Blog #22 On Photography
On Photography was a book compiled in 1977 from a collection of essays that were written between 1973 and 1977 by Susan Sontag. The book was chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the top 20 books of the year. Susan Sontag is nothing short of a scholar on the subject of photography. She recants the history of the medium from its humble beginnings in 1839 France through the modern day. She eloquently compares and contrasts photography with painting, and discusses in great detail, the definition, impact, and effects of photography on the photographer, the field, and society. Sontag relates photography to philosophy and makes a thorough commentary on its impact on the world over the almost 150 years that had spanned its existence at the time that she wrote her piece.
What Sontag does not do is debate the medium’s impact on art or challenge the contention that photography is, indeed, an art form. “Aesthetic distance seems built into the very experience of looking at photographs, if not right away, then certainly with the passage of time. Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art” (Sontag, 1977, p.21).
There are several references to the old masters such as Mathew Brady, Nadar, Weston, Brandt, Arbus, and the great Cartier-Bresson, to name a few. She discusses in detail each of their contributions to the medium and how their styles or approach to making pictures helped to shape the medium as an art form. It is not only what she writes about regarding the old icons of photography, but it is the way she writes about them. There is a familiar tone that she uses to describe them almost like they were her old friends.
Sontag writes very philosophically and profoundly about the subject of photography and the impact that photography has had on society. “Mallarmé, said that everything the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” she writes (p. 24). This statement is truer today than when it was written in 1977. There are many other parallels to today’s world that can be made throughout the book. References are made to world-travellers sharing images that far surpass those subjects that could be represented in traditional paintings. The camera helped to develop a new way of seeing. Photographs created interest by displaying the new visual decisions made by the artist photographer. She describes formal treatment of photography and she perfectly describes photography as the bridge between art and science.
On the subject of our collective conscience about photographs, she defines the very subject of humanity. “It is a quality things have in common when they are viewed as photographs” (p. 111). All things in the world can be made into art, or at least more interesting when viewed through the lens of a camera. Some make images just to see how the world looks as a photograph.
Sontag takes a deep dive into the topic of photography. The book is historical, profound, and takes a perspective and stance that is strikingly as current and relevant today as it was when it was typed four decades ago. For the hobbyist, amateur, or professional photographer, On Photography is a must read.