susan sontag annoys me from the grave

Two or three times a year I’ll open up Susan Sontag’s 1977 collection of essays On Photography and read a few pages. I usually do it when I’ve finished reading another book and I want a breather before starting something new. I’ll open it to some random page, read for a bit, then close the book and mutter “Susan fucking Sontag.”

The thing is, Sontag/On Photography 1) always makes me think and 2) always annoys the hell out of me. Always. Always and for a dozen different reasons. The main reason, though, is that she’s usually entirely correct. Nobody likes a person who is always right. This is what stuck in my mind last night:

To photograph is to confer importance.

That’s Susan Sontag for you. Six words, and there it is. Six words, and she confronts you with a notion that ought to be self-evident but isn’t always. Six words, and she lays out a way to both shoot and understand photography. To photograph a thing is to confer importance on that thing.

That’s not to say what a person photographs will be important to anybody other than the photographer. It only means that by making the decision, consciously or intuitively, to isolate one chunk of reality and photograph it is a way of stating that particular chunk of reality has personal value for the photographer. It’s saying “This little chunk of reality is deserving of my attention, however fleeting that is.”

To photograph is to confer importance. Sontag illustrates that notion by discussing a photograph made by Edward Steichen in 1915 — a photograph of a couple of milk bottles sitting on a tenement fire escape. When I say Sontag illustrates the notion by discussing the photograph, I mean exactly that. Any other writer and any other book on photography would have included Steichen’s photo to illustrate the point. But not Sontag. That’s another annoying thing about her and On Photography: there are NO photographs in the book. None at all. If you want to see a photograph Sontag is talking about, you have to go find it. Which I did.


Instead of showing the photo to make her point (which, if you recall, is to photograph is to confer importance), Sontag chooses to illustrate the concept by — and I’m not making this up — quoting from Walt Whitman’s preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass:

Each precise object or condition or combination or process exhibits a beauty.

It is annoying as hell to quote a poet to explain a photograph. But yeah, as usual, she’s entirely correct. Each precise object exhibits a beauty and to photograph a precise object is to confer importance to it. Remember, Steichen shot that photo in 1915. Photography at that point in time was cumbersome and expensive. Steichen couldn’t just notice the milk bottles and take a quick snapshot of them. He had to set up a tripod, attach a large boxy camera to it, compose the image beneath a shroud using a screen in which the image appears upside down and reversed, then calculate the exposure. And all that takes place before the labor involved in developing the film and making a print. Taking a photograph in 1915 was a lot of work.

So yeah, to photograph was damned sure conferring importance. You don’t subject yourself to all that fuss and bother unless the precise object exhibited a compelling beauty. So Steichen was faced with a question. Milk bottles? On a fire escape? Really? And his answer was, yes, really, milk bottles on a fire escape!

This sort of photo is common now, but in 1915 it was revolutionary. Now, with digital imagery, a photographer can piss away hundreds of photos on milk bottles on fire escapes without any concern or thought. So even if we agree that Whitman is right and every precise object exhibits a beauty (and I’m not about to argue against our boy Walt), we have to ask if Sontag is still right. Does photography still confer importance?

I kind of want to say no. I want to say no partly because if modern photography requires absolutely no training and is subject to anybody’s passing whim, how can it confer importance on anything? I also want to say no just because Sontag continues to annoy me, even though she’s been dead for a decade and a half.

I kind of want to say no, but I can’t. Even if a digital image requires less commitment to the subject and the process, the decision of what and how to photograph remains the same. Here’s a photo I shot recently on a walk. It took maybe ten seconds to notice, to compose, to adjust the exposure, and take the photo using my cellphone. Maybe fifteen seconds. Then I was back to walking.

It probably took hours for Steichen to photograph his milk bottles and make a print of it. It took me only a moment to photograph a shed in somebody’s back yard. But the fundamental process is exactly the same. You observe the precise beauty of a thing, you isolate that thing in a lens, and you confer personal importance on it by photographing it.

Susan fucking Sontag. She annoys me from the grave.

10 thoughts on “susan sontag annoys me from the grave

  1. You’re discussing the difference between a photo and a snapshot, Gregg.

    The COST of snapshots is well nigh zero. There are more than enough duck faced selfies of twenty somethings on the internet to waste trillions of electrons alone!

