Paul Greenfield MFA, ARPS

On Photography - Susan Sontag

From Waterstones:

Susan Sontag's groundbreaking critique of photography asks forceful questions about the moral and aesthetic issues surrounding this art form. Photographs are everywhere, and the 'insatiability of the photographing eye' has profoundly altered our relationship with the world. Photographs have the power to shock, idealize or seduce, they create a sense of nostalgia and act as a memorial, and they can be used as evidence against us or to identify us. In these six incisive essays, Sontag examines the ways in which we use these omnipresent images to manufacture a sense of reality and authority in our lives.

'Sontag offers enough food for thought to satisfy the most intellectual of appetites'The Times

'A brilliant analysis of the profound changes photographic images have made in our way of looking at the world, and at ourselves'Washington Post

'The most original and illuminating study of the subject'New Yorker

Susan Sontag – On Photography – summary

Throughout history reality has been related through images and philosophers such as Plato have made efforts to diminish our reliance on representations by pointing at a direct ways to grasp the real. 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. our attitude towards photographs is still fetishistic, still voodoo like.
A typical nowadays statement is that an experience was "like in a movie", which is said when other forms of description fail to convey how real a sensation was. While many people in developing countries are still hesitant about being photographed, people in industrialized countries are more than happy to stand in front of a camera and that is because, Sontag argues, that being photographed gives us a sense of being real and of existing.

Photography is a means for capturing reality (which is considered unobtainable) by freezing it. You cannot hold reality but you can hold a photograph. photography in not only a way of preserving the past but also a way of handling the present., with photographic images becoming more and more widespread in modern times.

Photography also means that we can see something before we experience it, and that takes away from the virginity and openness of the way we experience reality. reality, in other words, is photographed before it is experienced.

Photography, Susan Sontag holds, is not a mere copy of reality but rather a recycled copy. We consume photographs at an ever increasing rate and they are therefore consumed and need to be replaced. Meaning, the more we take photographs the more we need to take photographs, and this accounts for what is known today as the "pictorial turn".

Susan Sontag: On Photography: In Plato's cave – summary

Humanity, argues Susan Sontag in "In Plato's Cave" in her collection of essays "On Photography", is still in Plato's cave. Photography changes are conditions of imprisonment and create a kind of "ethics of vision" and the feeling that we can contain the whole world in our heads.

Collecting photographs, Sontag Argues, is in a sense collecting to world. Photographs are artifacts which create and condense the environment that we perceive to be modern. She argues that photographing something is gaining ownership of it and creating a kind of, knowledge-like, relation to the world. Photography creates a miniature representation of parts (always just parts) of the visible world that anyone can obtain as his own. Photographs are a kind of proof, a testimony, and for this reason they are so important for bureaucracy and are an instrument of control with the capacity to convict and equate.

But Photography for Sontag is always an interpretation of the world and this interpretation, be it on the side of the photographer or the person viewing the photograph, is always ruled by conventions, ideology and the zeitgeist. Photographers always, inevitably, impose their own preferences on their product merely by choosing where they point their camera and how they point it.

Sontag says the man has developed dependence on photography for the sake of the mere ability to experience something that has meaning. By converting the experience into an image photography gives shape, and time, to the transient experience. In other words, we need the camera in order to realize and substantiate our experiences.

A photograph is an event which lingers to, in principle, eternity. It is a way of participating in an event without being a part of it. Sontag sees the camera and a kind of sublimated weapon, and the act of photographing as symbolic shooting, or even raping. Sontag compare photography with rape because in photography we see people in a manner unavailable to themselves and we gain knowledge of them which can never be theirs, and thus photography reifies people into objects which can be subjected to symbolic ownership.

Photography for Sontag is also a form of nostalgia, an attempt to connect with a passing reality and to gain custody of it. Photography grant meaning to the moment, and as Sontag argues, a photographed moment is a privileged moment which was chosen for cultural reasons. Photography turns a moment into an event, because an event is something that is worth photographing, but it ideology which decides what's worth the film.
But though photography capture a moment and gives it meaning, its power is not constant. Repetition of images, be it horror or pornography, takes the edge off their affective capacities and the event becomes less real.

In concluding "In Plato's Cave" Sontag notes how photography separates history into unrelated fractures, a collection of anecdotes. But we are now all addicted to approving and ratifying reality through photography. Today, everything exists in order to be photographed (see also Guy Debord's "Society of the Spectacle")

Susan Sontag – On Photography – "America, Seen through Photographs Darkly" – summary (on Diane Arbus)

In the essay "America, Seen through Photographs Darkly" in her "On Photography" Susan Sontag inspects visions of America through the eyes of photographers and especially Diane Arbus.

