Victoria Meng: Book Review – Susan Sontag’s, On Photography

Venus and the Rags. Photo: Victoria Meng, Copyright 2018


Photography and Text by Victoria Meng, Copyright 2018


Book Review – Susan Sontag’s, On Photography


Raw emotions frozen in time, the essence of an era preserved forever, ecstatic motion immortalized in texture. Empirically, photographs are magical. From light and film, life is created within two dimensions, from detail and abstraction comes an irresistible invitation to stop and stare.

Yet the incredible experience of viewing a masterful photograph is inherently linked to the process behind the camera. Susan Sontag’s On Photography, ultimately invoked within me the idea that photography is far more than just capturing reality. Rather it is creating a new reality reframing the world to illustrate both metaphorical and literal light and darkness.

Interestingly, Sontag strays away from fixating on a photographer’s inherent talent, expressing that “time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.” So it seems a true differentiator of great photographs lies in the ability to preserve fragile “ethical content” and to convey the emotional charge of a moment. I now understand that by hiding more of reality than it exposes, photography is infinitely flexible. The most mundane scenario can be made exotic and dangerous, while the strangest of subjects can be humanized.

Another fascinating facet of photography was revealed in Sontag’s discussion of Surrealism. Defying conventional associations between Surrealism and imaginative, albeit alien, interpretations of life, Sontag’s emphasizes a discussion of politics and class. In her view, “what renders a photography surreal is its… intimations about social class”, that Surrealism itself is a bourgeois disaffection. This resonated with my own concerns about the ethics of documentary photography and the concept of voyeuristically capturing the plight of other human beings. Here the documentation of strife becomes “the gentlest of predations”, especially when one has not experienced that strife first hand. The danger of social tourism through photography is especially pertinent now in the social media age, and as I continue my own journey as a photographer empathy will be an added dimension I will strive to capture.

However, the potential for exploitation in photography is also coupled with the potential for exploration and celebration. Later essays in “On Photography” explored the idea of democratizing beauty through photographic interpretations. A camera can introduce paradoxical elicitations of aesthetics, either being extremely forgiving of flaws in a subject or exaggerating those flaws to the point of creating a newly invented interpretation of beauty. I find this unconventional view of the world inspiring as it creates within the minutiae of everyday life the potential for ingenuity. 

The idea that potentially any subject can serve as a blank canvas for crafting a message, or what Sontag so eloquently describes as “sensorially stimulating” confusion, inspired my choice of image for this report. For greater context, my grandfather, who first introduced me to photography, accompanied me to the National Mall this summer. As we weaved between museums trying to avoid Washington’s scorching August heat, we eventually wandered into the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Upon entering the building, I can’t say that I was instantly impressed. Paintings came in the form of a few abstract dots on the wall, while a sculpture consisted of dilapidated car crash wreckage. Perhaps it was the heat exhaustion or simply my own preferences for non-contemporary art, but I felt in that moment that the entire art world had evolved into the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Looking around the Hirshhorn, I certainly experienced the confusion Sontag described, but no residual effects of emotion or humanity. However, upon wandering upstairs, “Venus of the Rags” provided me with a suspiciously timely answer. A cheekily ironic sculpture, which I have photographed above, “Venus of the Rags” relies on jarring juxtaposition to relate a simple message: art, like life, is what you make of it. Conventions about aesthetics are often overly institutionalized, even arbitrary. Perhaps the value we assign to the perfect figure of Venus could just as well be applied to the chaotic abstraction of the rags.

Ultimately, reading On Photography helped me consolidate an insight I’ve been struggling to grasp since my experience at the Hirshhorn this summer. I’ve now come to realize that rather than fixating on the inherent artistic worth of different subjects, I should apply my own creativity to explore the context of a presented reality. While it is ultimately impossible to gain 100% of the truth in any circumstance, when I am behind the viewfinder of a camera, I will try to capture with honesty and dignity my own understanding of the world around me.


in Washington D.C., I was truly seeing.


About The Author: Victoria Meng is a Sophomore enrolled in the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020. To access additional articles by Victoria Meng, click here


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