Posted by: benshelor | November 12, 2008

Susan Sontag “On Photography” Critique

“The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed.”

Diane Arbus

By the simple nature of photography, the artist is more free than perhaps in any other discipline to move about the world around them an truly capture the world, people, places, and events that humanity lives amongst every day. Susan Sontag’s 1977 article “On photography” takes a closer look at the practice, use, and conceptions of photography in the modern world through the work of the late Diane Arbus- a photographer famous for her odd, often disturbing pictures of the oddities of society and the world that were a contrast to the “beauty” of art and photography that had come before.

Sontag makes frequent use of 19th Century American poet Walt Whitman’s 1855 work “Leaves of Grass,” which posits a rather optimistic view of what was to come in American society. He forecasted a social and artistic revolution that did not materialize. Beauty, as seen by Whitman and later by the author, Sontag, is inherently objective.

Sontag writes: “To photograph is to confer importance.” Today, however, with the widespread use of photography, those things which have been photographed have lost their importance. There is a trivial nature about things which are photographed and some controversy as to whether a photograph is art, or at least is the artist’s personal expression, or not. Sontag points to attempts to “universalizing the human condition” into joy (as done by photographer Steichen in a collection of people from around the world trying to convey the unity of mankind) or into horror (as Arbus shows in her collection of people society has deemed ugly, the “freaks”.) Arbus’s photographs contrast the extreme with the normal- what Sontag calls “contrast between their lacerating subject matter and their calm, matter-of-factness.” They make the viewer think about the world they live in by asking if the subject they are so fascinated by feels the same way about them. Arbus treats all moments as if they were of equal consequence, downplaying the earlier notions of the importance of photography and installing it in the mind of the viewer as simply an everyday expression of what the artist sees and interacts with. The difference was Arbus’s interaction with her “freakish” subjects: her 1971 suicide seems to have proven that her photographs were dangerous to her. Arbus’s interaction with her subjects seem to imply for the photographer and indeed the viewer had associated with and befriended the subjects that were meant to appall the viewer, an implication meant to further disturb the viewer beyond the image in front of them. Her purpose was to provoke the thoughts of the viewer into wondering just what it was about this person, and their reaction to them, that so bothered them.

Sontag says: “The photographer once had the power to say to herself, Okay, I can accept that; the viewer is invited to make the same declaration.” Photography for Arbus boiled down to an acceptance of the world around the viewer. It was not the quest for beauty in the world but the realization that things and people are disturbingly imperfect.

The average modern personal experience with photography has been somewhat less emotionally and intellectually involved. Widespread use of the camera has changed it from a tool of art to a tool of simple documentation that has rid many pictures, and indeed many objects, of their value. Sontag’s article provides an excellent background and thought provoking argument into the nuances of photography as art, and indeed what “art” really means at all. Contrary to the popular notion that art is simply something beautiful, Sontag (through the work of Arbus) shows us that perhaps it is far more than that, it is a tool for expression of ideas of the artist and the viewer toward the world around them.


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