Robert Isenberg's Reviews > On Photography

On Photography by Susan Sontag
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Jan 02, 2009

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Q: Why is this book called "On Photography"? Given that not one word of this book says sustains a single positive sentiment about cameras and their usage, why wouldn't it be called "Against Photography," or maybe "Photography is the Downfall of Human Kind."

This is not at all the book I thought it was. Given its most quoted statement, "To collect photographs is to collect the world," I expected a somewhat romantic vision of the photographic craft. Little did I know that Sontag credits photography with dehumanization, desensitization to violence and graphic imagery, and our alleged inability to experience reality in three dimensions. With every passing page, my jaw dropped further; how could a woman who was romantically involved with Annie Liebovitz abhor photography so much?

"On Photography" doesn't have any urgency at all, and though the essays are beautifully written, they strike me as the most misguided of her accomplishments -- melodrama posing as criticism.
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message 1: by André (last edited Nov 22, 2010 03:36PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

André She doesn't abhor photography at all! This book was written due to her fascination with photography, not because she she was on a diatribe against it.

The essays are not "pro" or "against" it, but a study on the issues involving our relation with photography and how our perception of reality changed with it.

Robert Isenberg Andre,

I hope you'll forgive the absence of an accent aigu for your name - my keyboard is, if nothing else, American :)

I was very pleased by your message, as I always welcome a sober response to one of my rants. I concur that she is fascinated by photography. But I still think she's mocking it, or at the very least is viewing it in the grimmest possible light. Here is a favorite example:

"The final reason for the need to photograph everything lies in the very logic of consumption itself... As we make images and consume them, we need still more images; and still more... The possession of a camera can inspire something akin to lust. ANd like all credible forms of lust, it cannot be satisfied... The attempts by photographers to bolster up a depleted sense of reality contribute to the depletion."

This was my soured reaction: "My, what a great profession! I can't wait to become addicted to pointless documentation, to consume without end, to lustily capture images though it will never satisfy me. I may be depleting reality, but at least I'm contributing to something."

Please understand that I love Susan Sontag -- I even dedicated a chapter in my book to her exploits in Sarajevo -- and if I came off as harsh, it was because I felt attacked by a friend. Her observations are all valid, as far as I'm concerned, but as viewed through a very sharp lens (if you will).

But I'm curious your thoughts. And seriously, thanks again for writing. Pleased to make your acquaintance.

message 3: by André (last edited Nov 23, 2010 04:32AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

André Hi Robert,

Oh, I frankly didn't expect such a response. Now that was a nice surprise!

Susan Sontag certainly has issues on how a capitalist society, where consumerism reigns supreme, relates itself to photography. Now if some of her insights do sound harsh, they're directed to how that society uses photography, not at photography itself. Kind of how someone who's passionate about art-house cinema might resent the numerous mindless blockbusters that are being made each year and desensitize most cinema goers to other kinds of cinema.

Anyway, concerning the quote in question, I don't really see it a something negative. Isn't it good that the possibilities of photography, as well as the desire for it, are endless? Well, maybe not if you want to make THE decisive photography, but unless you don't have such an absurd goal - something akin to writing "The Great American Novel" - then I see it as quite a soothing notion for any upcoming photographer.

Since "The possession of a camera can inspire something akin to lust", and, as far as I'm concerned, Sontag doesn't has anything against lust - she's not a moralist or a christian apologist - then it seems clear to me that she can't be "Against photography".


André Spiegel As I tried to say in my own review, I think Sontag neither praises nor condemns photography. She is critical of it. Which seems like an excellent attitude to me.

See, for example, this passage quite at the beginning: "A now notorious first fall into alienation, habituating people to abstract the world into printed words, is supposed to have engendered that surplus of Faustian energy and psychic damage needed to build modern, inorganic societies. But print seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world, of turning it into a mental object, than photographic images, which now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present."

In other words, if she is critical of photography, she is just as critical of her own profession, writing.

It seems like a very valid approach to me. I am fascinated by this book.

Walter Underwood This review is spot on, but I'm surprised you gave it three stars. Sontag isn't even interestingly wrong. I was mostly annoyed and offended rather than challenged.

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