FILMSCRIPTS. DUET FOR CANNIBALS. BROTHER CARL. ANCHOR BOOKS. DOUBLEDAY. New York London Toronto Sydney Auckland. A SUSAN SONT AG . Susan Sontag (–), engagé intellectual, essayist, playwright, novelist and film‐maker came to prominence in, and was herself a. Susan Hopp MFA Paper #2: Critical Theory March Response to Susan Sontag's On Photography “A Token of Absence” Preface: There is a lot of.
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Susan Sontag was born in New York City on January 16, To experience The RosettaBooks Connection for On Photography: www. ON PHOTOGRAPHY. Susan Sontag. Susan Sontag is an essayist and novelist. She has studied at Berkeley, Harvard, Ox ford, and the Sorbonne and considers. Susan Sontag To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It rneans putting srnooth obiect, a photograph loses much less of its essential.
This preview shows page 1 - 4 out of 11 pages. Subscribe to view the full document. But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images. For one thing, there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention. The inventory started in and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems.
Susan Sontag quotes Feuerbach in saying that our age prefers the photograph to the real thing, the appearance before experience. This argument, Sontag says, is widely accepted in modern culture which is constantly engaged with producing and consuming images to such a degree that photography has been made essential for the health of the economy and the stability of social structures.
Photography, according to Susan Sontag, holds an almost unlimited authority in modern society. Such photographic images are capable of replacing reality by virtue of being not only a mirror or interpretation of in, but also a relic of reality, something that is taken straight from it. Photography, unlike painting, does not only address and represent its object and does not only resemble it; it is also a part of the object, its direct extension. Photography, according to Sontag, is a form of acquisition in a number of ways.
When you photograph something, it becomes a part of certain knowledge system, adapted to schemas of classification and storage starting from family photographs up to police, political and scientific usage. Photography, in other words, is a form of supervision.
Primitive tribes are afraid that the camera will take their soul or something from their being. Modern societies do not of course share this fear by still views photography as directly related to the material world, a physical relic of it. What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings.
Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire. Photographs, which fiddle with the scale of the world, themselves get reduced, blown up, cropped, retouched, doctored, tricked out.
They age, plagued by the usual ills of paper objects; they disappear; they become valuable, and get bought and sold; they are reproduced. Photographs, which package the world, seem to invite packaging.
They are stuck in albums, framed and set on tables, tacked on walls, projected as slides. Newspapers and magazines feature them; cops alphabetize them; museums exhibit them; publishers compile them.
For many decades the book has been the most influential way of arranging and usually miniaturizing photographs, thereby guaranteeing them longevity, if not immortality photographs are fragile objects, easily torn or mislaid and a wider public.
The photograph in a book is, obviously, the image of an image. But since it is, to begin with, a printed, smooth object, a photograph loses much less of its essential quality when 12 On Photography 3 reproduced in a book than a painting does. Still, the book is not a wholly satisfactory scheme for putting groups of photographs into general circulation.
The sequence in which the photographs are to be looked at is proposed by the order of pages, but nothing holds readers to the recommended order or indicates the amount of time to be spent on each photograph. Chris Marker s film, Si j avais quatre dromadaires , a brilliantly orchestrated meditation on photographs of all sorts and themes, suggests a subtler and more rigorous way of packaging and enlarging still photographs. Both the order and the exact time for looking at each photograph are imposed; and there is a gain in visual legibility and emotional impact.
But photographs transcribed in a film cease to be collectable objects, as they still are when served up in books. Photographs furnish evidence.
Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we re shown a photograph of it. In one version of its utility, the camera record incriminates. Starting with their use by the Paris police in the murderous roundup of Communards in June , photographs became a useful tool of modern states in the surveillance and control of their increasingly mobile populations. In another version of its utility, the camera record justifies.
A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what s in the picture. Whatever the limitations through amateurism or pretensions through artistry of the individual photographer, a photograph any photograph seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects.
Virtuosi of the noble image like Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, composing mighty, unforgettable photographs decade after decade, still want, first of all, to show something out there, just like the Polaroid owner for whom photographs are a handy, fast form of note-taking, or the shutter-bug with a Brownie who takes snapshots as souvenirs of daily life.
While a painting or a prose description can never be other than 13 On Photography 4 a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency. 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. Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience.
The immensely gifted members of the Farm Security Administration photographic project of the late s among them Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film the precise expression on the subject s face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry.
In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.
Those occasions when the taking of photographs is relatively undiscriminating, promiscuous, or self-effacing do not lessen the didacticism of the whole enterprise. This very passivity and ubiquity of the photographic record is photography s message, its aggression.
Images which idealize like most fashion and animal photography are no less aggressive than work which makes a virtue of plainness like class pictures, still lifes of the bleaker sort, and mug shots. There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera. This is as evident in the s and s, photography s glorious first two decades, as in all the succeeding decades, during which technology made possible an ever increasing spread of that mentality which looks at the world as a set of potential photographs.
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. From its start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible 14 On Photography 5 number of subjects. Painting never had so imperial a scope. The subsequent industrialization of camera technology only carried out a promise inherent in photography from its very beginning: to democratize all experiences by translating them into images.
That age when taking photographs required a cumbersome and expensive contraption the toy of the clever, the wealthy, and the obsessed seems remote indeed from the era of sleek pocket cameras that invite anyone to take pictures. The first cameras, made in France and England in the early s, had only inventors and buffs to operate them.
Since there were then no professional photographers, there could not be amateurs either, and taking photographs had no clear social use; it was a gratuitous, that is, an artistic activity, though with few pretensions to being an art.
It was only with its industrialization that photography came into its own as art. As industrialization provided social uses for the operations of the photographer, so the reaction against these uses reinforced the self-consciousness of photography-as-art.
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. Memorializing the achievements of individuals considered as members of families as well as of other groups is the earliest popular use of photography. For at least a century, the wedding photograph has been as much a part of the ceremony as the prescribed verbal formulas.
Cameras go with family life. According to a sociological study done in France, most households have a camera, but a household with children is twice as likely to have at least one camera as a household in which there are no children. Not to take pictures of one s children, particularly when they are small, is a sign of parental indifference, just as not turning up for one s graduation picture is a gesture of adolescent rebellion.
Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness.
It hardly matters what activities are 15 On Photography 6 photographed so long as photographs get taken and are cherished. Photography becomes a rite of family life just when, in the industrializing countries of Europe and America, the very institution of the family starts undergoing radical surgery.
As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of a much larger family aggregate, photography came along to memorialize, to restate symbolically, the imperiled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life.
Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives. A family s photograph album is generally about the extended family and, often, is all that remains of it. As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure. Thus, photography develops in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism. For the first time in history, large numbers of people regularly travel out of their habitual environments for short periods of time.
It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had. Photographs document sequences of consumption carried on outside the view of family, friends, neighbors. But dependence on the camera, as the device that makes real what one is experiencing, doesn t fade when people travel more.
Taking photographs fills the same need for the cosmopolitans accumulating photograph-trophies of their boat trip up the Albert Nile or their fourteen days in China as it does for lower-middle-class vacationers taking snapshots of the Eiffel Tower or Niagara Falls.
A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel.
Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other 16 On Photography 7 responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic Germans, Japanese, and Americans.
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. People robbed of their past seem to make the most fervent picture takers, at home and abroad. Everyone who lives in an industrialized society is obliged gradually to give up the past, but in certain countries, such as the United States and Japan, the break with the past has been particularly traumatic.
In the early s, the fable of the brash American tourist of the s and s, 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.
Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation. One full-page ad shows a small group of people standing pressed together, peering out of the photograph, all but one looking stunned, excited, upset.
The one who wears a different expression holds a camera to his eye; he seems self-possessed, is almost smiling. While the others are passive, clearly alarmed spectators, having a camera has transformed one person into something active, a voyeur: only he has mastered the situation. What do these people see? We don t know. And it doesn t matter. It is an Event: something worth seeing and therefore worth photographing.
