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.