Susan Sontag – Quotes from ‘On Photography’

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Quite frankly, I am not a fan of Susan Sontag. I find her work lacking in academic rigour, and very prone to deeply personal judgment – in fact, she and Roland Barthes have much in common on these two counts. I applaud the fact that they ‘take a view’, rather than sitting on the sidelines. But, in taking those views, they both seem to disregard (or at minimum not logically argue against) other possible views.

Sontag’s intellectually vicious attacks on Diane Arbus are a case in point. And to have one’s judgement of an entire genre of work (atrocity photography) coloured solely by one’s childhood fears is, well, the work of an amateur.

That approach would of course be fine if their work was not held up as two of the great canons in the photographic literature.

My overriding impression from Sontag and Barthes is a rather antipathetic view towards photography, which constantly dogs the literature. It is almost as if their work was written to encourage a whole school of criticism of it – Elkins, Linfield and many more.

All that said, there are many nuggets of wisdom, and, to follow my own logic, I need to both be cognisant of these views, and be prepared to counter the ones I do not agree with.

There are some very pithy quotes which to be considered, and over time I have been collecting these. I have thus decided to put them all in one place, for future reference. Quotes from On Photography that I find particularly appropriate to my work are highlighted in colour.

In Plato’s Cave

‘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‘. (pg. 4).

‘Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience’. (pg 6)

‘The immensely gifted members of the Farm Security Administration photographic project of the late 1930s (among them Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee) would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film—the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry. In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects‘. (pg. 6).

… like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power‘. (pg. 8).

‘Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic—Germans, Japanese, and Americans‘. (pg. 10).

‘A photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer; picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with ever more peremptory rights – to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on. Our very sense of situation is now articulated by the camera’s interventions‘. (pg. 11).

To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged (at least for as long as it takes to get a “good” picture), to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing—including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune’. (pg. 12).

‘… there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed‘. (pg. 14).

‘Photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow‘. (pg. 17).

‘Aesthetic distance seems built into the very experience of looking at photographs, if not right away, then certainly with the passage of time. Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art‘. (pg. 21).

‘Photography reinforces a nominalist view of social reality as consisting of small units of an apparently infinite number …‘. (pg. 22).

Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted‘. (pg. 24).

America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly

To photograph is to confer importance. There is probably no subject that cannot be beautified; moreover, there is no way to suppress the tendency inherent in all photographs to accord value to their subjects‘. (pg. 28).

The pious uplift of Steichen’s photograph anthology and the cool dejection of the Arbus retrospective both render history and politics irrelevant. One does so by universalizing the human condition, into joy; the other by atomizing it, into horror‘. (pg. 33).

The most striking aspect of Arbus’s work is that she seems to have enrolled in one of art photography’s most vigorous enterprises concentrating on victims, on the unfortunate, but without the compassionate purpose that such a project is expected to serve. Her work shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate feelings‘. (pg. 33).

Arbus wrote. The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed. The whole point of photographing people is that you are not intervening in their lives, only visiting them. The photographer is supertourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear‘. (pg. 41).

Melancholy Objects

Photography has the unappealing reputation of being the most realistic, therefore facile, of the mimetic arts. In fact, it is the one art that has managed to carry out the grandiose, century-old threats of a Surrealist takeover of the modern sensibility, while most of the pedigreed candidates have dropped out of the race‘. (pg. 51).

They kept a long, prudent distance from Surrealism’s contentious idea of blurring the lines between art and so-called life, between objects and events, between the intended and the unintentional, between pros and amateurs, between the noble and the tawdry, between craftsmanship and lucky blunders‘. (pg. 51).

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‘. (pg. 51).

Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision. The less doctored, the less patently crafted, the more naive – the more authoritative the photograph was likely to be‘. (pg. 52).

Unlike the fine-art objects of pre-democratic eras, photographs don’t seem deeply beholden to the intentions of an artist. Rather, they owe their existence to a loose cooperation (quasi-magical, quasi-accidental) between photographer and subject mediated by an ever simpler and more automated machine, which is tireless, and which even when capricious can produce a result that is interesting and never entirely wrong. (The sales pitch for the first Kodak, in 1888, was: ‘You press the button, we do the rest‘)’. (pg. 53).

