The Canon. On Photography by Susan Sontag

October 22, 2009

Susan Sontag was a controversial figure. Her writing, activism and strong, frequently unpopular but influential opinions earned her a prominent and unique place in American intellectual circles, somewhere between the academy and the more general, popular polemic.

Referred to by some as the "Dark Lady of American Letters", she wrote on an impressive range of topics, including Nazi aesthetics, photography, Aids and the events of 11 September 2001. Her essays became points of reference, disagreement and analysis for scholars and critics in many fields.

She was an accomplished fiction writer and activist. Her deep concern with the way "otherness" is represented in Western public discourse is not only evident in her writing, but also in her actions. In 1968, she visited Hanoi, and in 1993 she staged Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo while the city was besieged by Serb forces. In so doing, she offered powerful, although controversial, statements of personal involvement in important events of her time.

On Photography was published in 1977 and remains an essential text for writers on photography and cultural criticism. Its lasting relevance stems less from the rectitude of Sontag's statements and more from the way her evocative, often opinionated polemic introduces an entirely new approach to investigating still images and determining their place within a variety of other critical and philosophical discourses. It is a landmark in the discipline, comparable only to a few other canonical works, such as Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida.

On Photography brilliantly interweaves an analysis of the work of particular photographers with wider questions about the medium. These questions, encompassing aesthetics, ontology and politics, challenge and even dismiss the stale debates prominent up until that point.

After briefly discussing photography's struggle to be recognised as art and its difficult relationship with painting, Sontag soon moves on to the fundamental question of the relationship between the still image and reality. She is one of the first critics to include the viewer in this consideration. She carefully examines how social conditioning influences not only how, but also what, one sees.

She writes that a photograph "is not only an image ... an interpretation of the real, it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask". But even in emphasising the special relationship between photography and reality, she refuses to glorify the medium and stresses its subservience to context. This, along with her understanding that the proliferation of images in modern society tends to result in desensitisation, leads her to imply that photographs do not have the power to change the world on their own. She later revised and updated this conclusion, and many others from On Photography, in her final book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003).

Sontag's prose is beautiful and her arguments, although subjective and opinionated, address questions that remain relevant. On Photography is an essential text for anyone working on the still image, and also provides a brilliant, illuminating experience for academic and non-academic readers alike.

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