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On Photography

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  38,302 ratings  ·  813 reviews
Susan Sontag's On Photography is a seminal and groundbreaking work on the subject.

Susan Sontag's groundbreaking critique of photography asks forceful questions about the moral and aesthetic issues surrounding this art form. Photographs are everywhere, and the 'insatiability of the photographing eye' has profoundly altered our relationship with the world. Photographs have t
Paperback, 207 pages
Published September 25th 2008 by Penguin Classics (first published 1973)
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This was terribly interesting, but I think you needed to know a little more than Sontag explained to understand where she is coming from in all this. The important thing to remember is that Plato wanted to banish the artists and he wanted to do this for a very good reason. To Plato the world we live in isn’t really the real world – the real world is a world we cannot have access to, the real world is where things never die, things remain the same and don’t change. Change and death, to Plato, are ...more
Sep 22, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: photography
I found this book utterly maddening. I'm giving it four stars not for the content itself, but for the quality of thinking I did while reading.

I'm rather surprised not to have found any comments in other reviews regarding Sontag's horrific tactlessness in her discussions of "freaks" (in the context of Diane Arbus' work). Less shocking but also disappointing: her wholesale dismissal of the Surrealists, or as she calls them two or three times, the Surrealist "militants", which they decidedly were
Mar 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: recs, 2018
Written in cool and caustic prose, On Photography consists of seven meditations on the medium's ethics, social uses, and history. Sontag drops epigram after epigram, aphorism after aphorism, in these contentious essays, as she speeds through considering the subjects of photography's most famous practitioners, be it the rural towns of Roy Stryker or the "freaks" of Diane Arbus. Despite the essays' fast pace, the work as a whole lacks anything approaching a coherent direction or central thesis. It ...more
Steven Godin
In Plato’s Cave - 5/5
America, Seen Through
Photographs, Darkly - 4/5
Melancholy Objects - 5/5
The Heroism of Vision - 4/5
Photographic Evangels - 5/5
The Image-World - 5/5

The above six essays simply make up of the most highly regarded and thoroughly interesting books of its kind. I'm a big fan of Roland Barthes's 'Camera Lucida' (although about photography it's more a personal book dealing with the loss of his mother) and this was equally as good if not better.
Sontag raises important and exciting que
I've never read anything by Susan Sontag, but encountered mentions of her book On Photography numerous times in various contexts. It's hailed as "one of the most highly regarded books of its kind". I like taking photographs myself, and thought I would find it interesting.

Those seeking a well-constructed history of photography, its development and an introduction to various schools and movements of photography - as I did - are likely to be disappointed. On Photography has no central thesis, and i
Jennifer (Insert Lit Pun)
It’s like there are questions and shadows in the periphery of my vision, and Susan Sontag puts both hands on my shoulders and turns me to face them head on.
Mackenzie M-B
Feb 02, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Step one: buy this book.
Step two: find a writing utensil
Step three: go on the subway/metro/pvta and go!

you will want to underline just about every sentence because it is life changing. You will want to hug your camera and then throw it into a fire. You will never approach the world the same again.
Get ready.
Just do it.

And then go read Regarding the Pain of Others, because it will be like playing Candyland.
I was fond of photography (no disappearance on that side!) It was the first book dealing with photography, which is not technical, that I read. I remember something deep, complex, which helped me to penetrate this world of the image better even if the subject was not treated only under its artistic side. Good memories.
I approached On Photography expecting a sense of warmth and intellect that Maria Popova paints Susan Sontag with. One essay in, I was slightly disappointed to feel no warmth. So, I read an interview of hers where the interviewer says the "yes and no" attitude is typical of her writing, something that I had experienced as well. She responds by saying that it is not yes and no, rather this but also that. She argues in defence of the premise of seriousness, an idea both close to my heart and valuab ...more
Vicky "phenkos"
Susan Sontag starts her book on photography with a reference to Plato's cave, a dark prison only a few escape. This is not accidental. It defines and presages the thinking that underlies the whole book. By placing a reference to Plato at the very beginning Sontag is telling us: 'I subscribe to the fundamental Platonic principles: the real world vs. the world of imitations. Forms vs. art. Reality vs. the cave.' Or something like that. So what does this entail for her analysis of photography?

To think this was published in 1973 - when photographs were just mementos and souvenirs. What have they become now, in the age of the selfie? Sontag, Barthes, Benjamin, etc - many people have written about the semiotics and significance of photography as an "art." Photography has been held up as a record of things "as they were" - "photographs become exhibits in the trial that is history." says Walter Benjamin, comparing the subjects of photographs to crime scenes. But are photos still treated a ...more
Jul 30, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
On hold. While fascinating, 'every sentence contains a thought' is not as fun as it sounds.
Robert Isenberg
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
Jun 23, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: interest in photography or society
This is a classic book of essays about how photography reveals so much about society, politics, history, and our attitudes towards preserving the image and the potential "truth" inherent in a photograph.

I don't read much nonfiction, and this was originally for a class, but there isn't a single person I wouldn't recommend this to.
Jeremy Allan
Jan 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy-etc
Like many people before me, I felt a certain dread the next time I tried to pick up my camera after reading this book. Susan Sontag's incredible, penetrating critique of photography doesn't just cast into doubt the value of the activity of taking a photograph, but it posits some of the irrevocable changes that the advent of this technology has had on our world and how we experience it. Anyone who reads this having previously nurtured an interest in photography at any level should experience a de ...more
Walter Underwood
Jun 13, 2013 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This is the worst book I've read about photography. It isn't even about photography, it is about Susan Sontag consistently misunderstanding photographs. It isn't intellectual, either. It is her emotional responses to the shallowest possible reading of photographs.

The defining moment is in the appendix of quotations, the only good part of the book. The first quote is from the notebooks of William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the earliest photographers. He wrote, "Make picture of kaleidoscope." This
" To photograph is to confer importance. There is probably no subject that cannot be beautified; moreover, there is no way to suppress the tendency inherent in all photographs to accord value to their subjects. But the meaning of value itself can be altered "

" Through photographs we follow in the most intimate, troubling way the reality of how people age. To look at an old photograph of oneself, of anyone one has known, or of a much photographed public person is to feel, first of all: how muc
The first 2-3 essays of the book are just astonishing. I've been perusing Sontag's journals for the past year or so, and her intellectual range leads you perilously near to pure jealousy, but then you concede her anomalous mind and simply admire it instead. This seemingly limitless curiosity and brute capacity for knowledge is best exhibited in those first 2-3 essays (particularly the first two, which is why I keep saying "2-3"), and also remains less cloyingly didactic there. For example, her c ...more
Ally Armistead
Dec 23, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"On Photography" is the most brilliant book on photography I have ever read, or ever will read. Questioning the nature of photography--its purpose, meaning, future--Sontag forces us to consider revolutionary ideas about the simple act of "snapping" up the world.

Of her string of brilliant observations, my favorites include the notion that taking someone's picture is akin to participating in their mortality, the idea that as soon as a photograph is taken, we've witnessed a second of their life ex
Oct 23, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Art Majors...creative people
I picked this book up at a library booksale about 6 months ago, the first thing that popped out to me when I opened it up was a couple of Kodak Photo's from 1976....about 6 years before I was even born, and a bus schedule card for the same year....for Atlanta/Macon Georgia.....

What interesting history the book must have....I can tell by the quotes that were already underlined the previous owner would have been interesting(underlined any reference to Kerouac etc)....

I wish there was a name on the
An interesting book about the art of photography. The book talks about the origins of photography and its juxtaposition against painting and what the benefits of both are vis-à-vis one another. The book was very philosophical in places and made me look at photography in a completely different way. The book also referenced some of the most iconic photographs of all time. It covered chapters such as: Plato’s cave, American seen through photographs darkly, melancholy objects, and the heroism of vis ...more
Jan 17, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: theory
I first read the article from which this book was born when I was doing my MFA (2000), picked up the book at a used book store several months ago and have been reading chapters in the midst of other reads, projects, etc.

Sontag's ideas are so culturally important and have been so assimilated into what we "already know" that it may be difficult at first glance to see how remarkable her contributions were back in the day (1977?) when she first began to articulate them... or how relevant they conti
Feb 28, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, kindle, 2020
On Photography by Susan Sontag is a treatise on photography; what meaning it holds, both in Western civilisation, as well as other cultures and how such meaning has changed through the relatively short history of the medium.

For non-photographers, it is doubtful whether they would find any value in reading this. However, for those (like me), who have an avid interest, this really is an insightful and influential piece of work. It is the kind of writing that is likely to drive one to question the
I felt drawn to Sontag’s writing after reading excerpts of her essays from one of her other works for a class. Her writing is filled to the brim with critical thought, keen observations, and passion. It’s difficult reading (as mentioned by other reviewers, everything seems to contain a new point, and I wanted to take my highlighter to every other sentence), yet it still remains engaging and is rarely dry. As I read Sontag’s essays, I feel like I can imagine her fiercely arguing for the many idea ...more
Jun 09, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobooked
So, so bad, I'd rate it one star if people took one stars seriously. Her thoughts give faux insights a bad name. This is one long string of "There is no such thing as a good or bad photograph, only more or less interesting ones", and that's an above average excerpt. Thank goodness I only listened to this. The Diane Arbus section was the highlight of a boring collection, but I can't imagine the wikipedia entry on Arbus not rivalling Sontag's chapter. The readings of 50s and 60s Polaroid and Minol ...more
Susan Sontag is one of the few nonfiction writers-- a list to which I'll add Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes-- who can simultaneously be intellectually provocative as all hell while still crafting gorgeous prose.

In this volume, she doesn't merely look at photography and describe the experience. Well, she does do that. And then she takes that description and tears it apart and rearranges it into a totally new vision. And she does it all without flashiness or melodrama. Her ideas about the natu
Mar 03, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition

Every paragraph sounds like the end of a chapter, a summation filled with nuance and aphorism, but it's too much. It's a superhighway jammed with loaded information. It's good stuff, except i wish it had been more concise or I had had the photographs she was mentioning to cut up the incessant babel of her reflection. Her introspection needs more concrete.

Sontag attempts to isolate the photograph as an art form, to insist that photography is the inventory of morality. But because of the objective
I first read this book back in 1981, a few years after it was released. Like most of her work, it caused a lot of controversy and gnashing of teeth. I was studying photography at Rutgers and at SVA in NY, and one of my profs was particularly irked by these essays. Something about "How could this woman who isn't a photographer write such bamsphemy!?! etc." Being just 20 at the time, I wasn't too concerned about her work because, like most college hedonists, I was focused on the pub and the coeds. ...more
Mar 07, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Florence by: Miquixote
Shelves: photography
This book is a great analysis of how photography has changed and how we relate to those changes. Are images just a reproduction of reality, something to keep things alive that have gone before, or are they really an art form?
Some of her keen observations on photography are:
"Photography does not simply reproduce the real, it recycles it."

"To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting yourself into a certain relationship to the world that feels like knowledge and theref
Jul 29, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: on-art
As a disclaimer I find 'Severus Sontag' sometimes intellectually dishonest and obnoxiously arrogant both on paper and in past recorded interviews (that insufferable one in 1992). I stuck with this as she has been said to have made important art history insights here.

I don't think this deserve 1* as the essays reference many works and raise some interesting generalizations and opinions on photography and its place in art, especially in comparison to painting. It is to her credit that Sontag can w
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Susan Sontag was born in New York City on January 16, 1933, grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and attended high school in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from the College of the University of Chicago and did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard University and Saint Anne’s College, Oxford.

Her books include four novels, The Benefactor, Death Kit, The Volcano Lover, and In Am

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