Susan Sonntag

To 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.

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