The ad copy, white letters across the dark lower third of the photograph like news coming over a teletype machine, consists of just six words: Prague Woodstock Vietnam Sapporo Londonderry LEICA. Crushed hopes, youth antics, colonial wars, and winter sports are alike are equalized by the camera. Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events. Our very sense of situation is now articulated by the camera s interventions.
The omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing. This, in turn, makes it easy to feel that any event, once underway, and whatever its moral character, should be allowed to complete itself so that something else can be brought into the world, the photograph. After the event has ended, the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality and importance it would never otherwise have enjoyed.
While real people are out there killing themselves or other real people, the photographer stays behind his or her camera, creating a tiny element of another world: the image-world that bids to outlast us all. Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention. Part of the horror of such memorable coups of contemporary photojournalism as the pictures of a Vietnamese bonze reaching for the gasoline can, of a Bengali guerrilla in the act of bayoneting a trussed-up collaborator, comes from the awareness of how plausible it has become, in situations where the photographer has the choice between a photograph and a life, to choose the photograph.
The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene. Dziga Vertov s great film, Man with a Movie Camera , gives the ideal image of the photographer as someone in perpetual movement, someone moving through a panorama of disparate events with such agility and speed that any intervention is out of the question.
Hitchcock s Rear Window gives the complementary image: the photographer played by James Stewart has an intensified relation to one event, through his camera, precisely because he has a broken leg and is confined to a wheelchair; being temporarily immobilized prevents him from acting on what he sees, and makes it even more important to take pictures. Even if incompatible with intervention in a physical sense, using a camera is still a form of participation.
Although the camera is an observation station, 18 On Photography 9 the act of photographing is more than passive observing. 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.
I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do that was one of my favorite things about it, Diane Arbus wrote, and when I first did it I felt very perverse. Being a professional photographer can be thought of as naughty, to use Arbus s pop word, if the photographer seeks out subjects considered to be disreputable, taboo, marginal. But naughty subjects are harder to find these days. And what exactly is the perverse aspect of picture-taking? If professional photographers often have sexual fantasies when they are behind the camera, perhaps the perversion lies in the fact that these fantasies are both plausible and so inappropriate.
In Blowup , Antonioni has the fashion photographer hovering convulsively over Veruschka s body with his camera clicking. Naughtiness, indeed! In fact, using a camera is not a very good way of getting at someone sexually.
Between photographer and subject, there has to be distance. The camera doesn t rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment. There is a much stronger sexual fantasy in Michael Powell s extraordinary movie Peeping Tom , which is not about a Peeping Tom but about a psychopath who kills women with a weapon concealed in his camera, while photographing them.
Not once does he touch his subjects. He doesn t desire their bodies; he wants their presence in the form of filmed images those showing them experiencing their own death which he screens at home for his solitary pleasure. The movie assumes connections between impotence and aggression, professionalized looking and 19 On Photography 10 cruelty, which point to the central fantasy connected with the camera. The camera as phallus is, at most, a flimsy variant of the inescapable metaphor that everyone unselfconsciously employs.
However hazy our awareness of this fantasy, it is named without subtlety whenever we talk about loading and aiming a camera, about shooting a film. The old-fashioned camera was clumsier and harder to reload than a brown Bess musket. The modern camera is trying to be a ray gun. Take beautiful pictures day or night.
Without any nonsense. Just aim, focus and shoot. The GT s computer brain and electronic shutter will do the rest. Like a car, a camera is sold as a predatory weapon one that s as automated as possible, ready to spring. Popular taste expects an easy, an invisible technology. Manufacturers reassure their customers that taking pictures demands no skill or expert knowledge, that the machine is all-knowing, and responds to the slightest pressure of the will. It s as simple as turning the ignition key or pulling the trigger.
Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive. However, despite the extravagances of ordinary language and advertising, they are not lethal.
