The Morals of Vision: Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ Revisited (Part 2)

Bruce Davidson, Susan Sontag, 1971.

The penultimate essay in the book, Photographic Evangels, examines the often contradictory views about the medium that have been held by some of its more forward-thinking advocates. In Sontag’s opinion, it has been necessary for them to ‘evangelise’ in order to define what, if anything, separates their own output from the vast, undifferentiated terrain of photography as such. The divergence of these views and the stridency with which they were expressed, suggest, to Sontag at least, a large measure of insecurity about the legitimacy of their claims. But rather than critique specific statements she uses the issue of what photographers might have said about their medium to address, in the first instance, the appropriative relation of photography to the world that is her concern throughout, and second, the mastery photographers are wont to claim over that reality, their capacity not just to record, which is what anyone with a camera can do, but to really see, the result of their own privileged creative vision: “As photographers describe it, picture-taking is both a limitless technique for appropriating the objective world and an unavoidably solipsistic expression of the singular self. Photographs depict realities that already exist, though only the camera can disclose them. And they depict an individual temperament, discovering itself though the camera’s cropping of reality.” (OP, pg. 122) Here we have essentially returned to her discussion of the ‘surrealist sensibility,’ the urge to go beyond the medium’s capacity to record, not least by valorising the individual creative vision, which suggests that ‘reality’ is not something that can be just known, but requires the intervention of the photographer: “Armed with their machines, photographers are to make an assault on reality – which is perceived as recalcitrant, as only deceptively available, as unreal.” (OP, pg. 121)

Placing this assertion of an ‘individual creative vision’ at the heart of how photography is positioned as art, especially and increasingly in the context of art institutions, is, for Sontag, yet another marker of the desire to legitimise what she calls its “voracious way of seeing”. (OP, pg.130) But this is ultimately futile to the extent that the claims made for photography’s unique character – or at least the uniquely individual efforts of certain photographers – have an air of artificiality about them. The ‘vision’ of any photographer will always be bounded by the constraints of the medium, making the individual, stylistic unity of any comparably advanced art impossible. “Naïve or commercial or merely utilitarian photography,” she says, “is no different in kind from photography as practiced by the most gifted professionals: there are pictures taken by anonymous amateurs which are just as interesting, as complex formally, as representative of photography’s characteristic powers as a Stieglitz or an Evans” (OP, pg. 132.) This, somewhat inevitably, leads her to a discussion of the fraught relationship between photography and art, one that she argues hasn’t really been a matter of accommodating the different roles falling to photography on the one hand and to the traditional ‘fine arts’ like painting on the other, but fundamentally reimagining them in light of the new capacities that photography made available. For her, photography is the archetypal mass media form, making the distinctive values of the fine art tradition irrelevant. “Now,” she says, “all art aspires to the condition of photography.” (OP, pg. 149)

And that brings us, at last, to the final essay in the book.[i] It is also, in many ways, a summary of the issues she has been outlining all along, in particular how the production and consumption of photography affects our relationship to the ‘real’ world, shaping – and in her view, undermining – the capacity for understanding it. The sheer relentlessness of this photographic economy (massively accelerated in our own time, of course) has conclusively interposed itself between us and any kind of authentically real experience, reducing us to a state of passive dependence on what Sontag calls the ‘image-world’ (as in the title of this last essay), which has come, as she says, to “usurp reality.” (OP, pg. 154) What she has in mind is not a simplistic duality of the real and the pictured – there is, in that sense, no ‘reality’ that isn’t somehow represented – but of photography as a system of information, a way of ordering and so, controlling our relationship to and understanding of the world, fundamentally defined by the characteristics of the medium and what it makes possible: “reality has come to seem more and more like what we are shown by cameras.” (OP, pg. 161) So, while the core of her argument might be most neatly summarised by the idea that, as she says, “images consume reality,” (OP, pg. 179) she regards the reasons why this might be so as largely extrinsic to photography itself. Sontag recognised the medium as a product of modernity, the social formations of which have instrumentalised photography in particular ways, entirely reflective of its own historical contradictions; her critique of photography, then, is indirectly a critique of modernity itself, in the form of what she repeatedly describes as an ‘industrialised consumer’ society.

