Nan Goldin, Trixie on the cot, New York City, 1979, Archival pigment print mounted on Dibond, 76.2 x 114.3 cm. © Nan Goldin.

Perhaps the most widely disseminated photographic practice is the family album, serving as a supposedly intimate witness to the rituals, large and small, that fill our lives. The fact that these albums now exist mostly online makes no difference to the roles that they fulfil. We want to mark specific occasions, events and milestones, those that can be shared with others, or moments of a more private significance. There is, as a result, something essentially sentimental about this particular use of the medium, given how it is intended to create a fixed version of the past, but it is more than a little performative as well, in that such albums allow us to be seen acting out the parts we assign to ourselves – and the parts that the culture we live in has already decided on for us. The camera legitimates those roles, demonstrating to the world – as well as to ourselves – how successfully we have lived up to the various expectations we are burdened by. It should be obvious, then, that these photographs don’t really show life as it is, that they are mostly just a succession of poses and forced grins. By contrast, Nan Goldin’s work has always served as kind of surrogate family album, but it is a radically re-imagined one, whose challenge resides in the emotional openness she long perused. At the core of Goldin’s art is a fundamental sense of acceptance and of inclusiveness; she makes her work from precisely what all conventional family albums tend to leave out.

This adaptation of ‘vernacular’ forms is much in evidence with Goldin’s exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, her first solo showing in Ireland, which, for reasons that are not immediately clear, is titled Weekend Plans.[i] The exhibition is pitched somewhere between a retrospective and a curatorial elaboration of one particular theme, in this case the close, influential friendship between Goldin and the Irish-born film-maker Vivienne Dick. In fact, a selection of Dick’s work is being exhibited at the same time, so the two shows are clearly intended to exist in dialog. Alongside numerous portraits of Dick there is a range of other works by Goldin, most notably The Ballad of Sexual Dependency slideshow, plus self-portraits and images made on two trips to Ireland in 1979 and 2002, some of which have never been exhibited before. A recent picture of Goldin standing by an open window in a haze of cigarette smoke and looking defiantly back at us, sets the tone for a subsequent group of images that centre on various depictions of femaleness, including the well-known portrait from 1980 of Dick in a green dress. Here she is also standing by a window, and also gazing back at the viewer (as well as Goldin herself, now behind the camera). Underscoring the visual link between these two images seems intended as a way of representing their long friendship, but the differences are equally striking. Goldin’s self-portrait is lit by sunlight from the window, while Dick’s portrait was made at night with flash; Dick is dressed up for going out, Goldin is wearing everyday clothes. Each obviously marks a very different time in their respective lives, but the connection between them remains, in spite of this.

A more direct pairing, one of the images quite well known, the other probably less so, also makes for a revealing insight into the concerns that drive Goldin’s practice. In the first image, a woman the caption identifies as Trixie sits on a camp bed in a flowery dress, legs crossed, smoking a cigarette. In the other, she stands atop a ladder, smoking again, but now with the dress hiked up and one hand just about covering her blood-smeared crotch, which serves at the visual and metaphorical centre of the image. This rhetoric of disclosure isn’t all that’s at stake here though, regardless of how much Goldin’s work might be touted as ‘raw’ and ‘diaristic’ in nature, a view that the exhibition literature repeats. There is also a significant tension between the deliberately exaggerated nature of Trixie’s dress and ghoulish make-up in the image of her sitting on the cot, where she appears almost doll-like, equating the markers of conventional femininity with a corrupted artifice, and the (relative) visibility of her menstruation in the other image, which at once undercuts the doll-like presentation, and yet also furthers it by alluding to the cultural tendency that reduces woman to no more than the functioning of their bodies. Showing the two images together, as they are here, is a subtly insightful piece of curation that helps to emphasise the understanding of social and sexual roles that Goldin has always demonstrated, but that is often subsumed by the reading of her work as subjective expression.

Importantly, it also helps to site Goldin’s work in relation to a cultural context of art-making and avant-garde film, including Dick’s, on whose productions she occasionally served as stills photographer. Leading into the galleries showing Dick’s work are two images made on the set of her film Liberty’s Booty. These show, first, a woman named Shelley asleep on a sofa, and then, the same woman exiting a room where we can see the silhouetted form of a man sitting on a bed behind her. This relates to a particular scene in the film showing an argument between the irate “trick” on the bed and Shelley, a sex worker, over the cost of her services.[ii] Of course, given the blend of cinema vérité techniques and performance (or reconstruction) that defines Dick’s work from this period, it isn’t made entirely clear which of the women in the film actually are sex workers and which are playing a role. Indeed, it becomes increasingly apparent that Dick views the relationship between men and women as a microcosm of the power relations that structure society, where almost all women are obliged to prostitute themselves – literally and otherwise – in order to gain some degree of advantage in a world dominated by men. This ‘structuralist’ treatment of human relationships, besides being a good deal more nuanced (and formally daring) than such an academic description can allow, also suggests some intriguing parallels between Dick’s work and Goldin’s, especially with regard to The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the particular qualities of which I outline below. Unfortunately, the present exhibition does not take the opportunity to address these in any more detail, falling back for the most part on the familiar, romanticised conception of Goldin’s practice.

