On Photography by Susan Sontag Review

I recently took a class about the photography of Deana Lawson. Her photographs opened a realm of new possibilities for me in thinking about the role, impact, and pure enjoyment of art. We’d sit in our two-hour class sessions meditating and riffing on one photograph the entire time—thinking about details of placement and pose or the more cosmic meaning of the representation.In an effort to understand why I was so enrapt by this medium in this context, I decided to read this collection of essays.Photographs are so omnipresent and interwoven into the tapestry of modern life that it seems nearly impossible to try to isolate their influence but Susan Sontag does just that in On Photography. She continues the visual media philosophical-critique from Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” with this book and it reads as a more comprehensible but equally mind-blowing companion to Benjamin’s essay. Sontag ‘s six essays are full of pithy and quotable lines. The proximal succession of these quotes serves as these essays’ structural vertebrae as they discursively wind along. However, I did have difficulty holding up all of the interpretations Sontag gave of photographs.She describes photographs as a way of

  • imprisoning reality,
  • replacing memory
  • depersonalizing our world
  • desarcralizing the sacred
  • confirming our alienation to atrocities
  • causing an insatiable hunger for consumption
  • converting the world into a department store or a museum without walls
  • annihilating moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photograper from any responsibility toward the people photographed
  • certifying experience and refusing it by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic
  • etc.

She compares photographs to cars—and guns—and paintings and the amount of metaphors and definitions starts to repitively pile up to the point of exhaustion.My favorite essay though, is \”America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly.\” She examines the influence of Walt Whitman\’s \”euphoric humanism\” on different generations of photographers, who \”moved from affirmation to erosion to, finally, a parody of Whiteman\’s program,\” starting with Alfred Stiglitz and then focusing on Diane Arbus. Sontag\’s rigid interpretations of Arbus\’ work comes off as snobby and limiting sometimes but I appreciated how she put these artists from poetry and photography in conversation.

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