Susan Sontag, On Photography

Sontag’s essays on photography revolve around the question of what photography is, and what it does. While photographs seems like reality, they are actually more like paintings: they don’t reflect reality, they reflect the “real”, or the interpretation of reality that their photographer has shaped and captured. Unlike other forms of art, photos are only enhanced by the passage of time; their effects (like bloom, shadow, etc.) are less important to their overall effect than distance and time, which are what make a photo truly “surreal”. However, surrealist photos that rely on their content for effect are not actually surreal; or rather, every photograph is surreal, because every photo is creating an artificial world.

Photography as a way of making the world more available to us, going along with making others’ suffering and lives in general more available, feeds into the function of photos as consumable objects. Photos can be aesthetic or they can be informative; either one can be used to serve capitalism by making peoples’ image consumption make them believe 1) that images and reality are the same, and 2) that their choice between images is actually freedom. While Sontag does not think photography is art, she does think that it makes what it photographs into art, which is its unique quality. However, even as a legitimate aesthetic technology, it carries with it the problem that photos subvert reality, a process she thinks is getting worse over time. If we consume too many images, the implication is, we will no longer be able to distinguish reality from images, and will live entirely in the image-world.

I found her essay titled “Melancholy Objects” most interesting. Building on her discussion of Surrealism, which relies on assemblages of objects that produce meaning (or alternately, dispassionate photography that gives everything equal meaning), she argues that photography in America makes everything into a relic. Giving examples including the photographing of native tribes’ dances which were staged for the camera, she notes that the act of photographing something is often artificial. She argues that inventories of America are suffused with loss, because they are anti-scientific efforts to take specimens that stand in for the whole, but in taking specimens they (their authenticity, and therefore their power) is destroyed. In turning the past into a “consumable object” (68), it’s made into a fantasy. The Surrealist taste for fragmentation makes photographers into collectors interested in the past, photographing what will be (and already is) gone and can’t be preserved. I am very interested in her idea of an inventory of objects as making up a collection of loss, which I see as connected to the “too-muchness” of Burton’s writings on melancholy and to a certain extent other approaches to writing about melancholy like Avicenna. The sourcing of multiple different explanations that contradict, cross over or bleed into each other gives the illusion of a reality, while in Burton’s case it just makes the reader go through a reenactment of melancholy, and in Avicenna’s it does… something else.

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