On Photography

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag is an essayist and novelist. She has studied at Berkeley, Harvard, Ox­ ford, and the Sorbonne and considers herself a writer without specialization. Among her books are several works of criticism, Against Interpretation, On Photography, AIDS and Its Metaphors, as well as a novel, The Volcano, and a play, Alice in Bed.

collect photographs is to collect the world. Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still pho­ tographs the image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumu­ late, store. In Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963), two sluggish lumpen-peasants are lured into joining the King’s Army by the promise that they will be able to loot, rape, kill, or do what­ ever else they please to the enemy, and get rich. But the suitcase of booty that Michel-Ange and Ulysse triumphantly bring home, years later, to their wives turns out to contain only picture postcards, hundreds of them, of Monuments, Department Stores, Mammals, \X’onders of Na­ ture, Methods of Transport, \X’orks of Art, and other classified treasures from around the globe. Godard’s gag vividly parodies the equivocal magic of the photographic image. Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the ob­ jects that make up, and thicken, the environ­ ment we recognize as modern. Photographs re­ ally are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge-and, therefore, like power. A now notorious first fall into alienation, habituating people to abstract the world into printed words, is supposed to have engendered that surplus of Faustian energy and psychic damage needed to build modern, inorganic societies. But print

seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world, of turning it into a mental object, than photographic images, which now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present. What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual state­ ments, like paintings and drawings. Pho­ tographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, minia­ tures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

Photographs, which fiddle with the scale of the world, themselves get reduced, blown up, cropped, retouched, doctored, tricked out. They age, plagued by the usual ills of paper objects; they disappear; they become valuable, and get bought and sold; they are reproduced. Pho­ tographs, which package the world, seem to in­ vite packaging. They are stuck in albums, framed and set on tables, tacked on walls, pro­ jected as slides. Newspapers and magazines fea­ ture them; cops alphabetize them; museums ex­ hibit them; publishers compile them.

For many decades the book has been the most influential way of arranging (and usually miniaturizing) photographs, thereby guarantee­ ing them longevity, if not immortality-pho­ tographs are fragile objects, easily torn or mis­ laid-and a wider public. The photograph in a book is, obviously, the image of an image. But since it is, to begin with, a printed, smooth ob­ ject, a photograph loses much less of its essential quality when reproduced in a book than a paint­ ing does. Still, the book is not a wholly satisfac

scheme for putting groups of photographs into general circulation. The sequence in which the photographs are to be looked at is proposed by the order of pages, but nothing holds readers to the recommended order or indicates the amount of time to be spent on each photograph. Chris Marker’s film, Si j’avais quatre dro­ madaires (1966), a brilliantly orchestrated medi­ tation on photographs of all sorts and themes, suggests a subtler and more rigorous way of packaging (and enlarging) still photographs. Both the order and the exact time for looking at each photograph are imposed; and there is a gain in visual legibility and emotional impact. But photographs transcribed in a film cease to be collectible objects, as they still are when served up in books.

Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it. In one version of its utility, the camera record incriminates. Starting with their use by the Paris police in the murderous roundup of Communards in June 1871, photographs became a useful tool of modern states in the surveillance and control of their increasingly mobile populations. In an­ other version of its utility, the camera record jus­ tifies. A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture. Whatever the limitations (through amateurism) or pretensions (through artistry) of the individual photographer, a pho­ tograph-any photograph-seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, re­ lation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects. Virtuosi of the noble image like Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, composing mighty, unforgettable photographs decade after decade, still want, first of all, to show something “out there,” just like the Polaroid owner for whom photographs are a handy, fast form of note-tak­ ing, or the shutterbug with a Brownie who takes snapshots as souvenirs of daily life.

While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective inter­ pretation, a photograph can be treated as a nar­ rowly selective transparency. But despite the presumption of veracity that gives all pho­ tographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is no generic excep­ tion to the usually shady commerce between art and truth. Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and con­ science. 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 sup­ ported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry. In deciding how a picture should look, in prefer­ ring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Al­ though there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, pho­ tographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are. Those oc­ casions when the taking of photographs is rela­ tively undiscriminating, promiscuous, or self­ effacing do not lessen the didacticism of the whole enterprise. This very passivity-and ubiq­ uity-of the photographic record is photogra­ phy’s “message,” its aggression.

Images which idealize (like most fashion and animal photography) are no less aggressive than work which makes a virtue of plainness (like class pictures, still lifes of the bleaker sort, and mug shots). There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera. This is as evident in the 1840s and 1850s, photography’s glorious first two decades, as in all the succeeding decades, during which technology made possible an ever increasing spread of that mentality which looks at the world as a set of potential

otographs. Even for such early masters as David Octavius Hill and Julia Margaret Cameron who used the camera as a means of getting painterly images, the point of taking photographs was a vast departure from the aims of painters. From its start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible number of subjects. Painting never had so imperial a scope. The subsequent industrialization of camera tech­ nology only carried out a promise inherent in photography from its very beginning: to democ­ ratize all experiences by translating them into images.

That age when taking photographs required a cumbersome and expensive contraption-the toy of ‘the clever, the wealthy, and the ob­ sessed-seems remote indeed from the era of sleek pocket cameras that invite anyone to take pictures. The first cameras, made in France and England in the early 1840s, had only inventors and buffs to operate them. Since there were then no professional photographers, there could not be amateurs either, and taking photographs had no clear social use; it was a gratuitous, that is, an artistic activity, though with few pretensions to being an art. It was only with its industrializa­ tion that photography came into its own as art. As industrialization provided social uses for the operations of the photographer, so the reaction against these uses reinforced the self-conscious­ ness of photography-as-art.

Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing-which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most peo­ ple as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

Memorializing the achievements of individ­ uals considered as members of families (as well as of other groups) is the earliest popular use of photography. For at least a century, the wedding photograph has been as much a part of the cere­ mony as the prescribed verbal formulas. Cam­ eras go with family life. According to a sociolog­ ical study done in France, most households have


r,’l” l~tc’lu~ F.l:u”••• “,
THE EABTMAH DRY PLATE” FILM 00.,116, Odord 8t., London, W.

267. /I,h-(I”IISt’IIIOIt ofth’·.first KoddJ: {(mura, 1888

The Kodak. Early efforts to popularize the camera used the instructional forms in magazine and news­ paper advertising. National Archives of Canada.

a camera, but a household with children is twice as likely to have at least one camera as a house­ hold in which there are no children. Not to take pictures of one’s children, particularly when they are small, is a sign of parental indifference, just as not turning up for one’s graduation pic­ ture is a gesture of adolescent rebellion.

Through photographs, each family con­ structs a portrait-chronicle of itself-a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connected­ ness. It hardly matters what activities are pho­ tographed so long as photographs get taken an

cherished. Photography becomes a rite of family life just when, in the industrializing coun­ tries of Europe and America, the very institution of the family starts undergoing radical surgery. As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of a much larger family aggregate, photography came along to memori­ alize, to restate symbolically, the imperiled con­ tinuity and vanishing extendedness of family life. Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives. A family’s photograph album is generally about the extended family-and, often, is all that re­ mains of it.

As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure. Thus, photography develops in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism. For the first time in history, large numbers of people regularly travel out of their habitual environments for short pe­ riods of time. It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evi­ dence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had. Photographs document sequences of consumption carried on outside the view of family, friends, neighbors. But dependence on the camera, as the device that makes real what one is experiencing, doesn’t fade when people travel more. Taking photographs fills the same need for the cos­ mopolitans accumulating photograph-trophies of their boat trip up the Albert Nile or their fourteen days in China as it does for lower-mid­ dle-class vacationers taking snapshots of the Eif­ fel Tower or Niagara Falls.

A way of certifying experience, taking pho­ tographs is also a way of refusing it-by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. The very activity of taking pic­ tures is soothing, and assuages general feelings

of disorientation that are likely to be exacer­ bated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and what­ ever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photo­ graph, and move on. The method especially ap­ peals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic-Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Us­ ing a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they ­ are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.

People robbed of their past seem to make the most fervent picture takers, at home and abroad. Everyone who lives in an industrialized society is obliged gradually to give up the past, but in certain countries, such as the United States and Japan, the break with the past has been particularly traumatic. In the early 1970s, the fable of the brash American tourist of the 1950s and 1960s, rich with dollars and Babbit­ try, was replaced by the mystery of the group­ minded Japanese tourist, newly released from his island prison by the miracle of overvalued yen, who is generally armed with two cameras, one on each hip.

Photography has become one of the princi­ pal devices for experiencing something, for giv­ ing an appearance of participation. One full­ page ad shows a small group of people standing pressed together, peering out of the photograph, all but one looking stunned, excited, upset. The one who wears a different expression holds a camera to his eye; he seems self-possessed, is al­ most smiling. While the others are passive, clearly alarmed spectators, having a camera has transformed one person into something active, a voyeur: only he has mastered the situation. What do these people see? We don’t know. And it doesn’t matter. It is an Event: something worth seeing-and therefore worth photograph­ ing. The ad copy, white letters across the dark lower third of the photograph like news com

over a teletype machine, consists of just six words: “… Prague … Woodstock … Vietnam … Sapporo … Londonderry .. . LEICA.” Crushed hopes, youth antics, colonial wars, and winter sports are alike-are equalized by the camera. Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events.

A photograph is not just the result of an en­ counter 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. The omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photograph­ ing. This, in turn, makes it easy to feel that any event, once underway, and whatever its moral character, should be allowed to complete itself­ so that something else can be brought into the world, the photograph. After the event has ended, the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would never otherwise have enjoyed. While real people are out there killing themselves or other real peo­ ple, the photographer stays behind his or her camera, creating a tiny element of another world: the image-world that bids to outlast us aU.

Photographing is essentially an act of non­ intervention. Part of the horror of such memo­ rable coups of contemporary photojournalism as the pictures of a Vietnamese bonze reaching for the gasoline can, of a Bengali guerrilla in the

act of bayoneting a trussed-up collaborator, comes from the awareness of how plausible it has become, in situations where the photogra­ pher has the choice between a photograph and a life, to choose the photograph. The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene. Dziga V ertov’s great film, Man with a Movie Camera (1’929), gives the ideal image of the photographer as someone in perpetual movement, someone movmg through a panorama of disparate events with such agility and speed that any intervention is out of the question. Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) gives the complementary image: the pho­ tographer played by James Stewart has an inten­ sified relation to one event, through his camera, precisely because he has a broken leg and is con­ fined to a wheelchair; being temporarily immo­

bilized prevents him from acting on what he sees, and makes it even more important to take pictures. Even if incompatible with intervention in a physical sense, using a camera is still a form of participation. Although the camera is an ob­ servation station, the act of photographing is more than passive observing. Like sexual voyeurism, it is a way of at least tacitly, often ex­ plicitly, encouraging whatever is going on to keep on happening. 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 complic­ ity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing-including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortun


Ulrich Keller

Ulrich Keller is a professor in the department ofart history at the Univesity of Califor­ nia at Santa Barbara and an adjunct curator of photography at the University of Cali­ fornia at Santa Barbara Art Museum.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: