Susan Sontag “On Photography”

The aim of this book, for me is to discuss multiple issues that people have with photography e.g. is photography an art?

It is subdivided into seven chapters, including an amusing set of quotes from different people, and a number of adverts from companies such as Polaroid and Minolta.

Like the majority of books of this kind, I find myself constantly reaching for my dictionary. Academic language, especially when dealing with Art/Photography, is not the easiest to understand for me.

Below is my summarised synopsis of the book ; –

  • The history of photography is discussed at length with criticism and praise being heaped upon different artists and it discusses the camera as a potential “predatory weapon”.
  • America is then the focus of the next chapter where such notable artists as Diane Arbus and there work are discussed. This chapter is what it says it is “America, Seen through photographs, darkly”. Freaks are discussed, which at first sits uncomfortably with me, but then when continuing to read th chapter, there is less offence from the language, but be prepared to be taken aback at points. It challenges your thought process and emotions, so it does what it should do and it makes you think and feel photography, rather than just living life as a snapshotter.
  • The book then moves on and talks about how photography is a mimic of real life. Surrealism is also a main topic in the next chapter. August Sander’s work is also discussed and again becomes thought-provoking.
  • Next, the book discusses the beautification of photography and invokes some powerful emotions again, in this chapter, where Weston’s photography is given a number of pages and it talks about the beauty of his cabbage leaf/ folder cloth image, which invokes a range of emotions.
  • There is an interesting argument and discussion, regarding the merits of colour photography, when compared to the more truthful black and white images. It also discusses photography as being the “mortal enemy” to paintings.
  • The final full chapter concentrates on, is photography real and what impact censorship, for example in China, has on the art? Does this then mean photography in China  tells the truth, due to the censorship of the art and there is a good discussion around this? Photography is also talked about from a realism point of view.
  • The ultimate chapter is simply a collection of quotes, some of which I really enjoy, for example “Photography is a tool for dealing with things that everybody knows about, but isn’t attending to” (- Emmet Gowin), and some that I could be happy never seeing again, such as “it is no accident that the photographer becomes a photographer…” (- Dorothea Lange).

Overall the book is very thought-provoking and has made me think and re-evaluate how I think about making images and what other photographers have gone through, from its inception backing the 1800’s and how this has changed.

For me I will need to read this again, to get the best out of the book. due to the language used within it. It will be interesting to see if my view will change once I have re-read this, in a few months time. Such books make me reflect on my practice and that can only be a positive point for me.

I would recommend this to other students and would be interested in their view-point.


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