In the hyperbole that markets cars like guns, there is at least this much truth: except in wartime, cars kill more people than guns do. 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. Eventually, people might learn to act out more of their 20 On Photography 11 aggressions with cameras and fewer with guns, with the price being an even more image-choked world.
One situation where people are switching from bullets to film is the photographic safari that is replacing the gun safari in East Africa. The hunters have Hasselblads instead of Winchesters; instead of looking through a telescopic sight to aim a rifle, they look through a viewfinder to frame a picture. In end-of-the-century London, Samuel Butler complained that there is a photographer in every bush, going about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.
The photographer is now charging real beasts, beleaguered and too rare to kill. Guns have metamorphosed into cameras in this earnest comedy, the ecology safari, because nature has ceased to be what it always had been what people needed protection from.
Now nature tamed, endangered, mortal needs to be protected from people. When we are afraid, we shoot. But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures.
It is a nostalgic time right now, and photographs actively promote nostalgia. Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos. An ugly or grotesque subject may be moving because it has been dignified by the attention of the photographer. A beautiful subject can be the object of rueful feelings, because it has aged or decayed or no longer exists.
All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person s or thing s mortality, vulnerability, mutability.
Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time s relentless melt. Cameras began duplicating the world at that moment when the human landscape started to undergo a vertiginous rate of change: while an untold number of forms of biological and social life are being destroyed in a brief span of time, a device is available to record what is disappearing. Like the dead relatives and friends preserved in the family album, whose presence in photographs exorcises some of the anxiety and remorse prompted by their disappearance, so the photographs of neighborhoods 21 On Photography 12 now torn down, rural places disfigured and made barren, supply our pocket relation to the past.
A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, photographs especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past are incitements to reverie.
The sense of the unattainable that can be evoked by photographs feeds directly into the erotic feelings of those for whom desirability is enhanced by distance. The lover s photograph hidden in a married woman s wallet, the poster photograph of a rock star tacked up over an adolescent s bed, the campaign-button image of a politician s face pinned on a voter s coat, the snapshots of a cabdriver s children clipped to the visor all such talismanic uses of photographs express a feeling both sentimental and implicitly magical: they are attempts to contact or lay claim to another reality.
Photographs can abet desire in the most direct, utilitarian way as when someone collects photographs of anonymous examples of the desirable as an aid to masturbation. The matter is more complex when photographs are used to stimulate the moral impulse. Desire has no history at least, it is experienced in each instance as all foreground, immediacy.
It is aroused by archetypes and is, in that sense, abstract. But moral feelings are embedded in history, whose personae are concrete, whose situations are always specific. Thus, almost opposite rules hold true for the use of the photograph to awaken desire and to awaken conscience.
The images that mobilize conscience are always linked to a given historical situation. The more general they are, the less likely they are to be effective. A photograph that brings news of some unsuspected zone of misery cannot make a dent in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and attitude. The photographs Mathew Brady and his colleagues took of the horrors of the battlefields did not make people any less keen to go on with the Civil War.
The photographs of ill-clad, skeletal prisoners held at Andersonville inflamed Northern public opinion against the South. The effect of the Andersonville photographs must have 22 On Photography 13 been partly due to the very novelty, at that time, of seeing photographs. The political understanding that many Americans came to in the s would allow them, looking at the photographs Dorothea Lange took of Nisei on the West Coast being transported to internment camps in , to recognize their subject for what it was a crime committed by the government against a large group of American citizens.
Few people who saw those photographs in the s could have had so unequivocal a reaction; the grounds for such a judgment were covered over by the pro-war consensus. Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one and can help build a nascent one. Photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow.
Television is a stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again. Photographs like the one that made the front page of most newspapers in the world in a naked South Vietnamese child just sprayed by American napalm, running down a highway toward the camera, her arms open, screaming with pain probably did more to increase the public revulsion against the war than a hundred hours of televised barbarities.
One would like to imagine that the American public would not have been so unanimous in its acquiescence to the Korean War if it had been confronted with photographic evidence of the devastation of Korea, an ecocide and genocide in some respects even more thorough than those inflicted on Vietnam a decade later.