    The VALUE of a photo that captures an image, confers importance on it, and shares it?

    One that still speaks after 100 years?

    Well, that’s in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s an error to dismiss all amateur photography as snapshots or narcissistic “duck faced selfies of twenty somethings”. But even so, those folks are doing pretty much what Steichen did — find something they find worth photographing and photographing it. Doesn’t matter if it’s the foam on their coffee or the most mundane sunset or one more be-dewed spider web — they’re looking, they’re seeing, they’re deciding to shoot a photo. It’s not necessary for anybody else to find it important.

      Liked by 1 person

      • When someone captures “HERE and NOW”, they do it for different reasons.

        –To enjoy it later personally so as to remember the moment (graduation photo?)
        –To document it for later (such as an insurance adjuster!)
        –To contemplate at some time in the future.
        –To share it with someone who isn’t present.
        –To create commerce (photo shoot).
        –To create art to be shared.

        Some people keep a journal for themselves. Others might permit friends to read their observations.

        Still others’ journals — a very small subset — qualify as literature that strangers might want to read.

        “When old age shall this generation waste,
        Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
        Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
        ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all
        Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”


  2. Photos vs. snapshots is certainly a distinction that didn’t exist in 1915, but does now. But people still take photos–even if it’s a lot easier now. I take both (well, relatively rarely do my efforts warrant the label “photograph,” but that’s another story), and the difference for me is in the point of making the image, as well, to a certain degree, in the thought and care I put into it. That said, a snapshot can *carry* “importance,” even if it’s only sentimental to a few people who were there at the time, or loved the subject of the snap, or remember stories about the incident that was snapped, or what have you. But being made in order to confer importance is different from incidentally ending up carrying it. This is interesting food for thought. Thanks. (And it’s been decades since I read On Photography. I may need to seek that book out again. Dipping into it every so often sounds like an excellent approach.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • I have a bit of a problem with the way a lot of folks distinguish between a ‘snapshot’ and a fine arts photograph (or a documentary photo, or any other sort of photographic genre). There are a number of serious artists who attempt to tap into the innocent amateurism of snapshots — which is pretty strange, when you think about it. Trying to be deliberately innocent is sort of like ringing a bell to create silence.

      That said, I find reading bits of On Photography periodically makes me a more thoughtful photographer. Not always sure that’s a good thing, but there it is.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Serious artists tapping into snapshots is “meta”–which makes it automatically serious-squared. But no, seriously (square-root), I think INTENTION is the key word here. And you can TRY to PRETEND to be deliberately innocent, but in the end, it’s really not possible. So unless a “serious artist” is trying to tell some sort of story that exists above and beyond the “snapshots” they’re tapping into, and can do so without reference to some external Great Arbiter in the Sky, well… forget it.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. What I really wanted to say is, people should just take photographs for whatever damn reason they want. For art; to tell a story; because they’re drunk and see a light in the sky and want to capture it. To confer importance. To recognize beauty (even if it’s only in the eye of that particular beholder). It’s a mode of expression, of safekeeping, of making a note. Fine art photograph, snapshot–who cares. There was (most often) a reason that image was made.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Can’t argue with any of that. The kernel of truth (and lawdy, I’m reluctant to talk about capital T Truth) in Sontag’s point is that it doesn’t matter WHY somebody takes a photo. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fine arts photographer or an amateur with a cheap-ass cell phone. Once you make the decision to take the photo, you are necessarily conferring some degree of importance to the subject. If a decision is involved…if you’re not just closing your eyes and spinning around, shooting entirely at random…then you’re basically stating the thing you’re photographing has at least momentary importance.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Thanks for once again making me think, Greg. I don’t think you should dismiss your “snapshot”. YOU still observed it. YOU still took the time to photograph it. We’ve all seen photos from Meyerowitz or any number of other photographers that can be called “snapshots” if not for the name associated with them. You and I have a similar eye to things in the world, so I like your photos a lot. I don’t care if took 15 second or an 45 minutes. Your vision saw it. It’s a good “get” as they say in tennis.


  5. Pingback: JSP Visual Week In Review ~ 12.08.18 | JerseyStyle Photography

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