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.

 

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.