I confess I tried to read this book  early in my studies, but it really didn’t sink in. More recently I had another go, and after having read more widely since, this time the ratio of what I understood to what I didn’t understand improved greatly! A third read further helped, as I formed opinions on which parts I agreed with and which I didn’t. So, worth persevering.
Initially, Sontag’s haughty, knowing writing voice distracted me; she makes everything she says sound like an immutable fact, rather than what it really is – a theory, based on opinions. Similarly, she makes sweeping assumptions applying her theories; she uses terms like “the photograph”, “the photographer” and “the photographic enterprise”, implying universality. I found it easier on second reading to mentally replace these definitives with (e.g.) ‘some photographs’, ‘old photographs’, ‘successful photographs’, ‘photographs of people’ etc, and these qualifiers helped the flow of comprehension.
(Ironically, Sontag could see this habit of generalisation in others whilst practicing it herself: when she says “Steichen’s choice of photographs assumes a human condition or a human nature shared by everybody”, it’s easy to replace Steichen with Sontag and photographs with theories…)
Anyway, enough literary criticism! What of the content?
Where the book was successful was when it made me think of a photograph, or photography as a medium, in a new way. There are a few key ideas from the book that did this for me; they sparked new connections in my brain, and I want to document these before I forget that they were once new realisations.
The moment made eternal
“Television is a stream of under-selected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.”
“The force of a photograph is that it keeps open to scrutiny instants which the normal flow of time immediately replaces.”
This articulated beautifully something that is very powerful about a photograph: that it freezes a moment in time and space, opens it up for examination, doesn’t move on. It doesn’t resolve itself into a future beyond itself, happy or otherwise. The tension in a harrowing photograph is more than ‘this happened’, it’s that ‘in this photograph it continues to happen’.
Nick Ut’s 1972 image of the South Vietnamese girl after the napalm attack is a case in point: a TV report of the same incident would have shown what happened in the seconds or minutes afterwards, provided some kind of resolution to her story on that day: she was taken to hospital, she is recovering, or even – she died from her injuries and is now at peace. But in the frame of the photograph, she’s always nine years old, naked, in excruciating pain, terrified beyond belief, screaming. That’s what makes the picture hard to look at. The viewer is powerless to resolve the frozen-in-time situation. Sontag calls it “the moment made eternal”.
I found this concept fascinating. I’m not sure to what degree as a photographer you can identify at the point of clicking the shutter that the moment is worthy of such freezing, such scrutiny. However, it did illuminate to me one of the elements of a successful image. I suppose it relates to the ‘decisive moment’ thinking attributed to Henri Cartier-Bresson, who also apparently said that a truly great photograph is one that you can look at for two minutes. Choosing the right instant to freeze and extract for scrutiny seems to be one of the skills of a great photographer.
Admiring a way of seeing
“[A position] with criteria which shift the centre of judgement from the individual photograph, considered as a finished object, to the photograph considered as an example of ‘photographic seeing’.”
The above quote was actually in the context of the evolution of accepted wisdom on what made a good photograph – from the ‘Westonian’ dogma of adhering to technical quality criteria to the more contemporary view that takes in a whole range of styles and considers the ‘vision’ of the photographer and the emotions evoked in the viewers over and above measures of technical quality.
The lightbulb moment for me was realising that when people admire a certain photographer – above and beyond liking individual photographs – what they are really admiring is the way that person sees the world. If you make a trip to a photography exhibition you are saying, “I like the way s/he sees things”. The photographs furnish the evidence of that ‘way of seeing’, but it’s the vision that you’re admiring. I guess to an extent you could say that an appreciation of novelists, poets and painters is also predicated on connecting with their world-view to some degree, but with photographers it is most literal: you get to see (in the frame) what they saw (through the lens). You’re getting behind their eyes.
How to apply this? One of the challenges for a photographer is finding a distinctive ‘voice’ or ‘vision’ (without resorting to gratuitous taboo-busting). For a start, I need to be more mindful of subject matter and how I approach it; I need to ask myself before I hit the shutter: has this photo been taken already? what am I seeing here that I don’t think other people would see?
Past and present
“According to Proust […] one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”
“The photographer is the contemporary being par excellence; through his eyes the now becomes past.” (Berenice Abbott)
Much of Sontag’s writing is predicated on the viewing of photographs as it had been practiced for most of its history – as a window into a nostalgic past, of which the photographs are scarce reminders.
However, I do wonder to what extent our relationship with photographs is changing in this temporal respect. Now the gap between taking a photo and sharing it for others to view can be down to seconds – we are often viewing the very recent past, or the ‘evolving present’. We ‘consume’ most photographs much closer to the point of creation than previously.
The ‘past’ of Sontag’s hypotheses doesn’t need to be that long ago to trigger the effects she discusses; I remember getting my holiday photos a week or two after I came back, and being briefly transported back to my holiday mood – today I can Instagram a photo from the beach, and my friends can see it, smile and scroll past it in a matter of seconds. It’s all very ephemeral.
So, many of Sontag’s observations on the power of photographs assume a passage of time, and this passage intensifies some of the connotations she discusses. This in one of the ways in which her generalisation fails to convince the contemporary reader, as our consumption of photography not only increases in quantity but also speeds up, it’s now a minority of photographs that demonstrate the powers she describes.
This is one of those realisations that seems obvious after the fact: time intensifies the power of images. Being cynical, it means that a mediocre picture can achieve some kind of greatness just by getting old – its ‘oldness’ becomes its point of interest for the viewer. So maybe a random selection of images from a prolific 2014 Instagrammer will be viewed as art in 100 years’ time…?
I’ve rambled on long enough. Suffice to say that On Photography has made me think about photography in different ways – it’s stretched my brain. And to quote Oliver Wendell Jones, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions”!
Now onto Barthes…
1. Sontag, S. 1979. On photography. London: Penguin