reading notes

All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no: On Photography, by Susan Sontag

Oh man. Sontag already thought the proliferation of photographs, and the superficial nostalgia/pathos they brought, was troubling, in 1977–I wish she could have lived to see Instagram. Or maybe not.

I’ve had a few years of experience with darkroom photography and I’m familiar with some of the most iconic American photographers and photographs, but I’m not so interested in photography’s place in our culture, which is the subject of these essays. But I liked reading them anyhow, for the critical thinking, to see how Sontag’s mind works.

Okay, but the highlight of the whole book: did you know that the word cliché, which means a trite/overused expression, originally came from the word for something like a photographic negative–like a block print, a template that printers could use to print the same image repeatedly? (Another word for the same object: a stereotype!) Thanks, Sontag! (This is mentioned in “The Image-World,” summarized below.)

For this book, instead of quoting from it, I’ll go through and write my [very personal, idiosyncratic] tl;dr of each essay in the book. Only way I’ll remember what they were about.

In Plato’s Cave
Photographs necessarily involve appropriating the subject, and then you can have the illusion that you understand the subjects, when you don’t. Photographs of people suffering may help goad people into taking action, but they can also make people numb. Photographs are almost more real to people than experience itself, and everyone is addicted to them.

America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly
Diane Arbus, her approach, subjects, and her stance toward her subjects, where to place her work in the context of photography and art, and what this all says about America (basically: it’s NOT all rainbows and unicorns like how Walt Whitman saw America).

Melancholy Objects
Photography is more Surrealist than other arts that were trying to be Surrealist, like painting or poetry. Class tourism is when you photograph e.g. poor people, because it feels exotic. This is Surrealist. Photography is fond of taking subjects that are “ugly” or rejected and reframing them as beautiful. This is also Surrealist.

The Heroism of Vision
At first the photographer was thought of as just the person operating the camera, like a scribe as opposed to a writer. But soon anybody with a camera was thought to have their own special way of seeing the world, and it becomes heroic to photograph things that otherwise go unnoticed. A photograph always makes its subject beautiful in a way, and you can’t really avoid that, which can be disturbing when the subject is something horrific. Again: you think you understand the subject, but you don’t.

Photographic Evangels (my favorite piece!)
Photography has always been suffering from an identity crisis, mostly around how and why it’s legit. Is it a fine art or not? Does it involve thinking, or is it spontaneous? Is it about expressing yourself, or about documenting reality? At first photographers were desperate to be thought of as artists; now they feel like they’re too cool to be thought of as artists. Because their work is more accessible. But–oh no!–what if it becomes so accessible that anybody can claim to be a photographer? That keeps the professional photographers up at night. Photographers also claim that they’re freeing painters and writers from the drudgery of trying to describe things, which is a silly claim for a lot of reasons.

The Image-World
Images have become more real to us than the real world, such that when you see a thing in person, you might be disappointed because it doesn’t look like the photograph. China has a super different notion of camera culture: photographs should always be posed, and should always show the subject in the best possible light. Capitalism is fueled by a constant mass supply of images, which we now have. And like anything we consume, the more images we take and look at, the more we need.

A Brief Anthology of Quotations
Just quotes that are relevant to all the other essays.