Surrealism is a bourgeois disaffection; that its militants thought it universal is only one of the signs that it is typically bourgeois‘. (pg. 54).

The view of reality as an exotic prize to be tracked down and captured by the diligent hunter-with-a-camera has informed photography from the beginning, and marks the confluence of the Surrealist counter-culture and middle-class social adventurism. Photography has always been fascinated by social heights and lower depths. Documentarists (as distinct from courtiers with cameras) prefer the latter. For more than a century, photographers have been hovering about the oppressed, in attendance at scenes of violence with a spectacularly good conscience. Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them‘. (pg 55).

In fact, photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle-class flâneur, whose sensibility was so accurately charted by Baudelaire. The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flaneur finds the world ‘picturesque’. The findings of Baudelaire’s flaneur are variously exemplified by the candid snapshots taken in the 1890s by Paul Martin in London streets and at the seaside and by Arnold Genthe in San Francisco’s Chinatown (both using a concealed camera), by Atget’s twilight Paris of shabby streets and decaying trades, by the dramas of sex and loneliness depicted in Brassai’s book Paris de nuit (1933), by the image of the city as a theater of disaster in Weegee’s Naked City (1945).

The flâneur is not attracted to the city’s official realities but to its dark seamy corners, its neglected populations, an unofficial reality behind the facade of bourgeois‘. (pg. 55).

But essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own‘. (pg. 57).

Traveling between degraded and glamorous realities is part of the very momentum of the photographic enterprise, unless the photographer is locked into an extremely private obsession (like the thing Lewis Carroll had for little girls)‘. (pg. 58).

Some photographers set up as scientists, others as moralists. The scientists make an inventory of the world; the moralists concentrate on hard cases. An example of photography-as-science is the project August Sander began in 1911‘. (pg. 59).

The FSA project, conceived as ‘pictorial documentation of our rural areas and rural problems’ (Stryker’s words), was unabashedly propagandistic, with Stryker coaching his team about the attitude they were to take toward their problem subject. The purpose of the project was to demonstrate the value of the people photographed. Thereby, it implicitly defined its point of view: that of middle-class people who needed to be convinced that the poor were really poor, and that the poor were dignified’. (pg 62).

American photography was rarely so detached‘. (pg. 62).

For an approach reminiscent of Sander’s, one must look to people who documented a dying or superseded part of America – like Adam Clark Vroman, who photographed Indians in Arizona and New Mexico between 1895 and 1904. Vroman’s handsome photographs are unexpressive, uncondescending, unsentimental. Their mood is the very opposite of the FSA photographs: they are not moving, they are not idiomatic, they do not invite sympathy‘. (pg. 62).

Photography in Europe was largely guided by notions of the picturesque (i.e., the poor, the foreign, the time-worn), the important (i.e., the rich, the famous), and the beautiful. Photographs tended to praise or to aim at neutrality‘. (pg. 63).

American photography implies a more summary, less stable connection with history; and a relation to geographic and social reality that is both more hopeful and more predatory‘. (pg. 63).

And no reality is exempt from appropriation, neither one that is scandalous (and should be corrected) nor one that is merely beautiful (or could be made so by the camera). Ideally, the photographer was able to make the two realities cognate, as illustrated by the title of an interview with Hine in 1920, Treating Labor Artistically‘. (pg. 63).

The photographer both loots and preserves, denounces and consecrates. Photography expresses the American impatience with reality, the taste for activities whose instrumentality is a machine. ‘Speed is at the bottom of it all’, as Hart Crane said (writing about Stieglitz in 1923), ‘the hundredth of a second caught so precisely that the motion is continued from the picture indefinitely: the moment made eternal’. 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 entrances of many towns listing what to photograph. Signs marked the places in national parks where visitors should stand with their cameras’. (pg. 64).

Jack Kerouac begins his introduction to Robert Frank’s book The Americans: That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in these tremendous photographs taken as he travelled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship) and with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen on film … After seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin‘. (pg. 66).

As Berenice Abbott writes: ‘The photographer is the contemporary being par excellence; through his eyes the now becomes past’. (pg. 67).

Photographs, which turn the past into a consumable object, are a short cut. Any collection of photographs is an exercise in Surrealist montage and the Surrealist abbreviation of history‘. (pg. 68).