She starts off with the vision of Walt Whitman who rejected the distinction between beautiful and ugly for a cause of seeing America united in perception. In the first decades of photography photographs were expected to idealize images, and a beautiful picture was thought to be a picture of something beautiful. But as photography developed more and more artistic interest was directed to the less-glorified, banal and casual aspects of American life, the realization Whitman's vision.

Sontag holds that to take a picture is to assign importance. But this importance varies in culture and history, from the pursuit of "worthy" subjects to the Andy Warhol stance of "anybody is somebody". For Sontag Alfred Stieglitz was such an affirmator of life with his wish the redeem the banal and the vulgar as a means of expression. Stieglitz wished to transcend differences between human being and show humanity in the totality of its beauty.

The work of Diane Arbus, for Sontag, was far different from what Whitman envisioned and Stieglitz attempted to realize. Her treatment of the marginal spheres of society does not invite people the identify with the "freaks" she displays, and in that humanity is no longer "one". While the Whitman heritage strove for a universalization of the human condition, Arbus fractured this unity into isolated fragments of anxiety.
For Sontag, Arbus looked for the other world which is, obviously, situated though often invisible inside this world. Arbus photographed the "miserable consciousness" of marginal people who submitted themselves willingly to her camera. She offered, Sontag holds, the enjoyment of high-art's overcoming disgust. This is for Sontag a trend of high art in capitalist counties, the suppression of over-selectiveness in matters of morals and aesthetics. The thrill of observing Arbus's work is the success of observing them without impedance. It's about not avoiding what is considered low. As Sontag puts it, Arbus's interest in the weird and marginal was a will to "rape" her own innocence by bringing in the marginal into the center of the frame. For Sontag, Arbus's work is a reaction against manners and bourgeois good taste, and it is a rebellion against boredom.

Susan Sontag – On Photography – The Heroism of Vision (photographic seeing) – Summary and review

Susan Sontag's "The Heroism of Vision" ( is a discussion about the relation between beauty in truth and their development throughout the history of photography. Almost right from the beginning, Sontag holds, photography was all about discovering what is beautiful in the world, and it was so successful in this task that photography became the standard of what is beautiful. In other words, photography creates the beautiful to the point in which sunsets are banal because they look too much like a photograph.

But the camera also has a relation to truth, and towards the end of the 19th century it became apparent that the camera could lie, and at that point, Sontag argues, photography became even more popular. Photography has the capacity of forging reality for the sake of its own aesthetic needs. This, along with photography's technical advantage of easy use over painting, gave photographers permission to document everything and produced a new kind of vision, photographic seeing, that could reconcile the need for truth with the need for beauty. With photographic seeing, photography seized to merely document the world and has turned into a norm of how things appear, transforming our perception of reality and realism.

With the rise of photographic seeing the assumption the photographs provide an objective image gave way to the view that photography doesn't only document objects, but also the way a person sees these objects. Photography, in other words, is not just a report about the world, it is also an assessment of it. Photographic seeing meant the ability to find beauty in what everybody sees but ignores on account of being too ordinary. The photographer's aim became the idealization of everyday life through the way of seeing that only a camera can produce.

Sontag describes photography's early fascination with close-ups, holding that the beautiful became at one point simply everything unavailable to the naked eye and that photography was all about the new refreshing manner in which an object was presented. Thus photography changed vision but indorsing the idea of vision for the sake of vision.

For Sontag, one of photography's great successes was in its strategy of transforming living things into objects and objects into living things, the function of alienation and the ability to use the camera's claim for realism to see things in a new way.

Photographic seeing is for Sontag both intensive and cool, yearning and disengaged, but it has to maintain its shock element in order to stay relevant and continue its effect on vision before it becomes banal. This is what Sontag calls "the heroism of vision" – the camera's ability to transform reality into something beautiful which is the result of its weakness in telling the truth.

Susan Sontag - On Photography: Photographic evangels - Summary

In part 5 of "On Photography" – "Photographic Evangels" Susan Sontag Discusses the nature of the art of photography through various claims to the nature of essence of photography and aesthetic and moral views on photography.

At the opening of "Photographic Evangels" Sontag points to two foundational views on photography – that which sees photography as a sober, minded and knowledged action and that which views photography as an act of intuitive encounter with the world. The latter speaks of a certain state of mind involved with photography which leads to what Sontag calls "an epistemological paradox" in which photography is presented as a kind of "knowledge without knowledge". The former's take on photography is that the photographic image must pre-exist in the mind of the photographer, and that photography is hence a deliberate, crafted and self-aware action. These two views presented by Sontag, it should be noted, mandate different techniques of photography - one which spontaneously shot everything and one which requires prior planning.

