Reading ‘On Photography’ by Susan Sontag

“Rehabilitating old photographs, by finding new contexts for them, has become a major book industry.

A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time it’s moorings become unstck.

It drifts away into a soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of reading….” (page 71)

‘On Photography’ is a collection of essays written by Susan Sontag, which investigates the aesthetic and moral problems raised by the presence and authority of the photographic image in the lives of everyone today. Sontag argues that the collection of photographs could be one’s way of collecting the world, objectifying moments; separating them from reality.

Sontag discusses the actions in which a photographer takes to make the picture his own; giving it a signature, by choosing the angle and the framing. But most importantly, she makes us query our insensitivity to imagery. It is without a doubt all around us, predominantly in advertising.

Sontag questions the way we photograph being a projection of ideals and never truthful. She comments on Arbus and her photography which is best known as ‘Freaks’, querying her reasons behind her work. “The photographer chooses oddity, chases it, frames it, develops it, titles it.”(pg.34) She looks on Arbus’s work, with an overview that Arbus was just good at seeing the obvious, getting to know the subjects to make them at ease in her company.

Overall, I think Sontag’s collection of essays work together well to keep us in a state of thinking. It is so easy to take pictures today, with camera’s being integrated into phones, tablets, computers; it is essentially like keeping a photographic diary of our every day lives. A diary that we will look back on.

“Through photographs we follow in the most intimate, troubling way the reality of how people age.

To look at an old photograph of oneself, of anyone one has known,

…is to feel, first of all: how much younger I (she, he) was then.

Photography is the inventory of mortality”

Much like Barthes, Sontag often looks at the photograph as a symbolic object of death. Which is only a reminder of how mortal we are and how fragile life is.

I found Sontag’s work useful to my project. as it reinforced the ideas of photography is a metaphor for ongoing life, the making of history and the foreverness of a single moment that the photograph in an instant, captures.

Book Reference:

Sontag, S. On Photography. London: Penguin Group, 1977.


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