Photographs are, of course, artifacts. But their appeal is that they also seem, in a world littered with photographic relics, to have the status of found objects – unpremeditated slices of the world. Thus, they trade simultaneously on the prestige of art and the magic of the real. They are clouds of fantasy and pellets of information‘. (pg. 69).

Photography is the inventory of mortality. A touch of the finger now suffices to invest a moment with posthumous irony‘. (pg. 69).

Surrealism is the art of generalizing the grotesque and then discovering nuances (and charms) in that. No activity is better equipped to exercise the Surrealist way of looking than photography, and eventually we look at all photographs surrealistically. People are ransacking their attics and the archives of city and state historical societies for old photographs; ever more obscure or forgotten photographers are being rediscovered. Books of photography pile higher and higher – measuring the lost past (hence, the promotion of amateur photography), taking the temperature of the present. Photographs furnish instant history, instant sociology, instant participation‘. (pg. 74).

In principle, photography executes the Surrealist mandate to adopt an uncompromisingly egalitarian attitude toward subject matter. (Everything is ‘real’) In fact, it has – like mainstream Surrealist taste itself – evinced an inveterate fondness for trash, eyesores, rejects, peeling surfaces, odd stuff, kitsch‘. (pg. 78).

The Heroism of Vision

Nobody exclaims, ‘isn’t that ugly! I must take a photograph of it’. Even if someone did say that, all it would mean is: ‘I find that ugly thing … beautiful‘. (pg. 85).

The history of photography could be recapitulated as the struggle between two different imperatives: beautification, which comes from the fine arts, and truth-telling, which is measured not only by a notion of value-free truth, a legacy from the sciences, but by a moralized ideal of truth-telling‘. (pg 86).

‘Alfred Stieglitz proudly reports that he had stood three hours during a blizzard on February 22, 1893, ‘awaiting the proper moment’ to take his celebrated picture, ‘Fifth Avenue, Winter‘. (pg. 90).

Strand and Weston, who both acknowledge a similarity between their ways of seeing and those of Kandinsky and Brancusi, may have been attracted to the hard edge of Cubist style in reaction to the softness of Stieglitz’s images‘ (pg. 91).

Stieglitz notes the undeniable influence of photography on painting, although he cites only the Impressionists – whose style of ‘blurred definition’ inspired his own‘. (pg. 92).

By taking over the task of realistic picturing hitherto monopolized by painting, photography freed painting for its great modernist vocationist abstraction. But photography’s impact on painting was not as clear-cut as that. For, as photography was entering the scene, painting was already, on its own, beginning its long retreat from realistic representation – Turner was born in 1775, Fox Talbot in 1800 – and the territory photography came to occupy with such rapid and complete success would probably have been depopulated anyway‘. (pg. 94).

Whereas the painter, according to Weston, has always ‘tried to improve nature by self-imposition’, the photographer has ‘proved that nature offers an endless number of perfect compositions’ – order everywhere‘. (pg. 100).

It is now clear that there is no inherent conflict between the mechanical or naive use of the camera and formal beauty of a very high order‘. (pg. 103).

Photographic Evangels

Virtually every important photographer right up to the present has written manifestoes and credos expounding photography’s moral and aesthetic mission‘. (pg. 115).

As if to refute the fact that many superb pictures are by photographers devoid of any serious or interesting intentions, the insistence that picture-taking is first of all the focusing of a temperament, only secondarily of a machine, has always been one of the main themes of the defense of photography. This is the theme stated so eloquently in the finest essay ever written in praise of photography, Paul Rosenfeld’s chapter on Stieglitz in Port of New York. By using ‘his machinery’ – as Rosenfeld puts it – ‘unmechanically’, Stieglitz shows that the camera not only ‘gave him an opportunity of expressing himsel’ but supplied images with a wider and ‘more delicate’ gamut’ ‘than the hand can draw‘. (pg. 118).

Between the defense of photography as a superior means of self-expression and the praise of photography as a superior way of putting the self at reality’s service there is not as much difference as might appear. Both presuppose that photography provides a unique system of disclosures: that it shows us reality as we had not seen it before‘. (pg 119).

‘All that photography’s program of realism actually implies is the belief that reality is hidden. And, being hidden, is something to be unveiled‘. (pg. 120).

For Moholy-Nagy the genius of photography lies in its ability to render ‘an objective portrait: the individual to be photographed so that the photographic result shall not be encumbered with subjective intention‘. (pg. 122).

