On Photography is a book Susan Sontag wrote in 1977. It explores the history, meaning, and practice of photography. In the book, Sontag offers her thoughts on what she sees as the major themes of photography. These include: the uses of photographs, the relationship between photographer and subject, the role of photography in art, and the place of photography in society. On Photography is widely considered to be one of the most important books ever written about the subject.
A photo is taken with the press of a button and rejuvenated. Memory is captured in photographs and permanently preserved. Photography seals the memory of those involved into history. In Susan Sontag’s didactic essay “On Photography,” she explores the significance of photography and concludes that it has limitless power in contemporary culture. Her statement that cameras are “fantasy-machines,” according to which photography brings people closer together, seems distant despite being true .
Sontag believes that photography has the ability to shape reality, which in turn, can negatively impact an individual’s sense of self. The art of photography has always been treasured and controversial all at once. It is important to document life as it happens, but at what cost?
Throughout On Photography, Susan Sontag takes the readers on a journey to unveil the hidden meanings and significance of photographs. In the first section of her book, “In Plato’s Cave” Sontag begins by describing how a photograph can deceive its viewers.
She claims, “Like all works of art, photographs speak their own language. But no other art employs a vocabulary and grammar so limited, or makes so little use of the resources of prosody” (Sontag, 3). In other words, a photograph can only show what is happening in that one specific moment and cannot explain the story behind it. This often leads to false conclusions and misunderstanding.
Sontag goes on to say that “to collect photographs is to collect the world” (Sontag, 8). She believes that by taking photographs we are trying to own something, or someone. In a way, it gives us a sense of power over our subjects. On the other hand, it can be seen as a way to keep our memories alive forever. Photographs help us remember the past and share our experiences with others.
In the second section, “Hall of Mirrors” Sontag talks about how photographs have the ability to change the way we see ourselves and the world around us. She claims that “photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe” (Sontag, 16). In other words, photography has the power to change our perception of reality. It can make the ordinary seem extraordinary and vice versa.
Sontag goes on to say that “photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…one cannot possess reality, one can only approach it” (Sontag, 18). She believes that by taking a photograph we are trying to control and own the subject. However, this is not possible because we can never truly know what is going on inside someone else’s mind. We can only see what they allow us to see.
In the third section, “An Album of Memories” Sontag discusses how photographs can help us remember the past and share our experiences with others. She claims that “photographs are tokens of a momentary conjunction of factors in the world and in the observer’s psyche which will never again come together in exactly the same way” (Sontag, 34). In other words, a photograph captures a single moment in time that can never be recreated. It is a way to freeze time and preserve our memories.
Sontag goes on to say that “photographs are also mementos, keepsakes, souvenirs” (Sontag, 35). They help us remember the people and places we have been. They are a way to keep our past alive. However, she also warns that “the use of photographs to trigger memories can lead to a false sense of recollection” (Sontag, 36). This is because photographs only show us what was happening in that one specific moment. They cannot explain the story behind it.
In the fourth section, “The Family of Man” Sontag discusses how photography has the ability to bring the world closer together. She claims that “photographs give us the illusion that we can possess the world in which they were made – that we can hold time and history still” (Sontag, 54). In other words, photographs make us feel closer to the people and places we see in them. They make us feel like we are a part of something larger.
Sontag goes on to say that “photographs help create the illusion that lives far away are both knowable and manageable” (Sontag, 55). They make the world seem smaller and more manageable. However, she also warns that “this illusion can have dangerous consequences” (Sontag, 55). This is because it can lead to a false sense of understanding and a false sense of security.
In the fifth section, “The Public And The Private” Sontag discusses how photographs can help us share our experiences with others. She claims that “photographs are a way of communicating, a way of sharing our experience with others” (Sontag, 70). In other words, they are a way to connect with people.
However, she also warns that “the use of photographs to communicate can have dangerous consequences” (Sontag, 71). This is because they can be used to manipulate and control people. For example, she says that “the ease with which photographs can be reproduced means that they can be used as propaganda” (Sontag, 71). This is because they can be used to spread ideas and messages that may not be true.
In the sixth section, “The Surrealist Camera” Sontag discusses how photographs have the ability to change the way we see reality. She claims that “surrealist photography takes us beyond the real world into a world of fantasy and imagination” (Sontag, 86). In other words, it allows us to see things in a different way.
Humans are still in Plato’s cave, according to Sontag. Humans become preoccupied with power and knowledge through photography, as it is one’s ability to command the mechanism of dominion that can be controlled by taking photographs.
According to Sontag, photography is a kind of attainment since a camera takes a photo and becomes part of a database with networks branching out from family photos to serving as evidence. Photography serves as a guide in this regard; it acts as if it were laying out a map for you to follow throughout your lifetime in order to discover the truth behind life.
Susan Sontag believes that photography turns life into a series of posed dramatizations, in which the past is an accessory to be used in the present. The main concern with On Photography is over the concern of what we are doing when we take pictures.
Susan Sontag’s On Photography is a text that tries to make us question the impact of photography on our way of life. In six essays, she covers a range of topics from the history of photography to its relationship with advertising and consumer culture. One of her main arguments is that we have become a society obsessed with taking photos and that this has had a number of negative consequences.
While many people would argue that photography is a positive force in our lives, Sontag challenges us to think about the potential downside of this technology. In her view, we have become too reliant on photographs and have started to value them more than actual experiences. This is particularly true of our memories, which she believes are being replaced by photos that we take and store on our phones or computers.
While On Photography is not an easy read, it is a thought-provoking look at the role that photography plays in our lives. If you’re interested in learning more about the history and impact of this technology, then this book is definitely worth checking out.
The usefulness of photographs in Sontag’s eyes is that they provide a more fulfilling existence. For example, she states that “when we are shown a photograph of it, something we [doubt] appears confirmed” (Sontag 3). Humans start to doubt whether certain occurrences occurred as time goes on and memories become less clear and distinct, thus it’s better to forget rather than keep carrying on with sorrows.
On the other hand, some might say that life is more fulfilling without photographs as they can be interpreted in many ways. In the article “In Defense of Memory” by Leon Wieseltier, he states that “photographs supply us with partial truths or sentimental lies, but they do not tell us what we most need to know: how it felt to be there” (Wieseltier 34).
What Wieseltier is trying to get at is that when people see a photograph, all they’re getting is a snapshot of a moment, something two dimensional that cannot compare to being in the actual moment and experiencing everything that comes with it. While this may be true to an extent, it does not take away from the fact that photographs still have the ability to transport people back in time and provide some type of closure.
In Susan Sontag’s On Photography, she argues that “photographs objectify” (Sontag 7). In other words, when a person takes a photograph of another person, they are essentially making that person into an object for their own viewing pleasure.
This can be seen as cruel and heartless, but it is important to remember that not all photographs are taken with malicious intent. Oftentimes, people take photographs of loved ones as a way to remember them after they’re gone. In this sense, photographs can be seen as a way to keep loved ones close even when they’re no longer physically present.
While On Photography does have some valid points, it is important to remember that photographs are not the root of all evil. They are simply pieces of paper with images on them, and it is up to the viewer to interpret them as they see fit.