Friday, January 18, 2019

Susan Sontag 'On Photography'

The book 'On Photography' published in the 1977 - a selection of Sontag's essays on the topic of visual representation of our lives by the medium. This has been an acclaimed table-book for anyone within the field, and those who are curious about how all the fuss around the 'patronizing images' had started. Divide into 6, not quite logically connected chapters, the reading is quite dense and if flooded by multiple examples from the media sphere, art history, cultural references, both contemporary and really old ones. However, it is quite difficult not to grasp the most significant idea behind all these: Sontag sees images as dominant substance of contemporary (meant 70's) society, that can distort our perception of reality and limit our ability to live our lives fully. The idea pumps up here and there in the text and ends up as a full, independent chapter 'Image World' as if summarizing all the previous journey through the history of photography.  

The first chapter is more like a general overview of the nature of photography. After drawing a parallel between Allegory the Cave and photography,  Sontag annotates what she will be talking about further, points out the most important issues. Her primary claim is that due to photography, we live in a constant voyeuristic relation to the world; we look around not with a purpose to understand, but with a purpose to fix the moment, look from the viewpoint from behind the camera. The consequence of that is lessening the realness of the moment, making it only seem significant, when, actually, it only tends to lose it's significance. Photography replaces experiences and makes us addicted to the idea of confirmation of reality and turns people into image-junkies with a constant desire to consume and produce images. 

In the second Chapter 'America seen through photographs, darkly', the author introduces the philosophical approaches that stood behind photography at the beginning. The idea of photography as a means of equalization had failed, which is explained on the example of Diana Arbuse's anthology of freaks and marginals presented at the exhibition in 1972. Sontag comes up with an explanation of freedom that photography can provide:photographer is a visitor, interested only in the unknown parts of someones'life, driven by curiosity and search for sensation. Because of that, it has a power to 'normalize', make us look at what we could not look at before. Looking at freaks not with compassion, but with 'stiffness and naivety'. 

In the next two sections 'Melancholy objects' and 'The heroism of vision' , the author discusses different characteristics of photography. Firstly, she introduces it as a Surreal art form by it's nature. Secondly, claims photographs are consumable artifacts and an embodiment of melancholic mood of American society - the moaning over something vanishing, or what has already vanished.  Thirdly, she introduces the concept of 'photographic seeing' and how the notions of beauty had been altered with popularization of photography:'The photographer's aim became the idealization of everyday life through the way of  seeing that only a camera can produce'. Consequently, the discussion moves on in the direction of photography as a tool of consumerism, that transforms subjects into objects of cultural consumption. 

The chapter 'Photographic Evangels' is more like a general educational article with an active discussion about what place is taken by photography in terms of science and art. It explains why  it is so hard to judge and categorize photograph, why the photography critique is such a slippery road and thus, why there can be not good or bad photographs. Sontag considered the amount of the individuality of the photographer that can be acceptable and the role of museums liberate attitude towards the selection of displayed photographs. 

Finally, the last chapter 'Image world', is a walk around the idea of images that are concurring and ruling our reality. The author tells about the ways of how photographs perform acquisition of reality on different levels and make it controllable. The notions of images and reality became complimentary and photographs can easily become a means of compensation of experiences and emotional substitution. Photographs can establish an illusion of participant, whereas mostly cause detachment and alienation. Sontag touches upon the topic of how different ideologies treat photography, contrasts Eastern reserved and straightforward approach and Western overwhelming and consumption-oriented approach to images. Finally she comes to conclusion that photography is a capitalistic phenomenon, a tool of mass-influence and unlimited resource. Sontag offers to approach images in a similar way that we approach other products: establish ecological habits and consume with consciousness. Because, currently, as she put it, 'it's not enough to change the world, but also to change images'.

To conclude, I would like to mention the objectiveness and theoretical approach of Sontag to the matter. She mostly excludes the existence of the viewpoint of the audience, provides an almost hard data on the issue. Even though the book is about photography, there is no single image in there to support her examples. That demonstrates that the author was interested in the photography as in the phenomenon as a whole, not in a photograph as something material. 'On Photography' is a helpful book for understanding the of some contemporary social processes and revisit the roots of our image-craze.   

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