Susan Sontag’s “On Photography” is one of the worst texts you can ever assign to an aspiring photographer, photography student, photography beginner, or lover of photography.
I think Susan Sontag hates photography.
CHAPTER 1 CRITIQUE (Plato’s Cave)
I’m always suspicious of thinkers who always invoke the Plato Cave analogy (I’m with Nietzsche in thinking Plato was one of the worst philosophers of all time).
“Being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images.”
Sees reality like Plato — that the world is a “false cave”. Shows that Sontag is anti-reality and anti-world.
This very insatiability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world.
Notion that “appropriation” is evil and sinful
To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.
Also the idea that power is evil.
A now notorious first fall into alienation, habituating people to abstract the world into printed words, is supposed to have engendered that surplus of Faustian energy and psychic damage needed to build modern, inorganic societies.
Also, her pretentious of unclear language to confuse the reader. Also the idea that photography is making society worse, and more “inorganic”.
Leeching out the world?
Sontag then makes the claim that as humans, we are “leeching out the world”. The basic idea that humans are evil, leeching beings.
But print seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world, of turning it into a mental object, than photographic images, which now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present.”
But despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth.
“Shady commerce”— seeing photography as a vulgar form of capitalism.
Sontag makes the claim then that she is the possessor of art and truth, and photographs aren’t artistic, nor do they show truth.
Implying photography is a lesser form of art than painting.
Even for such early masters as David Octavius Hill and Julia Margaret Cameron who used the camera as a means of getting painterly images, the point of taking photographs was a vast departure from the aims of painters.
Photographers are dumb, and mechanical.
From its start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible number of subjects. Painting never had so imperial a scope.
Interesting use of the word “imperial”— implies that “imperialism” is bad, and also that somehow photography has imperial desires?
Implying that mass art forms are vulgar and bad, and “lesser”
Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing—which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.
Sontag makes the claim that photography is a vulgar mass art form, and not as legitimate as “elite” painting.
Sontag believes that tourists are lesser
Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter.
Sontag as disparaging to tourists, as if they were less intelligent than her.
Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.
Sontag discredits the idea that tourists can actually be artists. I believe tourists can also make art photos — they shoot photos because it is their artistic passion!
Racist notions towards Japanese
In the early 1970s, the fable of the brash American tourist of the 1950s and 1960s, rich with dollars and Babbittry, was replaced by the mystery of the group-minded Japanese tourist, newly released from his island prison by the miracle of overvalued yen, who is generally armed with two cameras, one on each hip.
The notion that Japanese tourists are “group minded”. Racist because she doesn’t think that some Japanese tourists can actually have the ability to be individuals. Also “rich shaming” by talking about their “overvalued yen”.
I note a similar racism happening against rich mainland Chinese folks — many people disparage them because they’re either envious of how rich they are, or they see the Chinese tourists like animals (sub-human).
Seeing photography as voyeurism
Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events.
My belief — photography turns you into a MORE ACTIVE participant in the world. The notion of the photographer as a voyeur is one of the most disparaging and insulting notions, which is dangerous to the field of photography. It implies that photographers are creeps, pedophiles, and unethical and people.
Like sexual voyeurism, it is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging whatever is going on to keep on happening. To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged (at least for as long as it takes to get a “good” picture), to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing—including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune.
Sontag as seeing that photography is sexually perverse — to gain some sort of strange sexual delight in the pain and misfortune of others.
Photography as a “soft murder”?
Still, there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.
Sontag perpetuating the notion that we photographers should feel ashamed and guilty of “taking advantage” of our subjects.
Images are junk food
Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.
Sontag as seeing image as as nefarious as an additive drug (like heroin). To think that photography is “mental pollution” is akin to saying:
Photographs are as bad for you as heroin.
CHAPTER 2 CRITIQUE (America seen through photographs, darkly.)
Ego is bad
Like Whitman, Stieglitz saw no contradiction between making art an instrument of identification with the community and aggrandizing the artist as a heroic, romantic, self-expressing ego.
The notion that a self-expressing ego is viceful. The inference that photographers should not express their ego.
Sontag as anti Diane Arbus
Instead of people whose appearance pleases, representative folk doing their human thing, the Arbus show lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases—most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings—who have paused to pose and, often, to gaze frankly, confidentially at the viewer.
