are doing and why it is valuable. [p 115]
  • …virtually every important photographer right up to the present has written manifestoes [sic] and credos expounding photography’s moral and aesthetic mission. [p 115]
  • Cartier-Bresson has likened himself to a Zen archer, who must become the target so as to be able to hit it; “thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards,” he says, “never while actually taking a photograph.” Thought is regarded as clouding the transparency of the photographer’s consciousness, and as infringing on the autonomy of what is being photographed. [p 116]
  • [Modern] Photography is seen as an acute manifestation of the individualized “I,” the homeless private self astray in an overwhelming world… [p 119]
  • When Dorothea Lange urges her colleagues to concentrate on “the familiar,” it is with the understanding that the familiar, rendered by a sensitive use of the camera, will thereby become mysterious. [p 121]
  • The cult of the future (of faster and faster seeing) alternates with the wish to return to a more artisanal, purer past — when images still had a handmade quality, an aura. [p 124]
  • Photographers seem to need periodically to resist their own knowingness and to remystify what they do. [p 126]
  • …it is in the very nature of photography that it be a promiscuous form of seeing, and, in talented hands, an infallible medium of creation. [p 129]
  • The history of photography is punctuated by a series of dualistic controversies — such as the straight print versus the doctored print, pictorial photography versus documentary photography — each of which is a different form of the debate about photography’s relation to art: how close it can get while still retaining its claim to unlimited visual acquisition. [p 129]
  • Photography, like pop art, reassures viewers that art isn’t hard; it seems to be more about subjects than about art. [p 131]
  • Naive or commercial or merely utilitarian photography is no different in kind from photography as practiced by the most gifted professionals: there are pictures taken by anonymous amateurs which are just as interesting, as complex formally, as representative of photography’s characteristic powers as a Stieglitz or an Evans. [p 132]
  • That all the different kinds of photography form one continuous and interdependent tradition is the once startling, now obvious-seeming assumption which underlies contemporary photographic taste and authorizes the indefinite expansion of that taste. To make this assumption only became plausible when photography was taken up by curators and historians and regularly exhibited in museums and art galleries. Photography’s career in the museum does not reward any particular style; rather, it presents photography as a collection of simultaneous intentions and styles which, however different, are not perceived as in any way contradictory. [p 132]
  • …when viewed in their new context, the museum or gallery, photographs ceased to be “about” their subjects in the same direct or primary way; they become studies in the possibilities of photography. [p 133]
  • …the very success of photojournalism lies in the difficulty of distinguishing one superior photographer’s work from another’s, except insofar as he or she has monopolized a particular subject. These photographs have their power as images (or copies) of the world, not of an individual artist’s consciousness. [p 133]
  • The language in which photographs are generally evaluated is extremely meager. [p 138]
  • Museums do not so much arbitrate what photographs are good or bad as offer new conditions for looking at all photographs [p 141]
  • There is a more rapid sequence of rediscovery in photography than in any other art. [p 141]
  • …no first-rate photographer is better understood as a member of a group… To group photographers in schools or movements seems to be a kind of misunderstanding, based (once again) on the irrepressible but invariably misleading analogy between photography and painting. [p 144]

The Image-World

  • …a society becomes “modern” when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images, when images that have extraordinary powers to determine out demands upon reality and are themselves coveted substitutes for firsthand experience become indispensable to the health of the economy, the stability to the polity, and the pursuit of private happiness. Feuerbach’s words — he is writing a few years after the invention of the camera [in 1843, The Essence of Christianity] — seem, more specifically, a presentiment of the impact of photography. [p 153]
  • The primitive notion of the efficacy of images presumes that images possess the qualities of real things, but our inclination is to attribute to real things the qualities of an image. [p 158]
  • War and photography now seem inseparable… The feeling of being exempt from calamity stimulates interest in looking at painful pictures, and looking at them suggests and strengthens the feeling that one is exempt. [p 167-168]
  • Photography is a polylogue [p 173]
  • Photography does not simply reproduce the real, it recycles it — a key procedure of a modern society. In the form of photographic images, things and events are put to new uses, assigned new meanings, which go beyond the distinctions between the beautiful and the ugly, the true and the false, the useful and the useless, good taste and bad. [p 174]
  • Cameras implement an aesthetic view of reality by being a machine-toy that extends to everyone the possibility of making disinterested judgments about importance, interest, beauty. [p 176]
  • A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex… The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself. [p 178-179]
  • The powers of photography have in effect de-Platonized our understanding of reality, making it less and less plausible to reflect upon our experience according to the distinction between images and things, between copies and originals. [p 179]
  • …the force of photographic images comes from their being material realities in their own right, richly informative deposits left in the wake of whatever emitted them, potent means for turning the tables on reality — for turning it into a shadow. [p 180]

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