The forces at work in that society are historically unique to it, or to the Western world at any rate, and elaborate a particular set of ideas about what is real. We prefer images to reality, she says, “partly in response to the ways in which the notion of what is real has been progressively complicated and weakened, one of the early ways being the criticism of reality as façade which arose among the enlightened middle classes in the last [i.e. 19th] century,” (OP, pg. 160) this being, not least, the origin of the ‘surrealist sensibility’ she identified earlier. But different social formations will have different demands – and, consequently – a different set of uses for photography, as well as a different relationship to the images they produce. This she illustrates, characteristically, by reference to the divergent responses elicited by a documentary about China by the Italian film-maker Michelangelo Antonioni.[ii] Obviously, the film raised official objections from the Chinese authorities because of the extent to which it contradicted the myth of a glorious worker’s republic, but Sontag’s main concern is not the film itself, though she does admit it is somewhat condescending. Instead, her intent is to illustrate the way different socio-historical contexts make use of photography to delineate and circumscribe the ‘real,’ reflecting the values of that time and place. In China, there can only be one point of view, nothing else is permissible, but, she says, “a 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,” (OP, pg. 178) which perhaps helps to explain photography’s persistent ‘usurping’ of reality – though certainly doesn’t excuse it.

By now the pattern that the essays establish should be obvious. They present – and at times tediously re-present – a fixed idea of Sontag’s: that the engagement photography seems to offer with the ‘real’ world is in fact a sort of misdirection; it is to be satisfied with the proliferating domain of ‘mere’ images that, in their verisimilitude, allow us to vicariously satisfy a moral impulse toward understanding – and change – but that ultimately deadens it. This is because photography can only provide aestheticized (hence, ineffective) copies of reality, the nature of which are at any rate determined by the photographer’s own prejudices, and also because repeated exposure to these images adds up to a kind of pseudo-knowledge that in many cases just habitutates us to the atrocities or forms of otherness that they depict – all of which is perhaps true to some extent. But it is also a fairly tendential argument, in that it depends on a deliberately narrow reading of photography’s effects, or at least on a set of assumptions about what photography should (or shouldn’t) do, rather than on what it actually does. Here’s the rub with Sontag, though: if she isn’t right, she isn’t entirely wrong either. Tourism is a kind of displaced (visual) colonialism; images of suffering don’t always help to alleviate it – and so on. The trouble is that the crux of her argument doesn’t rest on the validity of specific claims like these, but rather on how she leverages them into a view of the medium that is, at its worst, highly blinkered and misleading.

The discussion of these issues in the book is, admittedly, more dense, and more nuanced, that I have been able to communicate here. It also ranges widely – if, at times, very selectively – across the history and practice of photography. This generality is also perhaps its most fatal defect. Sontag makes one (largely valid) assumption about how photography might be used and applies it generally to the whole medium, as though she is describing a universal property. But if photography may indeed be used to ‘collect’ the world, reducing reality to a spectacle, as Sontag repeatedly insists, it does not automatically follow that this will have the same motivation or the same consequences in each case.[iii] It is much more plausible to say that photography is not merely appropriating (or ‘collecting,’ or ‘colonising’) the real world, but just that it can be used in this way, and yet, for her, photography’s use as appropriation becomes simply photography’s appropriation, without any regard for the different contexts in which this might occur – or rather, by collapsing all those different contexts together. However astute the reading of her many examples may be, then – and the treatment of Arbus is perhaps exemplary in this regard – the dependence on this single assumption about the medium overall fails to convince, not least because of how indiscriminately it is applied, and because the comparisons she attempts to draw on the basis of it are ultimately too broad to be meaningful. They can’t help but obscure the specific conditions under which any kind of photography is made and viewed; the result is, ironically, just the sort of distorting ‘equivalence’ she is at pains to criticise.

Despite her telling Jonathan Cott in 1978 that photography was an “old and very passionate interest” (RS, pg. 52) there is precious little evidence of that enthusiasm in the text.[iv] Of course that the book should be critical is no surprise; the intention to scrutinise the culture of photography is obviously what motivated her to write it, but the nature of that criticism – and how sustained it is – should give us pause, suggesting an avenue for further reflection on Sontag’s own position. The lack of differentiation between the conclusions she is able to draw by looking at often rather diverse areas of photographic practice is in itself telling. Sontag’s evidence is marshalled to defend, as she sees it, the real world against the encroachment of photographic consumption, but in the process she risks obscuring the fundamental strengths – and complexities – of the medium. The idea that photography interposes itself between reality and our perception (or understanding) of it, is part of a critique of representation, all the more urgent in the case of photography precisely because it naturalises its status as representation, that is, as a coded – and therefore inherently biased – depiction of its subject. Perhaps the most generous inference we can make, then, is that she is addressing the culture that produces photography rather than photography itself. The later explanation for the origin of her interest in the medium to Cott certainly bears that out, as do the repeated critical references to ‘industrialised consumer society’ that run throughout the text, a formation that can claim photography as a chief agent in the dissemination of its values, endlessly reproducing a specific vision of the world.