Who is Sontag to call the subjects of Diane Arbus as ugly, grotesque, “unflattering clothing”?
I see Arbus as a GREAT LOVER of humanity. Arbus humanized her subjects. Arbus saw humanity as beautiful, Sontag sees them as ugly.
Arbus’s photographs undercut politics just as decisively, by suggesting a world in which everybody is an alien, hopelessly isolated, immobilized in mechanical, crippled identities and relationships.
Sontag as actually doing the “evil act” of seeing herself as superior to the subjects of Diane Arbus:
Her work shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate feelings.
Sontag sees Arbus and her aims as sinister:
More plausibly, Arbus’s photographs—with their acceptance of the appalling—suggest a naïveté which is both coy and sinister, for it is based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other.
Are street photographers evil?
This then makes the subtle nudge:
Street photographers are coy and sinister, and privileged and distance themselves with their subjects.
I believe street photography brings you CLOSER with your subjects and humanity. To think that photography distances us is to see the art of photography as de-humanizing (the opinion of Sontag). This is a dangerous notion and must be stomped out.
Sontag sees others as ugly.
The subject of Arbus’s photographs is, to borrow the stately Hegelian label, “the unhappy consciousness.” But most characters in Arbus’s Grand Guignol appear not to know that they are ugly.
Sontag sees Arbus as being bloodthirsty, and her subjects as being part of a freak show (Grand Guignol).
Who can deem a photo as ugly or not?
Sontag calls the photos of Arbus as “characteristically ugly”. Sontag thus says she has the legitimacy to classify photos as “beautiful”or “ugly”based on superficial notions of “normal”beauty. Sontag doesn’t think that an “ugly”persona can also be beautiful.
Compare the 1912 photograph by Lartigue of a woman in a plumed hat and veil (“Racecourse at Nice”) with Arbus’s “Woman with a Veil on Fifth Avenue, NYC, 1968.” Apart from the characteristic ugliness of Arbus’s subject (Lartigue’s subject is, just as characteristically, beautiful), what makes the woman in Arbus’s photograph strange is the bold unselfconsciousness of her pose.
Photographers as PAIN SEEKERS?
Arbus was not a poet delving into her entrails to relate her own pain but a photographer venturing out into the world to collect images that are painful.
Sontag making the claim that we photographers seek pain— to glorify pain and suffering. I believe the psychology of Arbus to be far more humane — finding beauty in even the most “freakish”people. Arbus as the ultimate optimist, Sontag as the ultimate pessimist.
Photographers as irresponsible bad people
“Photography was a license to go wherever I wanted and to do what I wanted to do,” Arbus wrote. The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed.
Sontag considers herself the herald of “ethical” behavior
Arbus was not interested in ethical journalism. She chose subjects that she could believe were found, just lying about, without any values attached to them.
Who is Sontag to consider herself the ultimate arbiter of “ethical journalism”?
Rich shaming to delegitimize Arbus’ aims
Like Nathanael West, another artist fascinated by the deformed and mutilated, Arbus came from a verbally skilled, compulsively health-minded, indignation-prone, well-to-do Jewish family, for whom minority sexual tastes lived way below the threshold of awareness and risk-taking was despised as another goyish craziness.
Sontag does the sinister strategy of delegitimizing Arbus because Arbus is from a “well to do”Jewish family (why does Sontag need to mention that the ‘well to do’ family is Jewish?)
Arbus’s interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe. Apart from West, the 1930s yield few examples of this kind of distress. More typically, it is the sensibility of someone educated and middle-class who came of age between 1945 and 1955—a sensibility that was to flourish precisely in the 1960s.
Always be skeptical of people who try to play psychologist on the motives of another human being.
Fashion is evil.
Who could have better appreciated the truth of freaks than someone like Arbus, who was by profession a fashion photographer—a fabricator of the cosmetic lie that masks the intractable inequalities of birth and class and physical appearance.
There’s no moral evil in fashion photography. A “cosmetic lie”— shows Sontag’s hatred of fashion and consumerism in general.
Stereotyping of Jewish culture
Arbus’s work is reactive—reactive against gentility, against what is approved. It was her way of saying fuck Vogue, fuck fashion, fuck what’s pretty. This challenge takes two not wholly compatible forms. One is a revolt against the Jews’ hyper-developed moral sensibility.
