Wednesday, April 8, 2009

On Photography by Susan Sontag

I read On Photography by Susan Sontag and wrote a book review for it.  In case you're looking for a good read, I highly suggest it.  Watch out, though, it's not exactly brain candy.  Here's my review:

The reason that humanism has become the reigning ideology of ambitious professional photographers – displacing formalist justifications of their question for beauty – is that it masks the confusions about truth and beauty underlying the photographic enterprise.   - Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag’s message throughout On Photography is that photography, above and beyond previous attempts from the traditional fine arts, has exposed the underbelly of our humanity by completely redefining how we visualize and experience the world. We are greedy voyeurs of the mundane, deformed, sordid, alluring, gorgeous and transcendent qualities of the human race; all aspects, good and bad, are rendered glorious and true through the camera lens. Although each essay is based on a different theme, this concept is artfully weaved throughout the text.

In the essay entitled “In Plato’s Cave,” Sontag describes photographs as cheap, ephemeral, dirty little things: they can be bought, sold, tacked up. Photography enlarges our field of view, allowing us to inventory the world in books and brains and raises the issue of what Sontag calls the “ethics of seeing.” To photograph something or someone is to appropriate it, which is a subtle act of aggression. I felt this myself as I took pictures of some travelers in the Detroit airport. I stole something from them that they didn’t have of themselves; some seemed nervous, a few angry, and all of them uncomfortable that I was “taking” a photograph of them (or another appropriate term in this context: “shooting” them). Sontag might have described this as a form of rape. A tad melodramatic, perhaps, but I get her point. I must admit that I probably felt just as uncomfortable as my subjects during our brief, anonymous union. The only thing that kept me from running in the other direction was that I had the luxury of hiding behind the camera.

Sontag compares two collections that both universalize the human condition in their own way: Family of Man and the work of Diane Arbus. The former is a collection of photographs from around the world curated by Edward Steichen that essentially boils down the entire human race into a joyful “one.” Arbus represents the polar opposite: by capturing the grotesque, awkward, and suffering side of humanity, she seeks to show that our commonality is found in our aloneness.

She spends quite a bit of time discussing Arbus’s work, and I initially found this irritating because she seems to focus on a “fashionably pessimistic” body of work (as she later describes Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip). Having never previously spent time viewing Arbus’s work, I paused to do so. Upon reflection, these images are far from pessimistic; these people are inspiring in that most of them seem perfectly content with their lot. I realize that Arbus’s circus freaks, kids in awkward contortions, and midgets form a collective representing that side of humanity brought forth uniquely through photography, hence the appropriateness of Sontag’s musings. I can imagine the softly lit images of new mothers nursing their babies in The Family of Man by Nell Dorr and Wayne Miller (accompanied by the caption “And shall not loveliness be loved forever?” Euripides) formed out of canvas and oil paint, but Arbus’s Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park would lose its rhetorical power in any other medium than photography.

I am intrigued that she thinks that Arbus is not asking the viewer for a compassionate response when looking at her photographs. If that is true – and if it is also true that these photographs represent aspects of Arbus herself – I wonder if it is an underlying pride and fierce courage that she rejects this compassion? I wonder this simply because this is what I want for her subjects when I view her portraits (either that or obliviousness to us). They are not desperate rejects of society that shudder under our scrutiny, and I feel so grateful that it does not seem to occur to them that they even need my compassion. Is this because I see myself in them as well?

Sontag broaches the relationship between subject matter and content as well as the notion of beauty in “Melancholy Objects” and “The Heroism of Vision.” She feels that surrealism triumphs in the realm of photography and that this movement (along with what she calls the “true modernism” of the new, ephemeral and junky) is the crushing blow to Walt Whitman’s dream of cultural renewal in the United States. Unlike the traditional fine arts, the key to a photograph’s subject matter isn’t always related to its content. In fact, photography subverts traditional content by finding truth and beauty in eyesores, trash, and the mundane. The physical artifact of a photograph itself satisfies the criteria she sets forth for a surrealist agenda: common and inexpensive. Less is more.

This historical lesson on surrealism is particularly enlightening to me. I am drawn to the beauty of subjects commonly portrayed in the traditional fine arts along with everyday artifacts brought to life through the camera. Although this is obviously not a distinctive or remarkable asset, I’ve noticed a rejection of traditional subject matter in photography and have sometimes viewed that trend as a bit tiresome when seemingly done for its own sake. It is gratifying to learn a bit about the movements that alter the ebb and flow of trends in the field of photography. In representing multiple facets of human nature, not all images need – or should – be traditionally beautiful, expertly rendered, and well placed as in a painting. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Sontag doesn’t consider photography to be an art form, comparing it to a medium like language “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, x-rays, wedding pictures, and Atget’s Paris.” Her statement intrigues not because I disagree with her (and I do), but because she entreats photographers to understand what they bring to the table. Do not photograph “meaningless” objects because others have done so; great photographers have their own vision and agenda behind their work. I think she’s saying that a photograph with no intent can easily be reduced to, say, a passport picture: a useful object with no artistic value. Conversely, a passport picture taken with intent has the potential to transcend its status as object.

Susan Sontag is a profoundly gifted writer. To borrow her favorite poor descriptor for photographs, her essays are “deceptively simple.” This is an incredibly rich text in that every word is chosen with care; extremely complex ideas backed up by a wide breadth of disciplines are delivered as concisely and meaningfully as possible. I walk away from the book confident that I grasp her main ideas, but later I get that I’ll need to read this again (and again?) to tease out the layers of issues she has presented to us. As a collection of timeless critical essays probably should do, she presents deeply provocative issues and lets her readers sort out for themselves what to take from and think about them.


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