The Morals of Vision: Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ Revisited (Part 1)

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Susan Sontag, 1972.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Susan Sontag, 1972.

It’s probably a source of bemusement for some that Susan Sontag’s venerable 1977 book On Photography still serves as an entry point into the nebulous world of photographic theory for a great many readers.[i] In much the same way, it has long been a familiar touchstone used to bolster any number of middle-brow articles on the subject, especially those aimed at a non-specialist audience. This longevity might seem unlikely, but in fact, some of the reasons for the book’s popularity aren’t hard to grasp. Sontag’s writing has a sureness of tone, a certainty, that seems to have guaranteed its lasting authority. And, in many respects, the book is nearly unique. It’s difficult to name any other piece of sustained writing on the subject of photography that has gained the same kind of audience, whatever else might be said about its influence one way or another. This popularity is by no means a point in the book’s favour, especially among more academically inclined critics, or even those sick of its increasingly dated ubiquity. But there is no arguing the fact that it is ubiquitous, and that this in itself is a significant phenomenon. At the same time, most readers would probably find it difficult to parse the line of argument actually taken in the book, which is perhaps more known for its near endless quotability, than for what, precisely, Sontag has to say. Even without being able to name its particulars, though, it seems clear that the impression many readers have is of her apparent dislike of the medium, a sour note of approbation for the whole grubby business.

For some clue to Sontag’s motivation in undertaking the project we can turn to a long interview Jonathan Cott conducted with her in 1978. This is how she describes her interest in tackling the medium: “I got interested in writing about photography because I saw that it was this central activity that reflected all the complexities and contradictions and equivocations of this society […] that this activity, by which I mean both the taking of and the looking at pictures encapsulates all these contradictions […] On Photography is a case study for what it means to be living in the twentieth century in an advanced industrial consumer society.” [ii] If nothing else this seems to confirm the idea that photography, as such, was a secondary issue for Sontag, a suspicion that photographers in particular might be seen to harbour. Similarly, Sontag’s language when talking about the medium is often seen as having a decidedly condemnatory ring. This, too, is something Cott asked her about, noting the kind of words she used to describe it in the book: “package, possess, colonize […] consume […] aggress.” (RS, pg. 48) Sontag counters this observation with a list of her own, consisting of more ‘positive’ words she used to describe, if perhaps not photography itself, then at least the experience of looking at pictures, such as: “fascinate, haunt, entrance, inspire, delight.” It is arguable, however, that for most readers the apparently negative terms have had a more lasting currency and are the ones most often cited in relation to her view of the medium. In order to understand why this might be, what I want to address here is the fundamental basis of Sontag’s argument – and its enduring limitations.

The opening essay, In Plato’s Cave, begins with an assumption that has become increasingly familiar, that there are – or were, then – more photographs in the world than ever and that their very pervasiveness has changed how we see the world. The essay is an extended critique of this situation and its consequences, which Sontag sees a product of a particular socio-historical context, with photography as a way of ‘collecting’ and therefore shaping reality. “To photograph,” she says, “is to appropriate the thing photographed”[iii] and this ‘appropriation’ comes to serve as a substitute for the real world, which is progressively obscured by the traffic in photographs, what Sontag later calls the ‘image-world,’ supposedly running in parallel to the real one. That this traffic should be so effective is because of photography’s status as evidence, but, as she notes, photographers also make choices about how something should look – when photographed – that conforms to the ideas they already have about it, so photography is, in that respect, an ideological enterprise, colonising the visible. Similarly, Sontag sees the rituals of family photography and of tourists with their cameras as a way of controlling and collecting the visible world according to the logic of a given social order, helping to reinforce its values. The real burden of the essay, then, and what she has been leading up to, is the idea that photography interposes itself between us and the ‘real world’ in a way that merely looks like engagement, but is in fact satisfied with a symbolic, morally immobilising gesture: “Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events. […] Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention.” (OP, pg. 11)

