sontagThe most offensive use of photography I personally know takes place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York where I sometimes linger just outside the crowd in front of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. The painting, an old friend, has been lost to me as I look at tourists having their picture taken standing beside the great work. They grin sheepishly or triumphantly as if not looking at the painting but being photographed standing next to it were the decisive thing.

Reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography or trying to read it…my gosh, it’s such a brilliant book…It’s fascinating how Sontag wavers between the social uses of photography and picture taking as art. Sometimes her arguments are very concrete and historical as she cites chapter and verse, a roll call of classic photographers and their insights.

In other passages, the more seductive ones, her statements are more of a riff. These are brilliant sounding, associative ideas like…that the rise of obsessive picture taking by American, Japanese and German tourists, that were noticed especially in the 1970’s with the increase in world tourism, the period of the book, was the result of the workaholic ethic of these travelers. Even on holiday they couldn’t stop working, so they took pictures as if that were a substitute labor for the offices that they had stepped away from.

I thought as I read this passage: “How can you know that’s true?” Well, you can’t. There’s no empirical proof that this explanation of the behavior of tourists is valid. You either accept it…thumping the book with your finger and exclaiming “Of course!” or you don’t.

This collection of linked essays was written in the pre-internet, pre-digital, pre-selfie era. It makes the observation that modernity is incomprehensible without photography. And it’s clarifying to imagine: “There’s no such thing as being online. Now try to comprehend how important photographs are.” It’s like watching a 1970’s movie or TV show where the character has to go into a phone booth and look up a number in the paper directory attached to a chain in order to make a call. Either that or a bit later, maybe in the early 80’s?…take out a mobile phone that’s about the weight and heft of a brick in order to contact someone. Strange world. Strange to us now.

Steichen and Arbus: Sontag has a genius for tying the strands of American culture together. She transitions from Walt Whitman’s pan-erotic embrace of humanity in the 19th century to the Edward Steichen organized “Family of Man” exhibit: 503 photographs by 73 photographers from 68 countries. This is the fine art of photography as idealization. Many of the subjects were physically beautiful in form or face. Sontag points out that the meme of the exhibit was that all humanity was “one”. I love it that she puts the singular world in quotes, as if it were debatable. And they were all the sources of Americanism…feeding into the wellspring myth of our unity in diversity. If you’ve seen any photo essay book at all, chances are you’ve seen “Family of Man”.

“Family of Man” is a comprehensive take on what photography is. It’s the take that most people will still find a touchstone. As Sontag points out, most amateur photographers want to take pictures of sights that are “pretty”…sunsets…smiling friends or family members, the infamous cat picture of which I am also guilty. It’s the pros who may be willing to have none of “pretty” but hunger for “interesting”, shoot for beautiful at a professional level of mastery…or hunt for a way to capture trace elements of reality, that complex part-way mythical, protean beast which may not be attractive at all.

Diane Arbus showed at MoMA 17 years later…about the time of Sontag’s book. Sontag shrewdly points out that this was the most popular photography exhibit at the museum since “Family of Man” in 1955. But it turns the values of the earlier exhibit on their head.

There were 112 portraits of “assorted monsters and borderline cases” Their clothes are awkward. They don’t look like “wholesome” folks engaged in dignifying work or taking graceful poses, people you might want to identify with as in the Steichen show. These are the freaks. You’re not. You’re looking at them. If humanity is all one and this is what it looks like, you’d probably want to belong to another species.

Sontag writes that there’s not as much difference as you might think between the two shows. One is an ‘up’ and the other is a downer that the times wanted to have. But neither show is an “historical exploration of reality”. It’s all about copping an attitude. Both shows are of rhetorical art that wants to tell you what it means.

The Arbus show validates privilege. These people are not you and they look eccentric  or pathetic. You’re not necessarily sympathizing with them. But you are willing to look. You’re bravely observing with the aesthetic integrity of detachment. There’s a whole strain in photography that Sontag sketches of loving the victim or the outsider, of expanding your horizons about what reality is by viewing the rest of the world from the position of being in the first. Consider photography exhibits that you’ve been to. Doesn’t at least some of the content fall into the gauzy category of slumming or voyeurism?

August Sandler, the FSA Project: Sontag uses Sandler as an example of the photographer as scientist, as a taker of an inventory of the world. His catalog of German social types, begun in 1911, butcher, baker, merchant, society queen, soldier etc. set a standard of editorial neutrality. Although Sontag points out that there seems to be an unconscious bias in the gallery of types with middle and upper class subjects getting a more sympathetic treatment.

The early 20th was a period coming off the late 19th century age of phrenology. I tried to read an old social theory book of the period that I picked up in the Strand once. I threw it out when it assumed that “national traits” like being French or German were literally “inherited” by those “races”.

Sontag contrasts Sandler’s catalog of occupations as “types”, which aspired to neutrality and science…or maybe pseudo science…with the tendency of American photographers to either editorialize their subjects or take them more on the wing, avoiding the idea of a taxonomy. The photographers of the government sponsored FSA project were specifically coached to exhibit the value of the poor, rural people who were to be documented. Sontag says this exemplified the middle class sources of the project, that had to be convinced “that the poor were really poor and that the poor were dignified.”

I was thinking of mug shots, an example given in On Photography, of a utilitarian use of photography. But mug shots have been turned into art. Sontag writes…an extraordinary claim which is probably true…that any photograph becomes interesting if only it is old enough. I remember seeing a small exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of family shots from the ‘40’s and 50’s. Brownie-like  camera snaps that people took and that somehow got into the hands of a curator.

These are small, everyday photographs taken by unknown people of anonymous people. A man and a woman stand in front of an old car. They are smiling. Who are they? No one knows. Who took the picture? We don’t know. The photograph…all the visual clues that can be gleaned from it…are all we are ever going to know about these people. But thanks to photography, this trace of their ephemeral lives has been preserved…in a museum!

Comparisons between the art of painting and photography occur throughout  On Photography. Sontag says that painting is an art but photography is not. Photography is a form of media. I suppose she means that when we talk about “the art of painting” we don’t mean house painting. But when Sontag talks about photography she means to cover its broader social and cultural functions as well as discussing it as an art.

Painting is intensive. It doesn’t dream of having the scope that photography has. Photography is extensive. “Billions”. I started when Sontag used that word. There are billions of photographs. Do you want to see them all? Do we ever get tired of looking? As many as I view, that set of viewed images will never align with someone else’s experience of photography. The pictures are traces of reality, filaments, threads of our being. They alter our sense of reality, rendering it somewhat surreal. The photo becomes reality. What’s photographed is real.

Sontag makes a striking comparison between photographs and quotations. And there’s an assemblage of quotations on photography, a kind of glossary of the art, at the end of On Photography. The book is a fine demonstration of how much comprehensive research, hitting the library rather than just the internet, can benefit writing, whether its creative nonfiction or a novel. Equating photographs with quotations is useful, as if pictures were quotations from reality. Having those quotations juxtaposed creates, like a collection of photographs, an aleatory order out of the chaos of our perceptions.

I’ve been looking at Uncommon Places by Stephen Shore, a photography book just a bit later in time than Eggleston’s Guide which JR and I discussed in an earlier post. On the cover is a fine color print of a 1970’s parking lot, or as Sontag would have said, a reproduction of a print. There are lots of pictures of parking lots and banal motel rooms in the book. Do parking lots become interesting because the cars in them are about 50 years old? Is the parking lot rendered beautiful because of the craft? Shore took these pictures with a heavy plate camera mounted on a tripod, requiring longer exposures and rendering a lot of detail. Shore’s bulky camera affected what kind of photographs he could make. But taking pictures with a Polaroid has also been an art form.

Photography lends itself to serialism…measuring out one’s days as a succession of motel rooms as in Uncommon Places. Has where you left the toothpaste in 1972 somehow become interesting because you took a photograph? There’s a large school of master photographers, like Ansel Adams, who aim to depict the beautiful. But is reality accidentally beautiful, or accidentally cruel, or something else…fill in the blank…just because it’s scarred or scored with the passage of time which someone arrested in a picture?

I’ve tried to provide a sampler of the verbal richness of Susan Sontag’s account of the visual richness of our world, a world that can’t be understood or explained without photographs. I hope I’ve interested you in exploring On Photography, a very fine trade paperback from Picador. I purchased my copy.