There are several threads of research I’m following in relation to the appropriation video assignment. Firstly the video uses footage recorded by Susan Sontag, renowned writer, critic and activist. Principally these have been ‘Susan Sontag and her activism and writing’ an interview with her where she discusses a number of topics and an audio recording of a lecture she gave entitled Susan Sontag on classical pornography.
She is the author of the photography anthology, “On Photography” which is essential reading for any photography students and is the way I encountered her work.
The book however is not an easy read as her writing style and terminology are sometimes difficult to follow and the lack of photographs in the book requires the reader to stop frequently to look up the photographer being discussed in an effort to understand why Sontag chose them as examples. It is this observation that makes Sontag the prime subject for my appropriation video.
The aim of the video is to re organise the interview footage, mixed with audio from the recorded lecture, with the intent of making Sontag criticise her own books and writings. Her trademark white quiff starkly contrasted by her black hair will also be exploited in that the intention is to overlay still photographs to replace some of the visuals giving the impression that Sontag fans are everywhere, suggesting its a symbol of a secret society.
So my second thread of research will look at the phenomenon of white streak hair, naturally achieved by Sontag but emulated by several others. You tube offers a video that boasts the title, “How to put a white streak in your hair”, for those dedicated Sontag fans. White hair streaks occur naturally in any person reaching a more mature age, but isolated single streaks are more uncommon. Whether Sontag was actually all grey and chose to keep the white streak research is failing to reveal to date. The fashionable white streak has re appeared in recent years, notably in movies. The fantasy movie X Men has a female character called ‘Rogue’ who after a battle nearly costing her life reveals a newly obtained white streak. The comedy movie The Addams Family (from the TV series of the same name) has a character called Morticia who also sports a white quiff on her jet black hair.
The fashion today has also taken the white streak to a new popularity with many young girls now deliberately adding white streaks to their dark hair although I doubt this is in homage in any way to Sontag.
I will also examine her book “On Photography” to highlight some of the more controversial statements made by her which I hope to illustrate in a reconstruction, to add a new dimension to Sontags words, and then insert these new clips into the video at the appropriate moment.
Firstly though, I will look at Sontag herself, highlighting some of her literally achievements.
Susan Sontag was born in Manhattan in 1933 and studied at Chicago, Harvard and Oxford Universities. In her life she wrote four novels, The Benefactor, Death Kit, The Volcano Lover, In America, short stories, I, Etcetera, plays including Alice in Bed and six books of essays. This diverse career led to many literary awards in her life including the Jerusalem Prize, Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Her book “On Photography” has been translated into many different languages and remains one of the best critical and observational documents related to the medium. “On Photography” came about with ‘just one essay’ according to Sontag, as outlined in the preface to the book. The essay was to be an examination into the aesthetic and moral problems posed by the ever present plethora of images we are bombarded with every day.
In 1977 America where Sontag began to write her essay, the decade was a turbulent period of history but remembered most memorably to some as the year George Lucas’s outer space movie “Star Wars” was released. The late 1970’s however was only a few years after the end of the Vietnam war and was also the period that the Watergate trials concluded, the scandal which toppled President Nixon. With the unpopular war fresh in many minds and then the President’s disgrace confirming to many that Governments were institutionally corrupt and politicians weren’t to be trusted. (http://americasbesthistory.com/abhtimeline1970.html) Sontag set out to put Photography under the microscope.
With the cold war also at its height, America and Russia poised ready to annihilate each other, Sontag’s observations on Photography give an insight to the mind set of a slightly paranoid and scared nation striving to look towards an uncertain future. Her opening line in the book states ” Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s Cave still revealing its age old habit, in mere images of the truth.” (P3 On Photography-Sontag). Seeking the truth behind the images she saw around her appears to be the driving force behind the original essay. As she delved further and deeper into the photography world new truths appeared before her. Her insightful and now regarded as offensive comments on the unfortunate souls born different whether by physical disfigurement or sexual preference, provide a window into the mind set of the age. On commenting on the subjects photographed by Diane Arbus, Sontag states “Do they know how grotesque they are?” (P36 On Photography – Sontag), which reveals to me more of the prejudices inherent in Sontag than any truth about the marginalised society she was commenting upon.
In later years Sontag made several trips to Sarajevo during the war that gripped the country. She claims that she went just as a helper perhaps highlighting a need to focus herself away from writing, to connect with a very real and brutal reality suggesting also that she felt she had become detached from the real world.