In spite of this, however, Goldin’s best work has a sense of structure and a coherence that belies the wider notion of her as a self-involved exhibitionist or the chronicler of some eternal downtown demimonde. If her output is usually described as being ‘transgressive’ this is because of what the pictures show – people supposedly outside the mainstream, having sex, getting high. But there are also, and just as important, pictures of people on trains, at birthday parties, dancing, staring out windows, doing nothing at all. Everything is treated by Goldin as a legitimate experience, to her it’s all valid, all worthy of being seen, of being incorporated into the family album she is creating, one that is transgressive not just because it shows the dope or the fucking, but because she places these things on precisely the same level as the banalities that are the hallmark of every other family album. These experiences are not supposed to be visible within the photographic iconography of ‘ordinary’ life, and yet that is exactly where Goldin wants to locate them. The use of such determinately vernacular forms of photography, then, the slideshow and the snapshot, is perfectly in keeping with the inclusive basis of her work. Parallel to this, Goldin, born in 1953, is a child of post-war prosperity and of the illusions that defined those years, as well as their stifling social conformity, personified for Goldin by the repressive forces that helped drive her older sister Barbara to suicide. So, her work is also about the attempt by Goldin’s generation to reject the certainties and the expectations of their parents, to shape a new mode of living for themselves, to make new communities – new families.

At the centre of this effort, just as it is the centre of Goldin’s work, is The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Growing out of improvised and often shambolic performances at the end of the 70s, the work has gradually evolved into its present form, described here, with maddening imprecision, as consisting of “nearly 700” images. The earliest performances were silent and later Goldin presented them with live musical backing, in keeping with the fact that many of these initial showings were in clubs. Eventually the idea of using a pre-recorded soundtrack took shape; it is now an integral part of the work’s effect, with a collage of musical snippets informing how we read the images. The slideshow itself consists of numerous loosely themed sections, with each section bringing together different views of the same general subject, so there are, for example, many successive images of couples, of women looking in mirrors (sound-tracked by the Velvet Underground’s I’ll Be Your Mirror, of course), women bathing, women by themselves, men by themselves, women and men together, empty bedrooms, people in cars, people having sex, people getting high, and so on. Goldin herself has stated that she never worked at getting any “conscious metaphors” into the images and there is, I think, every reason to believe her.[iii] The pictures are obviously made spontaneously from her life and from the people or situations that interest her, but the organisation of the images in this thematic fashion is in itself suggestive.

The structuring of the work seems intended to make visible the persistence of specific patterns in our lives and in our relationships, patterns that Goldin implies we are obliged to play out again and again. The possible forms that our relationships might take are circumscribed by these patterns, by the ways we try to make our lives fit to them. In that respect, Goldin seems at least as interested in the coding of identity and of desire as she is in the specific situations or experiences being photographed. This is not to say, of course, that the work engages in anything so distanced – and distancing – as social criticism; Goldin puts herself as much on the line as anyone else here. But the precise arrangement of the Ballad, the way it traces the reoccurrence of specific experiential tropes, is fundamentally connected to the question of how people form relationships, of everything that holds them together – and keeps them apart. These are, by necessity social questions, questions that go to the very core of what it is to be human, because we are only ‘human’ with others, even if it’s just confronting our own face in the mirror. The Ballad, then, is an archive of human relationships, that for all of its diaristic immediacy, makes us aware of the conditions that transcend individual lives, although this is, obviously, where those conditions tend to play themselves out.

Its repetitive structure is also the heritage of conventional slideshows, because all family albums tend to look alike, to duplicate the same fundamental obsessions, the same absences. Goldin’s family album is no different, except she is both aware of this repetition and trying to escape its implications. One especially telling picture of Goldin’s lover Brian, who would later beat her severely, shows him glaring back at the camera, while Fred Flintstone – a literal caveman – looks over his shoulder from the television screen behind. The pull of our socially constrained roles, even of our very natures, is sometimes too much to resist.[iv] Goldin emphasises this in different ways by the contrast of music and image. These pairings might seem a little blatant at first, but putting images of men posing in their different ways against James Brown’s It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World, or women bathing with Dionne Warwick’s Don’t Make Me Over has the effect of making the apparent confidence of these sentiments feel distinctly at odds with the poses they are being contrasted to, so that the inherent limitations of both become obvious. There is also an implied progression to the different sequences, as the hunger for connection fails to overcome the seemingly unbridgeable distance that exists between men and women, and Goldin’s own life telescopes down to the end of a needle – perhaps another way of showing the visceral ‘addiction’ of romantic love. Then, in the second last section, the different couples become gradually more estranged, until finally a succession of empty beds is followed by tombstones engraved only with conventional identities (Father, Husband, Mother, Wife) rather than actual names, suggesting that the burden of such roles is almost inescapable, along with the desires that form them, confirmed by the last image of embracing skeletons.

