That book had been sitting on my shelf for some years now, many years, actually. It made me feel slightly guilty, just looking at it. It was cannonised a long time ago, an epochal collection of essays on photography, Susan Sontag’s On Photography. Until our group of photographers decided to to make it next month’s reading, I would have probably contuínued ignoring it, based on a vague unease I associated with Sontag’s writing.
So, yes, I can see why some photographers at the time ended their friendship with Susan Sontag or others were tempted to give up making pictures altogether. The tone of the essay Melancholy Objects is a relentless “J’accuse”, the attorney’s concluding statement, making the case against photography. The woman was well read, it seems. She cites and refers to photographers and writers, juxtaposing minds and views from the US and Europe spanning a century. Every once in a while, a sharp statement cuts through the bewildering assembly like a machete through the undergrowth of a jungle. Wow, she has done it again and shone a dazzling light on the condition of our time!
The path to her stunning and provocative conclusions unfortunately does not bear too much investigation. The middle classes apparently find “slums the most enthralling of decors.” The 19th century photographer John Thompson is indicted for turning his attention first to exotic places of the far East, then to the poor of his country, then to portraits of his social peers. This is supposedly falling under the category of “class tourism”. According to Sontag, photography treats poverty in the same manner, in which it treats wealth. And that appears to be her central argument, that photography has abandoned the hierarchical ordering, the narrative inherent in film and literature and other arts. Photography simply drowns the world in pictures, presenting everything as equivalent in value and worth. She appears to accuse photography of undermining the authoritative voices that used to tell us what to think of the world.
For me, her essay fails on two counts, one a mere question of style and possibly sincerity, the other one, however, a fatal blow to her arguments and conclusions.
Regarding the first count, she makes wide-ranging assumptions about what motivates “the bourgeoisie” to take up photography respectively what motivates individual photographers. She attributes motives and intentions to these based upon her unremittingly misanthropic perspective on these. With Karl Marx and various social reformers, class had begun to enter public discourse by the late 19th century, so why should photography as an art form have been excluded from it? While Gerhard Hauptmann, Emile Zola and Charles Dickens brought class and poverty to the stage and the book shelf, photography concerned with these issues was merely a middle-class affectation? Sontag is unhappy with photography’s apparent lack of a moral position, or so she says. At the same time, she mentions the FSA and its enormous and propagandistic photographic project selling Roosevelt’s New Deal to the (tax paying) public, and she fails to mention Russian photography’s social engagement during the 1920s and 30s, let alone the huge propagandistic efforts of various totalitarian states and individual photgraphers whose position is anything but equivocal. Had she forgotten or did it not fit her argument?
Sontag is concerned with photography’s propensity for archiving and cataloguing the world and life whilst supposedly omitting narrative and moral order. One of Sontag’s rhetorical tricks is to speak of photography as if this was a consistent, unified mode of representing the world, not a technique that could be put to a variety of uses. This becomes apparent in her view of photography as inherently melancholic, referring to a moment lost as soon as it is recorded. Of course, for Sontag this amounts to a falsification of history as photos present all events as equal, again refusing a moral standpoint. This sole focus on the past is odd as one of the primary uses for photography is to stimulate desire for some future, which it helps through advertisement and propagandistic photography to imagine as more golden, more complete, more fulfilled. The picture of a beautifully made up woman in flattering clothes was never intended or received as a record of the past; its emotional tone is not one of melancholy. On the contrary, it invites people to imagine themselves wearing those clothes looking so beautiful, to dream of the responses they may receive, to feel how happy they may be then. Photography is also the voice of desire and aspiration.
The reason Sontag can make this glaring omission is because of a fatal flaw in her line of argument. She ignores the audience, the viewer. She uses the passive voice; she accuses “photography” and ascribes it an immanent will it cannot possibly possess. And she does all this in order to get around the fact that there is no one–in her essay, anyway– looking at the photographs she refers to. This condemns the unmentioned viewer to utter passivity, a mere receptacle to the flood of images showered on him by “photography”. With no one around to explain the world to him, he is simply left drowning, one must assume.
Really? When presented with a magazine–let’s say Stern or Time or National Geographic–I may well be confronted with pictures of war and famine alongside images of celebrities and adverts for racy cars and glitzy watches. Am I to be assumed incapable of evaluating those images, incapable of passing, and possibly revising, a judgement of their importance and meaning, of assigning them their place in the world? What of my responsibility as a viewer? What of my curiosity, my own quest for order, for understanding? All these are absent from Sontag’s argument. Is it possible to speak of pictures and of art, avoiding any reference to the audience?
In sharp contrast to Roland Barthes’ observations and reflections on photography–which start with him regarding a picture of his late mother and continue with his writing in a highly personal language–Sontag herself pretends to be absent form her musings. She hovers above the world, a voice of authority–the authority of the “intellectual”, her capital–explaining how things are. Her own view, her own person, her own motives are never put up for discussion while she does not hesitate to variously speculate and surmise on the motives and intentions of the middle classes, photographers, photography and so on. She, unsurprisingly, decries the loss of authority, the moral standpoint in photography–her own authority? People will have to make up their own minds, decide for themselves how to evaluate and view pictures? Sontag appears to be struggling to even consider the possibility.
But this is what it boils down to. The audience is responsible. Whether it exercises this responsibility is a different question altogether. Was not the loss of authority what was wanted, aspired to? Does the flock still need its shepherd(ess)? If one consequence of the rise of the image to its dominating position in contemporary culture is to hand this responsibility to the people, then I, for one, am happy with that.Tags: essay, reflection, sontag