Ben Smithgall

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Software and data at Spotify. Previously with U.S. Digital Service and Code for America.

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On Photography

By Susan Sontag

Finished reading on October 6, 2018

I originally read Sontag’s landmark essay years ago, and it made a tremendous impact on me. Writing in the age of Kodak and Poloroid film, Sontag’s essays go between a polemical investigation into the nature of photographs and their impact on society and their place in fine art. I am much more interested in the former; I lack a lot of the context needed to think seriously about her arguments about photographs in artistic context.

Sontag’s arguments, such as they are, wander quite a bit, but there are fascinating points made on almost every page:

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the word that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power.

Though Sontag is writing in a different era, it’s impossible not to think about Instagram: tens of millions of new photographs are uploaded to Instagram every days. What does this kind of appropriation mean in a world that generates so many new photographs every day, and a world where so much time is spent consuming those photographs?

Sontag has some limited answers: photography has changed entirely the way that we see as a society.

The very insatiability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in [Plato’s] cave, our world. In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.

This visual code is “both intense and cool, solicitous and detached; charmed by the insignificant detail, addicted to incongruity.”

One other fascinating idea that Sontag raises is that photography is fundamentally a surrealist project: the medium of photography creates what we see as a true image of the world. It is, however, a falsehood: the image is a “fragment” in both time and space. It appears real but is missing a fundamentally important context. Instagram again comes to mind: stories abound about the work and preparation that go into ensuring that photographs bound for Instagram have the proper quality, but they are consumed without that context. The work involved in ensuring that the subject is properly photogenic is lost to the post.

Sontag’s essays are tremendously interesting and well written but seem dated. Photography’s place in mainstream culture has evolved so much since the 1970s: many now carry high-powered cameras capable of instantly creating thousands of high-quality images. Photo editing software has gotten so good that it becomes difficult to tell at a glance if the seeming truth of a photograph is there at all. Video and voice manipulation are not far behind. You have to wonder how those developments would affect Sontag’s writing today.

★★★★☆