The essays that make up On Photography are at times polemical and immoderately aphoristic. (The final 25 page section is a collection of quotations featuring the likes of Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Lewis Heine, Victor Schlovsky, and Charles Baudelaire.) Definitions for photography abound. Photography appropriates, documents, democratizes, idealizes, distills, amuses, distracts, memorializes, certifies and justifies. As William H. Gass writes in his 1977 review of Sontag’s collection for The New York Review of Books, “No simple summary of the views contained in Susan Sontag's brief but brilliant work on photography is possible, first because there are too many, and second because the book is a thoughtful meditation, not a treatise, and its ideas are grouped more nearly like a gang of keys upon a ring than a run of onions on a sting.” The collection is at times unhelpfully general and scattered, but certain themes do become apparent, if only because of Sontag’s very deliberate attempt to ground her reflections in her present surroundings. What really interests Sontag throughout these six essays is the relationship between photography and reality: the way that photography gives shape to experience and informs our judgements about what counts as “real.”
But this concern for the “real” happens to be one of least interesting things about On Photography. Photography, as an artistic discipline, was at first naively situated within the genre of realism, comprising of what Fox Talbot first described as “natural images,” once believed to provide the viewer with pure access to its subject. Similarly, the great modernist László Moholy-Nagy saw the genius of photography in its ability to render “an objective portrait: the individual to be photographed so that the photographic result shall not be encumbered with subjective intention.” Early defenders of photography as an art form tended champion photography either as an assault on reality or a submission to it. A result of this tension, observes Sontag, is a deep ambivalence towards photography’s means, often manifested in one’s reluctance to use the newest high-powered equipment. But this tension wasn’t really an issue for the new class of photographers that emerged along with cheaper, easier technology.
For Sontag, writing in the 1970s, photography had recently become “a social rite, a defence against anxiety, and a tool of power” for middle class Americans (8). Finally an affordable past-time, photography became a way of constructing personal and family narratives, documenting notable events (that is, turning situations into events) and doing something with one’s leisure time. For Sontag, the modern photographer cannot be considered without recourse to the figure of the tourist. The camera not only helps to “make real what one is experiencing,” but allows its user to occupy as space outside of what he or she is documenting. “Photographing,” she writes, “is essentially an act of non-intervention.” But it is also “an elegiac art, a twilight art.” To capture a moment in time is to step outside of it: to bear witness to an alternate reality, or, at least, a morbid one.
As a mode of knowing and experiencing the world, photography leaves Sontag feeling jaded and cynical. Although they can help raise our collective consciousness to various injustices throughout the world, photographs are perhaps even more potent in the way that they desensitize us and contribute toward false-consciousness. She writes:
The limit of photographic knowledge of the world is that, while it can goad conscience, it can, finally, never be ethical or political knowledge. The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. . . . By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is.More compelling, and less speculative, is Sontag’s interest in the relationship between photography and art. This relationship hinges on the way that the majority of art is circulated and experienced; that is, through photographs. As Sontag puts it, “photographs have become so much the leading visual experience that we now have works of art which are produced in order to be photographed.” It’s not difficult to see how this thread continues to inform the world of digital aesthetics thirty years later. There was a time when the screen was simply a vehicle for the consumption of images. Now, much of the art that is made for the screen is produced on a screen. Categories like viewers, users and producers seem inadequate for capturing the range of activities enabled by the digital platform.
The controversies of photography’s history are all forms of the debate about its relation to art: “how close it can get while still retaining its claim to unlimited visual acquisition.” For Sontag, the 1970s were a time when the public appetite for photography had less to do with experiencing a neglected art form than with making a break with the abstract art that had become synonymous with modernism. Classical modernist painting, writes Sontag, “presupposes highly developed skills of looking, and a familiarity with other art and with certain notions about the history of art.” Photography, instead, seems to simply make form disappear, delivering its content to viewers without asking much of them. In this way, photography aligns itself with modernism’s populist impulse, its eschewal of high culture and traditionalism. Yet, as Sontag notes, this is precisely the dilemma for modernists: for all their promotion of naive art, they continue to espouse a hidden attachment to their own sophistication.