Another issue treated by Sontag in "Photographic Evangels" is that of creativity in photography and photography as a means of self expression. Here Sontag discusses the gap between the notion of photography as expression and that of photography as a realist depiction of reality. Whether an individual subjective and creative practice or one which is true only to reality, Sontag notes that both takes on photography converge and the pre-assumption that photography is a unique method of discovery – a way to see reality in a way that in only possible through photography.

This brings Sontag's "Photographic Evangels" to the question of realism. Photography was often held as a realist medium, and Sontag defines photographic realism as claiming not to what there "really" is but rather to what I "really" see. The realist approach to photography as defined by Sontag stays true to the notion of photography as discovery, assuming the reality is hidden and can be revealed by photography. Photography takes on the function of estrangement, with Sontag arguing that this approach holds that representing something through photography is presenting something that is hidden. This, ironically, leads in Sontag's view to the formalist approach that fells that there must be a gap between reality and its representation in which art works. The imposition of form on the realistic, supposedly "transparent" medium of photography, is the way in which the realist vision on photography meats with its opposing theory.

For Sontag in "photographic Evangels", the subjective and objective views on photography converge in what taking a photograph is really all about. Photography depicts realities that are only discernable through photographs (which doesn't make them less of a reality). The camera is a medium for discovery, both self discovery and for discovering reality.

In "Photographic Evangels" Susan Sontag further discusses the notion widely held by the "photographic evangels", early photographers and theorists of photography, of photography as discovery, be it a realistic or formalistic discovery. Both variations deny photography as an aggressive act of exploitatively expropriating reality, objects and people. The subjective approach denies this aggressive nature of photography by emphasizing the kind a gentle gaze of the cameras while the objective realist approach stresses the abolition of the self in the depiction of reality through photography.

According to Sontag in "photographic Evangels", one result of these two ideals is the ambivalence towards means of photography. Many photographers gave up using more advanced photography equipment in order to "disarm" themselves in relation to reality and to preserve the expressional mode of photography that might be lost if photography was to become too accurate. This also leads to technological attempts to realize forsaken possibilities in the early development of photography.

Susan Sontag - On Photography: Photographic evangels - Summary - part 2
In trying to defend the aesthetic and moral value of photography, the "Photographic Evangels" discussed by Susan Sontag in chapter 5 of "On Photography" had to fight for photography's claim to the statues of fine art (as opposed to craft) in light of its dependency on mechanical equipment.
The initial claim posed by the "photographic evangels" was the photography wasn't a mechanical coping of reality but rather a new way of seeing it which matches the aesthetic value of painting. And after being established and acclaimed as an art form, nowadays photography and its current "evangels" can deny that what they are doing is an art. Now they fight of the modernist imposition of artistic nature on photography. For art to remain art, it must oppose what was up until now considered to be art.
But modern "photographic evangels", according to Sontag, still can't shake the artistic view on photography. Moreover, the dialogue with art and especially painting continues to influence the conception of photography (like the tendency towards black and white photography, which is both "artistic" and a break from painting).
According to Sontag, various discussions on photography have had to do with its relation to art and painting – how close can photography come to painting without losing its claim to being unlimited in scope and capacities of representation. But art, Sontag holds, also shelters photography from being a devouring, coping e

12 Most Important Quotes from Susan Sontag on Photography

Susan Sontag’s On Photography is one of the best studies of photography that you can find.

It delves into the idea of ‘transparency’, where photographers have eliminated the boundaries of art and are faced with the prospect of being free to capture.

Her book is a collection of six essays that explore photography in the deepest of manners. A commentary on how images shape our world and affect the societies we are part of.

Below, we have selected 12 quotes to inspire you and give a quick idea of what the book is about. There is a reason why this is a mandatory read for photography students.

12. “Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one—and can help build a nascent one.”

11. “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability… All photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”

10. “…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 that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”

9. “Photography is become one of the principle devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.”

8. “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.”

7. “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.”

6. “To collect photographs is to collect the world.”

5. “The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.”

4. “Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…One can’t possess reality, one can possess images–one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”

3. “Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation.”

2. “Photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is.”

1. “Photographs were seen as a way of giving information to people who do not take easily to reading.”

Bonus. “When Cartier-Bresson goes to China, he shows that there are people in China, and that they are Chinese.

Back to Top