Sontag (born to Jewish parents) seems to critique the “Jews’ hyper-devoted moral sensibility”. That’s bad stereotyping. I have lots of Jewish friends who are “Jew-ish”(not fanatics in morals at all).
Sontag as anti-America?
The subjects of Arbus’s photographs are all members of the same family, inhabitants of a single village. Only, as it happens, the idiot village is America.
CHAPTER 3: Melancholy Objects Critique
Why is Sontag so boring?
Sontag sees photographic documentation as illegitimate and “fake”/shallow
Photography inevitably entails a certain patronizing of reality. From being “out there,” the world comes to be “inside” photographs. Our heads are becoming like those magic boxes that Joseph Cornell filled with incongruous small objects whose provenance was a France he never once visited. Or like a hoard of old movie stills, of which Cornell amassed a vast collection in the same Surrealist spirit: as nostalgia-provoking relics of the original movie experience, as means of a token possession of the beauty of actors.
Isn’t it obvious that photography GLORIFIES reality?
Sontag sees film as inherently inferior to books
To quote from a movie is not the same as quoting from a book. Whereas the reading time of a book is up to the reader, the viewing time of a film is set by the filmmaker and the images are perceived only as fast or as slowly as the editing permits.
Books aren’t superior to films. I’d say there’s more wisdom in John Wick (1 and 2) than Catcher in the Rye. To extrapolate, Sontag then sees that photography will always be inferior to books or the written word (which is convenient, as Sontag made her career in writing). Should we let writers dictate the value of photography, when their primary occupation is writing (and not photography?) Hell no.
Sontag says photography has no taste
For this connoisseur’s relation to the world is, through the evolution of the modernist revolt against traditional aesthetic norms, deeply implicated in the promotion of kitsch standards of taste. Though some photographs, considered as individual objects, have the bite and sweet gravity of important works of art, the proliferation of photographs is ultimately an affirmation of kitsch.
Sontag decrees she is the arbiter of “good taste”and “kitsch taste”. She decrees photography can never become an important form of art.
Sontag implies photography cannot change the world.
Marx reproached philosophy for only trying to understand the world rather than trying to change it. Photographers, operating within the terms of the Surrealist sensibility, suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it.
Sontag considers photographers as shallow and vain, and unable to change the world (even if they wanted to)!
CRITIQUE Chapter 4– The Heroism of Vision
Thou shalt not be heroic via photography.
Also, Sontag sees no heroism in photography. Also she believes even the notion of heroism as misguided and bad.
There isn’t much depth or profundity to Sontag’s observations or critiques on photography. They’re pretty obvious to any photographer. Sontag prattles on much, without saying anything.
Photography as tainting reality
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.
The idea of Sontag is that photography cheapens reality. That photography turns us into “super tourists”(Sontag’s term).
Through the camera people become customers or tourists of reality—or Réalités, as the name of the French photo-magazine suggests, for reality is understood as plural, fascinating, and up for grabs.
Also Sontag goes on to moralize the notion that being a consumer is a moral evil and bad. That photographers are shallow consumerists of reality.
Photography as making society more homologous
Instead of realizing that photography DIVERSIFIES our perspectives, Sontag sees photography as doing a positive HARM on society — making us see reality from only one way (the photographic way).
The photographic purchase on the world, with its limitless production of notes on reality, makes everything homologous.
Sontag sees photography as reductive, instead of ADDING DIVERSITY of views.
Sontag doesn’t believe the power of photography to add new insights
The quote which riles me up:
By disclosing the thingness of human beings, the humanness of things, photography transforms reality into a tautology. When Cartier-Bresson goes to China, he shows that there are people in China, and that they are Chinese.
“Tautology”means to say the same thing twice, and is often seen as a fault of style. Therefore Sontag is saying that photography doesn’t transform reality in new and novel interesting ways. Sontag obviously doesn’t understand art, aesthetics, or photography if she critiques Cartier-Bresson as only showing the existence of people, who are also Chinese.
Sontag believes photography makes us emotionally disconnected
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.
The voice of a pessimist — that photography promotes emotional detachment.
CRITIQUE CHAPTER 5: Photographic Evangels
I get the sense that the reason Sontag wrote was to simply show off how smart and knowledgeable she was, instead of trying to promote something of practical or positive utility about photography and art.
Sontag sees subjects as victims
Arbus’s work has made it easier to appreciate the greatness of the work of Hine, another photographer devoted to portraying the opaque dignity of victims.