Sontag closes by saying that “Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” (OP, pg. 24, pg. italics mine) Here we can clearly see that her view of the medium is defined by an anxiety about how it imposes a loss of depth and complexity on the world – a virtual dead-end. It appears that, for Sontag, the practice of photography represents a foreclosure of social, aesthetic and even moral possibilities because of the way it depends on a facile duplication of reality. How closely photographs seems to ‘copy’ the visible gives the medium a kind of authority that is ultimately false, and is, in fact, central to the core deceptions that define an industrialised consumer society. This attitude is no less apparent when in the next essay she turns to the way America has been represented by photographers who held out specific claims for their medium and its capacity to make the world around them comprehensible in new ways. She begins, perhaps surprisingly, with Walt Whitman. Her concern in this essay is to address how photography has been used to elevate every-day or even plain tawdry subjects, in order to achieve the kind of ecstatic communion with the American commonplace and its vulgarities that Whitman aspired to in his writing. The key point here is the way in which these hopes would sour, and in time be reduced to an aesthetics of marginalisation, making a spectacle of what they would have ostensibly redeemed. But why should that be?

In fact, the thread linking the first and second essays in the book is actually the basic position that Sontag will continue to occupy throughout. This is precisely her concern with what photography cannot do, which is transcend how the (sometimes passive, sometimes destructive) appropriation of reality that is at the heart of the medium undercuts the aspiration toward moral insight that its leading exponents, in their most Whitmanesque moods, were wont to claim, not least because the idea of the individual creative vision at stake here is fundamentally the product of an industrialised consumer society, whose motivations in this sphere she has already critiqued at some length: “Photographing, and thereby redeeming the homely, trite and humble is also an ingenious means of individual expression.” (OP pg. 30) Framed in this way, the ‘advanced’ photographer is by necessity no more insightful than the snap-happy tourist, in that both are satisfied to merely collect the world, rather than trying to understand it, and worse, the self-consciously ‘artistic’ photographer most often appropriates the private realities of other people, for no less questionable ends. Speaking of Walker Evans, she says “Each thing or person photographed becomes – a photograph; and becomes, therefore, morally equivalent to any other of his photographs.” (OP, pg. 31, italics mine)

For Sontag, the most telling example of this hollow equivalence was Diane Arbus. The assessment of her work that Sontag elaborates here is remarkably lucid, though perhaps also a little vitriolic.[iv] To her, Arbus appears as the logical endpoint of photography’s inherent tendency towards a colonisation of the real, with the photographer aggressively co-opting other people’s lives and then inserting them as mere characters in her own aesthetic melodrama without any sense of responsibility for how they are depicted. This is not just a failing unique to Arbus, but to the medium itself: “The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed.” (OP, pg. 41) In this case, the result “suggest[s] a naïveté that is both coy and sinister, for it is based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other.” (OP, pg. 34) Arbus is exemplary then, albeit in a negative sense, because of how her work is defined by the basic social and psychological aggressiveness that is at the heart of the medium, by the way it invites us to confront (supposed) ugliness and deformity as a test of will, and by treating the private lives of real people as a public spectacle. In this way, so Sontag argues, Arbus undermines any possible moral or compassionate response to her subjects, creating the equivalence that Sontag views as being entirely characteristic both of photography and an industrialised consumer society, leaving only “paper ghosts and a sharp-eyed witty program of despair” (OP, pg. 48), whose most tangible result is the calculated deadening of our moral response to the world as it is pictured, an ideological slight-of-hand perpetrated by the photographer as the – often all too willing – agent of larger social forces.

The third essay, Melancholy Objects, is also perhaps the most wide-ranging, but it turns on what Sontag sees as being the basic tendency of the modern sensibility, a taste for the surreal, and its place in photography, which to her is a ‘surrealist’ medium like no other, not because of how it was used by the members of that historical movement, with their hackneyed repertoire of solarisation and double exposures, but more importantly, because of how photography works to transform the visible.[v] “Surrealism,” she says, “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.” (OP, pg. 52) To Sontag, however, the ‘surreal’ also means something quite specific about the camera’s – and the photographer’s – relationship to the world around them. The hallmark of what she calls the surrealist sensibility, and what she insists it shares with photography as a medium, is the tendency to view reality as a succession of atomised fragments, all more or less fit for the collector’s attention, and, in the process, entirely flattening the social and political dimensions of that reality. The surrealist’s search for ‘the other’ is ultimately no different from what motivates documentary photographers, who are little more than socio-economic tourists in other people’s lives: “The view of reality as an exotic prize to be tracked down […] marks the confluence of the Surrealist counter-culture and middle-class social adventurism.” (OP, pg. 54 – 55)

