Photography and Text by Yash Killa, Copyright 2018
Book Review: Susan Sontag’s, On Photography
‘On Photography’, authored by Susan Sontag, is a 1977 compilation of a series of essays written by her on the subject throughout the 20th Century. The essays range from talking about the nature of photography along with the comparison between an image and reality in “In Plato’s Cave” to contrasting idealism with realism in through photographers like Walt Whitman, Rosenfeld Steiglitz, and Diane Arbus in the second and third chapters of the book. However the central theme, according to me, that strings these essays together is the role of photography and the subjective nature of how it is perceived as throughout the different periods in history.
Sontag made me wonder whether a photograph is a mirrored replica of reality, or is it an interpretation of it seen through the eyes of the photographer. When I set out to read the book, I had prepared myself to ask questions, challenge her thoughts, but also try to discern her perspective and in the process gain a deeper understanding of Photography.
As mentioned above, “In Plato’s Cave” deals with Sontag allegorises that the present day humanity is still in Plato’s Cave, and having not left it, everything seen by us is isn’t complete and absolutely realistic. For example, on a daily basis the Human Brain deals with 34GB1 of information – most of it in the form of images, and often these images are seen without their context or even without experiencing them. Humans are so dependent on such images that even though photography helps record passing moments in time, the images can often be misleading and doctored, thus having a ‘cost’ attached to it.
Now, cameras have found their way everywhere, and thus many times, I believe, experiences are automatically-lived through a photograph, reducing the pleasure of experiencing it first-hand in reality. Sontag quotes, “Essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” This leads into her second and third essay which talk about realism and idealism, showing the difference in how the role of photography can be perceived by different photographers. One one end, she talks about Whitman’s vision for idealism, and on the other she contrasts it with the ‘freaks’ she photographs in order to show that humanity is no longer integrated. This made me think about the conception of ‘high art’, and photography’s place within it – is photography another form of art that shows ‘realistic surrealism’, or is it beyond avoiding what’s considered ‘low’ in our society (something like what Diane Arbus did). An interesting observation was that even though Sontag didn’t even use a single photograph to back-up her claims, or provide a visual aid, I, as a reader immediately understood what she meant because the topics she wrote about are still pertinent in today’s society.
Sontag’s later essays explore the historical development of photography and reviews the nature of photography in its context – to quote Sontag, “Mallarme said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” The essays make one wonder whether one ‘takes’ photographs or ‘makes’ them – whether photography is
1 “The Human Brain Is Loaded Daily with 34 GB of Information.” Tech 21 Century, 1 Mar. 2015, www.tech21century.com/the-human-brain-is-loaded-daily-with-34-gb-of-information/.
just a mechanical process of pointing a camera and clicking, or is an artistic process of interpreting what is seen differently.
To end, Sontag has published a list of questions, terms and quotes related to the field of photography that, even though are interesting to read, they are difficult to relate to and engage with due to the lack of context.
The read was an insightful and thought-provoking one. I would certainly recommend it to those who are interested in reading about different opinions and perspectives on a particular matter because what Sontag writes about is completely unique and slightly cynical, forcing one to leave their biases aside and compels readers to further understand the world around them.
About The Author:
“I come from a Boarding school. This image was taken on a formal dinner at the end of our final semester, and consists of my batchmates who lived in the same house with me over the course of 5 years. To any other observer of the image, it will be seen as a normal image of a group of friends, but it is quite different for someone who was a part of this picture. The number of memories, adventures, fights, food-parties we’ve had as a close-knit group; the number of jokes we’ve laughed up; the number of treks we’ve gone for together; how each one of us has had an impact on the development and growth on the other – it is all encompassed in this one photo taken at the end of our high-school journey that we embarked on, and completed together. This is what Sontag talks about in “In Plato’s Cave”. As I am writing this short write-up for the photo, it is already that I’ve become over-whelmed with nostalgia and joy, and this is why this photo will always be close to me.”
Yash Killa is a Freshman enrolled in the School of Arts & Sciences, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020. To access additional articles by Yash Killa, click here: https://tonywardstudio.com/blog/yash-killa-night-magic/