On Photography by Susan Sontag
Updated: Apr 8, 2019
The six essays Sontag collected and published under the title On Photography, were first written for the New York Review of Books, appearing there between 1973 and 1977; as she writes, “one generated another. And that one another…”. One of Sontag’s through themes in On Photography, is the democratization of photography and how its omnipresence has been affected by this phenomenon. Sontag saw this expansion as a good thing because she sees a power in photography to capture the past, elevate the mundane to importance, and gives us the belief that the photograph is a document of evidence. So, for Sontag, photography’s chief importance is to document what is, because it serves as a historical record. This becomes one of the most important conclusions of her essays in this book.
A lot has changed in the process and practice of photography since the 1970s, not the least has been the diminishment of darkroom craft, the proliferation of digital photography and the ubiquitous presence and use of the I-phone camera. In the 1970s however, there were no mobile telephones that fit in your pocket, let alone with a camera built in. Telephone handsets were just becoming mobile, there had to be a hard-wired base for the telephone somewhere for it to work, further the range was just a few feet from the base. Cameras were totally separate machines, with no connection to the telephone at all. George Eastman in 1888, through the Kodak company, dreamed of making photography accessible to everyone and thus was the originator of Sontag’s declaration of the democratization of photography. Eastman created the first commercially successful popular camera for personal use with his Kodak Black camera. The Kodak Black camera was preloaded with roll film and could take 100 frames. Once the film had been exposed, the entire camera would be sent to the Kodak laboratory for processing. By 1889, Eastman began offering roll film stock and cameras that could be loaded at home with just the film returned for processing. This ability for the user to change the film proved the catalyst for the beginning of the American obsession with taking pictures.
The drive to popularize photography and make it accessible to the masses since Eastman’s invention of roll film, has been to address the complaints the populace had about photography and its perceived complicated processes: exposure settings, focusing, lighting, film loading and developing the film. By the 1970s, ninety years after the invention of roll film, cameras had progressed to Instamatic point and shoot cameras with drop in film cartridges and portable lighting available when needed via attached flash cubes. These simple cameras addressed all of the consumers complaints about photography except processing the film. Then at the same time, in conjunction with this new ease of taking pictures, a company named Fotomat began dotting the American landscape with their small blue and yellow kiosks and filled this demand with convenient and inexpensive photo developing.
Concurrently, Polaroid cameras offering instant print developing also became widely popular in the 1970s. Polaroid had been perfecting instant developing film since the 1940s, but it was clumsy and expensive. By 1965, Polaroid introduced the Swinger, which was a cheap ($19.95) alternative. Its gimmick was to tell the user when the correct exposure for an image was correct by showing “yes” or “no” in the view finder prior to pushing the shutter. Marketed to youth who were being groomed to instant gratification, it became a sensation. Then in 1972, Polaroid came out with the SX-70 instant camera that offered a larger format image that was color and instant developing, and this for the most part eclipsed all other cameras and processes. What kept the other non-instant cameras from becoming obsolete altogether, was the fact that instant photographs could not be duplicated easily.
However, these ease of use cameras and the subsequent pervasiveness of the photographic image diminished the world into banality and repetition, “the general furniture of the environment” as Sontag describes it. Not only were photographs everywhere, now everyone could take them. But without the modern systems of the internet or social media, distribution of images was still limited to books and printed media - her essays do not consider television or film as photography, only still images. For her “the book has been the most influential way of arranging photographs, thereby guaranteeing them longevity, if not immortality … and a wider public.” She does not discuss magazine or advertising in her assessment of photography, nor these commercial uses of the medium on the influence of psyches and pocketbooks of the people. On Photography focuses on photography’s development as a popular medium of expression and the growth of it as a profession.
Photography was invented by scientists and amateur tinkerers who were trying to devise a permanent way to fix the images created by the camera obscura and other optical instruments which had been known for centuries. It was a solution to a science problem, that as it was refined was discovered to have commercial appeal. Photography was never developed as an art medium. The first photographs were artless celebrations of what magic the camera could achieve. These deadpan images of landscapes, people, sculpture, and architecture delighted the public with their life-like realism. “The pencil of nature,” said Henry Fox Talbot one of the early tinkerers, offering the idea that photography was about copying nature, not interpreting the world. Says Sontag, “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.” What Sontag seems to be inferring here, is that photography was artful, like a craft, a skill that could be learned. It had no pretensions rising above a certain skill set into the heady ideas of fine art. It was quickly commercialized, and mass produced, then offered to the people as a diversion and a way to preserve a souvenir of the past. However, it did not take long for artists to see the potential of self-expression or for photography to be used as a tool to assist their painting. Still, the first photographers did not consider themselves artists – despite the labels we may give them now. Throughout these essays, Sontag talks against photography as art. She pursues her idea of photography as democratic and continues the affectation to include that no special skill is needed to use a camera and no special training is needed to compose a photograph. She considers that the process of painting inferior because it is slow and tedious resulting in few images in an artist’s lifetime, while photography is superior since it is quick and can produce hundreds of images in little time. Sontag seems to believe that somehow in art, quantity equals quality and photography should concentrate on documentation.