Sontag doesn’t believe photography is art!!!
After reading this from Sontag, you can stop reading any of Sontag:
Although photography generates works that can be called art—it requires subjectivity, it can lie, it gives aesthetic pleasure—photography is not, to begin with, an art form at all. Like language, it is a medium in which works of art (among other things) are made. Out of language, one can make scientific discourse, bureaucratic memoranda, love letters, grocery lists, and Balzac’s Paris. Out of photography, one can make passport pictures, weather photographs, pornographic pictures, X-rays, wedding pictures, and Atget’s Paris.
Sontag continues to disparage photography, seeing it as lesser than painting and poetry:
Photography is not an art like, say, painting and poetry. Although the activities of some photographers conform to the traditional notion of a fine art, the activity of exceptionally talented individuals producing discrete objects that have value in themselves, from the beginning photography has also lent itself to that notion of art which says that art is obsolete. The power of photography—and its centrality in present aesthetic concerns—is that it confirms both ideas of art. But the way in which photography renders art obsolete is, in the long run, stronger.
Photography can only be a MEANS as an aid to other forms of art creation, not an end in itself.
Superseding the issue of whether photography is or is not an art is the fact that photography heralds (and creates) new ambitions for the arts. It is the prototype of the characteristic direction taken in our time by both the modernist high arts and the commercial arts: the transformation of arts into meta-arts or media. (Such developments as film, TV, video, the tape-based music of Cage, Stockhausen, and Steve Reich are logical extensions of the model established by photography.)
Sontag says photography isn’t an art, but can aid different forms of art.
In other words, she says that photography can always be a useful side-kick (like Robin), but photography can never become the hero (Batman).
CRITIQUE OF “The image world” (CHAPTER 6)
Sontag as overly simplistic towards “primitive” people:
As everyone knows, primitive people fear that the camera will rob them of some part of their being.
Who are these “ primitive people”?
Photography as alienating?
Photography, which has so many narcissistic uses, is also a powerful instrument for depersonalizing our relation to the world; and the two uses are complementary. Like a pair of binoculars with no right or wrong end, the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much farther away. It offers, in one easy, habit-forming activity, both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others—allowing us to participate, while confirming alienation.
Sontag is trying to get Karl Marx on us, invoking “alienation”. I see photography as the great bridge and connector of humanity! In my photos of Mexico City, I show the local people as “more similar to us than dissimilar”:
What is it?
Susan Sontag’s “ On Photography” as a strange chimera of mashed and mixed up approaches:
- Is it a philosophical text?
- Is it art criticism?
- Is it novel-literature name-dropping?
- Is it Sontags’s opinion, or a “history”of Photography?
Sontag attempts to moralize photography and art
Sontag is trying to warn us that photography is morally bad and evil. Has she no idea what art is? That art shouldn’t be moralized?
Sontag believes photography”cliches” reality.
The photographic recycling makes clichés out of unique objects, distinctive and vivid artifacts out of clichés. Images of real things are interlayered with images of images.
Making images as lust
Sontag moralizing photography — invoking “lust”:
The final reason for the need to photograph everything lies in the very logic of consumption itself. To consume means to burn, to use up—and, therefore, to need to be replenished. As we make images and consume them, we need still more images; and still more. But images are not a treasure for which the world must be ransacked; they are precisely what is at hand wherever the eye falls. The possession of a camera can inspire something akin to lust. And like all credible forms of lust, it cannot be satisfied: first, because the possibilities of photography are infinite; and, second, because the project is finally self-devouring. The attempts by photographers to bolster up a depleted sense of reality contribute to the depletion.
Lust is bad, photography is lustful, and also bad.
Sontag also identifies herself as being a bandwagoner of Plato (trying to give herself more intellectual legitimacy by invoking Plato). I always am very suspicious when any scholar quotes Plato as a form of “intelligence signaling”:
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.
What On Photography is useful for
Good for the photography quotes. That’s pretty much it.
Do not assign “On Photography”
I encourage all teachers, instructors, and visual artists to NEVER assign “On Photography” as a required reading, unless it is to show what an effective “anti photography” essay looks like.
Thou shalt not quote Susan Sontag on any matters relating to photography in a serious manner.
Only read critiques on the art of photography by actual photographers who love the art form.
No more Sontag name dropping.