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Susan Sontag, On Photography

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Christopher Brown

on 29 October 2014

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Transcript of Susan Sontag, On Photography

Susan Sontag


American Essayist, Novelist, Political Activist, Filmmaker

Themes: Photography, Art, Culture & Media, Illness, Communism


The Message
of the Medium...
"grandiose," "treacherous," "imperial," "voyeuristic," "predatory," "addictive," "reductive."

"Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire" (86).
The Disappearing
Art of Narrative
Leveling Distinctions
Photographs "turn the past into an object of tender regard, scrambling moral distinctions and disarming historical judgments by the generalized pathos of looking at time past" (71).
Susan Sontag,
On Photography

(1933-2004)
Doctoral studies at Harvard, Oxford & University of Paris
First appeared as a series of essays in T
he New York Review of Books
from 1973-1977.

Thesis: Photographs create a false reality, detaching us from our own.

The book "has been immensely influential on the thinking of other photography critics [and] in setting a certain tone for photography criticism"
-Susie Linfield,
The Cruel Radiance
(2010)


About the book...
Photography v. Writing/Painting
"As Brecht points out, a photograph of the Krupp works reveals virtually nothing about that organization . . . understanding is based on how [a thing] functions. And functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand" (18).







"The consequences of lying have to be more central for photography than they ever can for painting because . . . photographs make a claim to be true that paintings can never make" (86).
Photography as Consumerism
"Whatever the moral claims made on behalf of photography, its main effect is to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation" (110).
Photographers like Adam Clark Vroman "invaded the Indians' privacy, photographing holy objects and the sacred dances and places, if necessary paying the Indians to pose and getting them to revise their ceremonies and provide more photogenic material" (64).
Photography as Conquest
"One of the typical endeavors of portrait photographers, professionally protective toward famous faces (like Garbo's) which really are ideal, is the search for 'real' faces, generally sought among the anonymous, the poor, the socially defenseless, the aged, the insane--people indifferent to (or powerless to protest) the camera's aggressions" (104).
A New "Ethics of
Seeing"
Enabling Assumptions
Paul Strand, "Blind Woman" (1917)
Garbo in
Anna Christie
(1930)
Vroman, "Walpi snake priest in costume"
"I call [my] argument conservative because it is the sense of reality that is being eroded [by photographs]. There still is a reality that exists independent of the attempts to weaken its authority. The argument is in fact a defense of reality and the imperiled standards for responding more fully to it"
-
Regarding the Pain of Others
(2004)
presentation by
Christopher Brown
Full transcript