It is precisely this tendency towards voyeurism, of treating the world as a spectacle to be appreciated (and appropriated) that for Sontag so decisively undermines the reformist intentions of the documentary tradition, not just because of what photography is – although that doesn’t help – but also because of how it channels the worst impulses of the culture that both produces and consumes it. The result is a kind moral, as well as historical amnesia, having “devolved into an easy irony that democratizes all evidence, that equates its scatter of evidence for history.” (OP, pg. 75) Indeed, to criticise this ‘sensibility’ and its failure to deliver a new vision of the world implicit in the ‘surrealist’ ambition is also a critique of modernity itself, of the hopes invested in technological development and in ‘progress’ generally. “Photography,” she tells us, “has become the quintessential art of affluent, wasteful, restless societies.” (OP, pg. 69) and, needless to say, those societies have a vested interest in the majority being satisfied with ‘mere’ images, of the simulated engagement with the world that photography has facilitated. The sensibility she identifies here as characteristic of the medium – and of the times – is one that has willingly accepted the apparent dead-lock that it embodies: “Photographers […] suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it.” (OP, pg. 82)

The next two essays, The Heroism of Vision and Photographic Evangels, are further variations on this theme. In the first she is concerned with how photography, by providing a new standard of pictorial realism, one founded on a uniquely direct relation between the photograph and its subject, also progressively modified our sense of what actually is real, or rather of what ‘reality’ looks like, so that it seems, at times, to have overtaken ‘the real’ entirely, becoming, as Sontag says, “the norm for the way things appear to us.” (OP, pg. 87) More than this, photographers, especially those with advanced ambitions, were intent on creating new ways of seeing the world – seeing photographically – to further supplant established points of view, emphasising what the camera made possible for the first time, a kind of intensified seeing that spilt the world into fragments. For Sontag, perhaps the best exemplar of this tradition was Edward Weston, whose views she astutely (and amusingly) compares to the woolly pontificating of DH Lawrence. But much more damning is the extent to which what she calls his “habit of photographic seeing” (OP, pg. 97) fulfils her old gripe about the appropriating tendencies of the medium, dividing reality into a series of photo-opportunities that claim a kind of moral uplift, but that ultimately makes this impossible, precisely because of how photography operates on our relationship to the world around us. The result, in her view, is that “every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation” and is, consequently, “analgesic morally”. (OP, pg. 110)

(Part 2 can be found here).


[i] The other perennial is, of course, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, responsible for otherwise apparently sensible people using words like “punctum” with abandon.

[ii] Jonathan Cott, Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview, Yale University Press, 2013, pgs. 52-53. Further citations as ‘RS’ in the text. First appearing in Rolling Stone magazine, the complete interview was only published after her death. It is required reading for anyone interested in Sontag, presenting a more rounded and indeed more sympathetic portrait of her than is usually the case.

[iii] Susan Sontag, On Photography, Penguin, 2008, pg. 4. Further citations as ‘OP’ in the text.

[iv] It is perhaps revealing that the personal trajectory Sontag assigns to Arbus, in flight from her well-to-do, liberal, Jewish upbringing, was in large measure Sontag’s own as well, though in her case from a rather more modest background, along with a stifling marriage and what she saw as the dull conformity of an academic career.

[v] By far the best account of photography and Surrealism as an historical movement is Ian Walker, City Gorged with Dreams: Surrealism and Documentary Photography in Interwar Paris, Manchester University Press, 2002. Like Sontag, Walker discounts the shallow manipulations of most Surrealist photography in favour of what might be called a ‘documentary’ surrealism, though his treatment of the subject is obviously far more complete than hers.

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