Susan Sontag – on photography is a challenging read. Without doubt she has dissected piecemeal every aspect of the subject, challenging concepts and reaching conclusions which appear sound and well thought out. Her opinion though is most definitely dated in some areas as photography like most of life, carries on developing and adapting to the constant changes in the world. An example of this “time warped” view point can be seen in her assessment of Diane Arbus’s work of the aesthetically and physically challenged. Whilst her opinion of the photographer and the reasons for taking portraits of this under valued minority were well laid out, the comment “They don’t realise how ugly they are” speaks of an underlying prejudice and an intolerance for anyone not born perfectly formed. Interestingly she also labels nudists as freaks of society alongside dwarfs and others born with abnormalities.
Her analysis of the role photography has played in society, is quite inciteful. Indeed she describes photography as both a document recording change, as well as a document provoking change. Her views on the art of ‘seeing’ (regarding the world through the assembled printed images) came about because of photography’s ability to freeze time allowing the viewer to see the ‘real’ world in a level of detail not known before. Her analysis of the practice of taking snaps to signify ‘you were there’ at some exotic location on a hard earned holiday correctly identified the role the camera had assumed in the very fabric of our culture. All of us can remember our past in much more detail due to the plethora of holiday photographs taken during our childhood.
Additionally she describes the way the camera opened the doors to the hidden worlds of the poor whilst also glorifying the rich and privileged who demanded their position in life was recorded for all to see. The camera in Sontags view also became the instrument of world change.
Take a picture of a poor under nourished child in an African country and all who see the image become connected to the child. If sufficiently moved by the image and the plight of the child a person may take steps to relieve the child’s suffering without ever visiting the scene or meeting the child in person. Such is the power that photography wields.
I am sure that I have merely scratched the surface in regards to this book, and it has prompted me to read this book again once the first read though has been properly digested and the ideas assimilated.