For Lange every portrait of another person is a ‘self-portrait’ of the photographer, as for Minor White – promoting ‘self-discovery through a camera’ – landscape photographs are really ‘inner landscapes‘. (pg. 122).

The two ideals are antithetical. Insofar as photography is (or should be) about the world, the photographer counts for little, but insofar as it is the instrument of intrepid, questing subjectivity, the photographer is all‘. (pg. 122).

‘As John Szarkowski observes, ‘a skillful photographer can photograph anything well‘. (pg. 129).

‘It cannot be a coincidence that just about the time that photographers stopped discussing whether photography is an art, it was acclaimed as one by the general public and photography entered, in force, into the museum‘. (pg. 131).’For the line between amateur and professional, primitive and sophisticated is not just harder to draw with photography than it is with painting – it has little meaning‘. (pg. 131).

For Baudelaire, photography was painting’s ‘mortal enemy’; but eventually a truce was worked out, according to which photography was held to be painting’s liberator‘. (pg. 144).

Photographs make normative an experience of art that is mediated, second-hand, intense in a different way‘. (pg. 147).

In much of conceptual art, in Christo’s packaging of the landscape, in the earthworks of Walter De Maria and Robert Smith-son, the artist’s work is known principally by the photographic report of it in galleries and museums; sometimes the size is such that it can only be known in a photograph (or from an airplane). The photograph is not, even ostensibly, meant to lead us back to an original experience‘. (pg. 147).

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, an art form at all. Like language, it is a medium in which works of art (among other things) are made‘. (pg. 148).

The traditional fine arts rely on the distinction between authentic and fake, between original and copy, between good taste and bad taste; the media blur, if they do not abolish outright, these distinctions. The fine arts assume that certain experiences or subjects have a meaning. The media are essentially contentless (this is the truth behind Marshall McLuhan’s celebrated remark about the message being the medium itself); their characteristic tone is ironic, or dead-pan, or parodistic. It is inevitable that more and more art will be designed to end as photographs. A modernist would have to rewrite Pater’s dictum that all art aspires to the condition of music. Now all art aspires to the condition of photography‘. (pg. 149).

The Image World

… that a society becomes ‘modern’ when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images‘. (pg. 153).

… photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask‘. (pg. 154).

The further back we go in history, as E. H. Gombrich has observed, the less sharp is the distinction between images and real things; in primitive societies, the thing and its image were simply two different, that is, physically distinct, manifestations of the same energy or spirit‘. (pg. 155).

The whole of a life may be summed up in a momentary appearance. And a change in appearances is a change in the person, for he refused to posit any ‘real’ person ensconced behind these appearances‘. (pg. 159).

J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash (1973) describes a more specialized collecting of photographs in the service of sexual obsession: photographs of car accidents which the narrator’s friend‘. (pg. 162).

It is not reality that photographs make immediately accessible, but images. For example, now all adults can know exactly how they and their parents and grandparents looked as children – a knowledge not available to anyone before the invention of cameras, not even to that tiny minority among whom it was customary to commission paintings of their children‘. (pg. 165).

Photography, which has so many narcissistic uses, is also a powerful instrument for depersonalizing our relation to the world‘. (pg. 167).

Two attitudes underlie this presumption that anything in the world is material for the camera. One finds that there is beauty or at least interest in everything, seen with an acute enough eye. (And the aestheticizing of reality that makes everything, anything, available to the camera is what also permits the co-opting of any photograph, even one of an utterly practical sort, as art.) The other treats everything as the object of some present or future use, as matter for estimates, decisions, and predictions. According to one attitude, there is nothing that should not be seen; according to the other, there is nothing that should not be recorded‘. (pg. 173).

Though these two attitudes, the aesthetic and the instrumental, seem to produce contradictory and even incompatible feelings about people and situations‘. (pg. 173).

In China, where no space is left over from politics and moralism for expressions of aesthetic sensibility, only some things are to be photographed and only in certain ways’. (pg. 173).

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 workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). (pg. 178).

The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself‘. (pg. 178).

A Brief Anthology of Quotations

I will leave the reader to think of these what they may.

Header: Jill Krementz. 1974. Susan Sontag, NYC. Available at: (accessed 101/04/2019).

SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. New York: Anchor Books.

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