The dichotomy of documentation versus art in the practice of photography has been a long standing argument. Sontag address this schism in the fifth essay in On Photography, “Photographic Evangels.” She discusses the argument by citing photographers like Berenice Abbott, Eugene Atget, and Robert Frank, who insist that they are not artists, but presenters of the reality of the world, calling their work “realism.” She also gives time to photographers who do consider themselves artists: Alfred Steiglitz, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams. They advocated for a more nuanced and contemplative way of image making, more akin to painting where there is an idea that the media gives form to. She discusses two museum shows featuring photography, which in different ways sealed photography as an art form in the public’s mind. The Family of Man exhibition was a celebration of the positive power of photography to uplift, connect and enlighten. But the second exhibition of Diane Arbus photographs, was an expose´ of voyeurism and showed photography as capable of darkness and of showing the vulgar. Each exhibition in their opposite ways, demonstrated photography as a means of expression, and Arbus more than The Family of Man, a personal way to communicate a vision, since it seemed that Arbus could apply her personal taste for the lurid into all of her images. In the end, after discussing both sides, Sontag tells us this, “Although photography generates works that can be called art – it requires subjectivity, it can lie, it gives aesthetic pleasure – photography is not to begin with, not an art form at all.” She goes on to explain further that fine art is elitist – a single work produced by an individual. Photography is democratic, it weakens the role of the specialized producer.
I was surprised at these statements. Sontag, in the face of her own contrary evidence, still clings to her idea of photography as not art. Many artists today and at the time of these essays, including myself use photography in their work. In her own essay, Sontag identifies those photographers who are artists. How can Sontag make statements that are so blatantly troubling? Throughout the six essays of this book, Sontag is continually contradicting herself, often arguing for an idea, then against it a few paragraphs later. This makes for schizophrenic reading. But, as I explained earlier, photography was fast becoming a popular hobby at the time of her writing. The marketing of photography was focused on equipment and it proposed the notion that the better your equipment, the better your images would be. Some painters adopted a photorealist style which came to a brief prominence during this time, as if to legitimize and elevate the photographic image to the fine art. Hobbyist photographers however went for the shinier, fancier equipment that promised better results rather than to learn the heady ideas of fine art.
Since Eastman showed us with his simple to use cameras in the 1880s, photography was not only possible with the press of a button, it needed no special education to “master” it. Because of this there is the cultural belief that photography is something anyone can do. The person behind the camera is generally believed not to make a difference and that photographs have no author. Many photography magazines often published all of the information needed for anyone interested in recreating the image featured as if this is all the information needed to achieve the same results. Photography was marketed to consumers as part science and part craft, not art, and available to anyone given the correct equipment and settings. Sontag spend much of the On Photography expounding on this mindset. Even so, she admits that certain individuals did make better photographs than others. She explains this is more to their seeking out particular subject matter more than anything else. She singles out Diane Arbus (Sontag is particularly interested in Arbus. She devotes one entire essay to her), with her fringe characters; Clarence John Laughlin southern gothic; and Charles Van Schaick, who documented the citizens Black River Falls, Wisconsin between 1885 and 1900. Schaick was brought to the attention of the public through the publication of the controversial book Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy, who edited the Schaick oeuvre to give the impression that 19th century life in a frontier town was psychologically difficult and peopled with gothic characters.
Not all of the information in the essays of On Photography is erroneous or confusing. Sontag shows insight in discussing the global preoccupation of taking pictures. She understands the voyeuristic impulse inherent in making and viewing photographs. She is conversant with the major photographers that were important at the time of her writing and shows a knowledge of the history and development of photography. She is prescient with the schism that was happening between photography and art in the 1970s. It may have been better if she had taken the time to understand more of general art history, and photography’s place in its development. Having a greater grasp and more insightful knowledge of the various painting movements she cites would have given her responses and declarations more depth. Instead she dismisses a major movement like Surrealist painting with, “Surrealism in painting amounted to little more than the contents of a meagerly stocked dream world: a few witty fantasies, mostly wet dreams and agoraphobic nightmares.” Aside from being eminently quotable, this statement shows little insight into the way Surrealism affected Western art as it grappled with the dark ideas that Poe and Freud opened the door on.
From 1847 to 1857, Charles Baudelaire was engaged in translating the works of Edgar Allen Poe into French. Making Poe available to the French, would have a lasting effect on European culture. The Poe stories influence the young Odilon Redon, who produced his noirs lithographs in the 1870s in reaction to them. Both Baudelaire and Redon, as well as many other artists of the late 19th century became part of the Symbolist movement who were attempting to portray states of mind, rather that objective reality taking a first step toward Surrealism. Redon would reject the Symbolist movement by 1899, but the Symbolists influenced the DADA movement of art. DADAists coming after Impressionism and the Fauves, became the avant garde in art. They decided that art should have no rules and it should be artists who decided what art was. DADA was a period of spontaneity and anarchy in art. But this open freedom of expression, soon became tiring for some painters who longed for some discipline. DADA like the name, was becoming meaningless. Those artists went searching for something else. The recent Freudian theories of psychology, dream analysis, free association and the unconscious mind were taken up by artists as the new movement. After World War I, the writer Apollinaire coined the term Surrealism and the new movement had a name. Surrealism was not only a return to naturalistic style of painting, to better describe the vivid dream imagery, it encompassed all media. Within the visual arts, it incorporated collage, assemblage, automatic drawing and a wide range of visual media to form a deep and rich iconography and expression. If Sontag now finds that photography is a better medium for exploring the concepts of Surrealism, it is because of her limited view on what Surrealism was and the rich territory that it wanted to embrace.
On Photography can be contradictory in its conclusions and erroneous in its commentary. It is not a book to explore the history of art, nor even the history of photography, although there is some of that. On Photography is a book that is best read as one person’s opinionated interest in a visual medium. Some of it is short sighted in its understanding of the larger picture of popular visual art and a lot of its ideas are now dated. Still, it was ground breaking when it was written, because it was one of the first scholarly examinations of photography criticism to be published.
© 2019 Arthur Bruso