Whatever is She on About? Sontag "On Photography"

I first read about this book while exploring Geoff Dyer’s “The On-Going Moment” and put it, along with books by John Berger and Barthes, on my reading list. It's taken a long time to get to this point and writing this seems to have taken almost as long as reaing the book in the first place.

“On Photography” was first published in 1977 and is a collection of essays written between 1973 and 1977. In it, Sontag explores the force of photographic images which are continually inserted between experience and reality by artists, governments and people who want to sell you stuff. Sontag goes on to develop the concept of ‘transparency’: in a world where anything can be photographed, and photography has removed the standard definitions and boundaries of ‘art’ a viewer can approach a photograph freely without any preconceived notions of what it could mean or even having an expectation of discovering what it means.

I found this an incredibly frustrating book to read. A couple of times I threw it across the table with a: “Really? Really? WTF?”. I would go back and start again. At times I felt like an icebreaker in pack ice: going forward as far as I could, reversing and taking another run at the ice. As one reviewer said: “I'm giving it four stars not for the content itself, but for the quality of thinking I did while reading.” 

Frustrating is her umwelt wherein everything is politicized and the mere act of making an image is compared to a rape, an act of aggression or an act of acquisition. She selectively chooses to ignore the concept of “making” an image choosing instead to speak of “taking” and “shooting”; terms which are, unfortunately, very common in describing the act of pressing the shutter release. I’ve always viewed what I do as a much more gentle process, a totality: making an image is the whole process from seeing the potentiality of something you observe, exposing light sensitive material to the scene and finally developing and printing the resulting image.

Frustrating is her repeated (and tiresome) assertion that consumerism and capitalism requires photography to drive consumer demand. Songtag ignores the fact that the driving of consumer demand through advertising worked quite well with the idealised illustrations you would see on billboards and in magazines and newspapers of an earlier age. Not mentioned at all is the use of photographs in fascist and communist propaganda; these regimes where adept at using photographs to “drive demand” for their particular brand of political philosophy. I’m not even going to comment that it was consumerism that allowed these essays to get published in the first place.

Frustrating is her detestation of the surrealists dismissing them as gadflys and calling them militants. Dali, militant? Off the wall perhaps, but hardly militant. This was one of the times when the book flew across the table, not that I’m an overt fan of the surrealist movement but as a school of thought and art it is worthy of consideration. I find Liebowitz’ portraits as surreal as any work by Dali or Magritte but hey, what do I know. Perhaps some young art student cornered her at a salon. Who knows.

Frustrating are her vehement criticisms of the entire activity of photography, never once pointing out an instance where the creation of an image (in my definition) is a worthwhile pursuit. Trotting out the usual "it's a mechanical process and your're separated from reality by the viewfinder" doesn't wash for me. The act of writing, be it with pen or typewriter is a mechanical process and you are separated from reality by the paper and your mind.

But man, when she nails it, she nails it.

She nails it when she pillories photographic apologists who drone on and on to justify their existence as ‘artists’. This battle, as Berger and Dyer have written, was over a long time ago. Like Toto, she pulls at the curtain exposing the great Oz. I have read too many ‘artist’s statements’ that make my head spin. They seem to be written to a) show how erudite they are, b) appeal to some grant issuing arts council, and/or c) buffalo the ‘arts patron’ in attempt to mystify what is essentially a democratic art form and she calls them on it.

She nails it when she talks about the democratization of photography and how people (dare I say the masses) use it to construct and remember their reality. She actually presages the rise of the selfie and the endless streams of images showing what a person is having for dinner on any number of social network sites. She makes the point that we are relying on images as a proof of reality, the catchphrase and the resulting meme: ‘Pictures or it didn’t happen’ is unfortunate proof of that. At UCLA, the collection of her papers shows a correspondence with Philip K. Dick and I wonder if this is along the lines of “We remember it for you, wholesale”.

The democratization of photography and its impact on the profession and its artistry is not really a new idea. It was already a recurring theme in the ‘50s in the pages of Aperture. If you read “Aperture, The Minor White Years” you’ll see what I mean. Berger notes that once an art form has been democratized, the art establishment or those with the most to lose, will mystify and mythologize the art form in an endeavour to maintain a grasp over it. They create an entire set of incantations and rituals, not unlike a priesthood controlling access to the god viewing those who practice rite or beliefs in their own ways as apostate.

She nails it when she bemoans (in the ‘70s aready!) the “rancorous suspicion in America of whatever seems literary, not to mention a growing reluctance … to read anything,…”

She nails it when she talks about the sloppy, the ill-disciplined: the anti-photograph. Even though she is no fan of photography, what comes through loud and clear is something like this: 
“Look, if you’re going to this, even though I think it's a load of dingos' kidneys, at least do it right. Slapdash is slapdash and you can’t wrap it up with some vapid second rate artist’s statement and pass it off as art.

She nails it when she talks about photographers returning to simpler technology, eschewing the latest and going back to a beloved camera and lens that they first used in an effort to connect to the craft of photography. We see that trend today, me included. I gave up the all singing, all dancing DSLR and now, although still digital, shoot with a rangefinder. Yes, I still have an autofocus mirrorless digital camera but I use it like I use my rangefinder. I won’t go back to film as I don’t like the stink. I was glad to give up the darkroom for the screen.

Sontag refers to the camera as an “instrument of fast seeing”. The gearhead cult of faster and faster, more and more resolution is being questioned. There is an urge to go back to a more artisanal way, a more contemplative, hand wrought image, an image that had an aura and the imprimatur of the photographer. In fact she references HCB as saying it’s almost too fast now.

In the end, you have to read this book. Love it or loathe it, it will make you think. You have to consider it within the time period that it was written, Watergate, the end of the Vietnam war, global recession and 2nd wave feminism. At times it appears contentious for its own sake, other times you feel written into a corner, presented with a fait acomplii, with no room for further argument. The writing is sophisticated and you can be seduced by “fine well-articulated prose which uses its own music to trick the reader into believing the message” in the words of one reviewer.

Berger in his television series “Ways of Seeing” and in the accompanying book is, to my mind much more honest. Rather than saying:
“I am a very clever man. Here is my ideological construct. I’m much more clever than you so take it as read that I’m right”
he says, (several times in fact):
“This a theory that seems to work for me and explain several things that I have been thinking about. Take these ideas and think about them, accept them or reject them, it’s your choice.”

So, where does this leave me, a non-art student wandering around like a ronin trying to understand his chosen art form? I think it has moved me along a bit on my ronin road.

I’m just a guy who makes images of the world as he sees it, trying to make sense of it, his place in it and maybe use images to tell a story or two. This school or that school, this genre or that genre, colour or black and white, film or digital, this political stance or that one, paper or plastic; it really doesn’t amount to anything in the long run. I’ll just keep trying to share a story, an experience with you and maybe learn a bit about you, me and the world.

I’ll get to Edo yet.

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