Of course, it’s not the case that Sontag treats reality as a sort of finite resource that will be ‘used up’ by being duplicated photographically. What concerns her is the way in which photography modifies – and distorts – our relationship to the world around us, obscuring the connections that make understanding ‘reality’ possible on a social, historical and political level, in favour of an ‘image’ that is, quite literally, depth-less. This reading has a particular relevance to those images of violence that in her view cannot explain its causes or its consequences and so are reduced to a voyeuristic place-holder for genuine engagement. In this context, and given when the book was written, media representation of the war in Vietnam receives a surprisingly cursory treatment, but the idea of ‘compassion fatigue’ that she evokes is real enough, at least to the extent there that is often a significant difference between the aim of such images and their effect.[v] What she doesn’t fully acknowledge, however, is the extent to which photo-journalistic images in particular are ‘anchored’ by written texts. Captions or articles provide a further background for the image, which rarely operates in isolation. Once again, it is the inability to discriminate between the different uses of photography and the different contexts in which it might function that undermines the strength of her argument.

What remains, then, is the vexed question of the book’s influence, both in the past and for the future. While the summary of her argument that I have presented here might be of use to anyone in need of a guide to the book, the fundamental limitations of Sontag’s position should be readily apparent as well. But, if there is, at times, a significant and often fatal gap between her presentation of individual cases and the conclusions she draws from them, this does not entirely invalidate some of those conclusions, or the basic worth of her ambition to come to grips with the role of photography in society. As I said at the outset, the book is nearly unique in that respect, and also in the fact that it written for a general, if well informed, audience, rather than for specialists in the field. The way in which photographic technology has expanded over the last few decades, with the currency of images shaping the public domain in ways that Sontag couldn’t even have imagined, means that the reference points the argument she wants to make are also increasingly irrelevant, but, ironically, that same growth has rendered her anxieties about the facile duplication of experience by photographic media all the more pertinent. After all, a culture that can make the phrase ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ into a sort of guiding principle would seem to be living out a version of the future she accurately – if somewhat unwittingly – predicted.

Indeed, Sontag also appears to have pre-empted many critics of ‘social media’ with the observation that the practice of photography “offers […] both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others – allowing us to participate, while confirming alienation.” (OP, pg. 167) Of course, this impression is more apparent than actual, now that her ‘paper ghosts’ have become so many pixels and streams of data, but it does illustrate the extent to which Sontag’s ideas might still be put to use, or at least serve as a point of departure, whatever flaws the book as a whole might possess. The authoritative tone she adopts throughout, a characteristic of her style, has suggested that On Photography was, for its author as well as for its audience, a kind of last word on the subject, that no more could be – or need be – said. But, for all that, the relentless pace at which the medium has changed in the intervening years has meant that the limitations of Sontag’s approach, often considerable in themselves, have become all the more significant as time goes on. While the medium operates in ever more diverse contexts, fulfilling ever more diverse roles, the lack of specificity in her argument, its totalising drive, can’t be made to accommodate these changes, just as it couldn’t fully accommodate the medium as it stood when she wrote the book. And yet, the idea that the whole culture of producing and consuming photography – the culture of photography itself – can be scrutinised critically is one that we should not be so eager to discount; our age of ‘fake news’ and reality television politics probably needs it more than ever. In this we have Sontag’s example – as well as her mistakes – to guide us, and for that, if nothing else, we should be grateful.

(Part 1 can be found here)


[i] That is, the final essay written by Sontag herself. It is followed by a compendium of quotations about photography, in homage to Walter Benjamin, whose prediction for quotations she has already discussed.

[ii] In fact, many of the examples she refers to are actually drawn from the arts, often film. This is a pattern throughout the book; examples from the wider practice of photography are usually generalised, while her comparisons to other art-forms are often extensive and quite detailed.

[iii] This response to Sontag’s argument is by no means new. It was first articulated by John Berger in 1978, see ‘The Uses of Photography’ in Understanding a Photograph, Geoff Dyer (ed.), Penguin, 2013, pgs. 49-60.

[iv] It is amusing to find in one of her later notebooks a list of likes and dislikes where being photographed and taking photographs both fall firmly into the latter category. She was, on the other hand, a passionate collector of film-stills, a detail not without its own significance.

[v] On the subject of photography, ‘compassion fatigue’ and more, see Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, University of Chicago Press, 2010. Also, Sontag’s own Regarding the Pain of Others, Penguin, 2003, especially chapter 7, where she briefly reconsiders some ideas from On Photography.



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