But in that respect, and in spite of such outward fatalism, Goldin’s attention to the specifics of her own life and to the lives of those around her serves as a kind of counter-memory, which alters or undercuts many of the accepted narratives around what she is photographing. The capacity to value these experiences and identities in the way that she does is what separates her work from the documentary tradition; it is also, and more importantly, what marks the work as a means of affirming those same experiences and identities as legitimate, as having their own intrinsic value, perhaps especially queer identities, as well as different forms of intimacy between women, which emerges as a central theme of the Ballad. Women appear as friends, as lovers, as archetypes, sometimes all of these things at once, framed in terms of how they relate to each other and to themselves (hence the many images with mirrors). Above all, it is how we form and sustain relationships that concerns her here, the way people connect – and endure disconnection. That these relationships become visible, in all their ambiguity, is due in no small part to the particular photographic forms that Goldin has employed. “My work does come from the snapshot,” she has said. “People take them out of love, and they take them to remember – people, places, and times. They’re creating a history by recording a history. And that’s exactly what my work is about.”[v] At the heart of the Ballad is a desire to value, and to remember, to create a record that validated the communities she was a part of.[vi]

That the work is inherently subjective and diaristic is part of its strength, then. The pictures – and the people in them – come directly from Goldin’s own life. There is no question of her going out to find subjects to photograph or of her functioning as a kind of documentary photographer in any of these situations, except in the most literal sense of ‘documenting’ what happens. Instead she participates as a photographer. The difference is a crucial one, and it means that the images are as much a record of feeling as of fact. This aspect of Goldin’s work is most readily apparent here with images made on a trip to Ireland in 2002, where she uses the landscape as a way of registering her own mood, so in this case we get glowering skies and seascapes, a road at sunset, all measures for a particular feeling. But the immediacy and openness of Goldin’s work, which are her great strengths, also tend to become liabilities when, in the absence of some definite structure, they impose – even justify – a lack of intentionality. It is telling that when her landscape images are grouped together as they are here, largely separated from the pattern of Goldin’s own life, they tend to appear somewhat inconsequential. The failing of this work is that we can only have a vague sense of something Goldin felt or experienced, but no real understanding of what it relates to or why it should matter. Equally, while the images of Dick herself over the years that make up a good portion of the exhibition are testament to their enduring friendship, the selection is no more or less revealing than any other that could have been made from the many extended portraits of women in Goldin’s work, like those of Cookie Mueller or Suzanne Fletcher.

It is clear, then, that an output as sprawling (and at times, frankly, as uneven) as Goldin’s rewards a determined curatorial perspective. With Weekend Plans there are some glimpses of what that can mean, not least in the treatment of the Trixie pictures described earlier, and of Goldin’s self-portraits. But the selection of images, keyed as it is to her admittedly important friendship with Dick, along with an over-reliance on the novelty of previously unseen work, creates the unfortunate impression that this exhibition is a companion piece to Dick’s more conventionally realised retrospective, rather than a survey of Goldin’s work in its own right. There are other and equally valid parallels between the two artists that could perhaps have been explored, and that also would have allowed for a fuller accounting of Goldin’s achievements. As it stands, however, this narrow assortment of work emphasises weaker images and minor themes at the expense of a more meaningful overview, as well as of a deeper comparison between the two artists. In addition, too much space is given to autobiographical drawings by Goldin, which might be charming enough in themselves, but have little to tell us about her most important work. So, while the opportunity to view a foundational piece of contemporary photography like the Ballad in Ireland is certainly welcome, the exhibition as a whole is not the definitive statement it could have been.

Nan Goldin, Weekend Plans, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, June 16 – October 15, 2017.


[i] Actually, the title comes from one of Goldin’s autobiographical drawings, showing a wrist being slit and the legend “weekend plans” underneath it. It is interesting to note, however, that pre-press for the exhibition used the title Sweet Blood Call, presumably after the song of the same name by Louisiana Red that appears on the Ballad soundtrack.

[ii] The images of Trixie mentioned above were also made on the set of this film, during its closing ‘party’ scene. You can view a clip of this here:

[iii] Elizabeth Sussman (ed.), I’ll Be Your Mirror, Scalo/ Whitney Museum of Modern Art, 1996, pg. 449. This retrospective catalogue is one of the best published selections of Goldin’s work, and a valuable critical resource, featuring two long interviews with the artist.

[iv] Of course, the implication here is not that men are ‘naturally’ violent and women victims, but rather than our behaviour as individuals is conditioned – sanctioned, even – by our social contexts, the norms of which are sufficiently internalised so as to appear natural.

[v] I’ll Be Your Mirror, pg. 450.

[vi] We might speculate that the diminished focus of Goldin’s work in later years can at least partly be traced to the social and psychological chasm that the AIDS epidemic opened up in her world, and in the lives of those around her, sundering the communities she so valued.




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.