On Photography

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One of the pleasures of getting older is re-reading books that were inspirational to you when you were younger. Only now I find that I’m more ornery, less likely to be dazzled by Sontag’s philosophical meanderings and highfalutin $5 words (“agon”? Just say “conflict” already). I was curious to see how Sontag’s 1977 collection of essays holds up in the context of today’s hyper-photographed world. Could she have imagined a world wherein we all have computers that take high-resolution photos in our pocket and the inherent pressure to feed content into the hungry maw of social media?

The essay most relevant to today’s disturbing phenomenon is In Plato’s Cave, mentioning the first use of photos as surveillance tools by Parisian cops in 1871, and saying that photography “has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.” She notes that photography is a “defense against anxiety” and delves into the problem of tourists, “photographs will offer indisputable evidence… that fun was had.” Contrasting Mallarm√©’s assertion that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book, Sontag concludes that “today everything exists to end in a photograph.”

This essay made me wonder how much influence Sontag’s thinking had on Liebovitz’s recent display of photos, Women: New Portraits, at the Presidio. In this abandoned warehouse, I was surprised to see only a few prints hung on a cluster of walls, with generous seating for people to flop in and watch a slideshow of images float by on huge screens. The tyranny of the digital, the need to always take advantage of the latest technology? Sontag suggests that books aren’t the best way to present photos because the sequence is proposed by the order of pages but “nothing holds readers to the recommended order or indicates the amount of time to be spent on each photograph.” Enter the video slideshow, which in my mind provides a terrible experience for the viewer, jerked from photo to photo at the whim of the projection, unable to gawk and focus and ogle any particular one in the mix.

America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly is the 2nd essay, touching on Whitman, Stieglitz, but mostly about Diane Arbus (who I did not realize committed suicide… “the fact of her suicide seems to guarantee that her work is sincere, not voyeuristic, that it is compassionate, not cold.”).

Melancholy Objects tries to settle the age-old question of whether or not photography is art, comparing it to painting, poetry. Here we have more tourists: “Faced with the awesome spread and alienness of a newly settled continent, people wielded cameras as a way of taking possession of the places they visited. Kodak put signs at the entrance of many towns listing what to photograph. Signs marked the places in national parks where visitors should stand with their cameras.”¬† How much do we change the meaning and reality of a photograph by focusing only on capturing what it is that we want to see? Beautifying poverty, making ugly and weird seem photogenic.

The Heroism of Vision delves deeper into the investigation about whether photos lie, and the impact of the words paired with the photo. As Godard and Gorin point out, photos talk “through the mouth of the text written beneath it.” Captions highly influence our perception of what we are viewing. We are also distanced by the subject at the same time we are brought close to it. “The aestheticizing tendency of photography is such that the medium which conveys distress ends by neutralizing it.”

Photographic Evangels puts photographers on the defensive, “Like other steadily aggrandizing enterprises, photography has inspired its leading practitioners with a need to explain, again and again, what they are doing and why it is valuable.” Because it is so easy to take photos, the professionals insist that they have magic in their hands, that it is not an accident that they take great pictures. And yet, “most photographers have always had–with good reason–an almost superstitious confidence in the lucky accident.” Sontag asserts that there is virtually zero discernible difference in photos made by these professionals. “Many of the published photographs by photography’s greatest names seem like work that could have been done by another gifted professional of their period.” What about museums? “Photograph’s adoption by the museum only accelerates that process which time will bring about anyway: making all work valuable.”

The last essay, The Image-World, circles back to the original ideas in the first chapter, which made it more interesting to me than the somewhat irrelevant ranting about whether photos are lies or art. Reality is more and more like what cameras show us, people now insisting their experience of a violent event “seemed like a movie,” this being the best way to explain how real it felt. “To possess the world in the form of images is, precisely, to reexperience the unreality and remoteness of the real.”

A society becomes ‘modern’ when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images, when images that have extraordinary powers to determine our demands upon reality and are themselves coveted substitutes for firsthand experience become indispensable to the health of the economy, the stability of the polity, and the pursuit of private happiness.

She notes Melville’s Pierre’s snobbishness around the fact that photos are now available to the Everyman: “Besides, when every body has his portrait published, true distinction lies in not having yours published at all.”

Cameras “provide an instantly retroactive view of experience” thus further distancing ourselves from the reality of now. Photography offers “both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others–allowing us to participate, while confirming alienation.” People are disappointed by seeing the real thing in life when they have already seen the idealized image of the thing in a photo. We’re also vulnerable to disturbing events shown via photos that we’re immune to when experiencing them in real life. “That vulnerability is part of the distinctive passivity of someone who is a spectator twice over, spectator of events already shaped, first by the participants and second by the image maker.

Sontag notes that cameras have begun to offer “self-surveillance,” something absolutely true in today’s age where anyone on Facebook is essentially a narc.

A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivize reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the works o f an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by a change in images. The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself The narrowing of free political choice to free economic consumption requires the unlimited production and consumption of images.