On Photography

Susan Sontag

Although photography generates works that can be called art — it requires subjectivity, it can lie, it gives aesthetic pleasure — photography is not, to begin with, an art form at all. Like language, it is a medium in which works of art (among other things) are made. Out of language, one can make scientific discourse, bureaucratic memoranda, love letters, grocery lists, and Balzac’s Paris. Out of photography, one can make passport pictures, weather photographs, pornographic pictures, X-rays, wedding pictures, and Atget’s Paris.

About halfway through this book, you might start to wonder if Sontag appreciates photography at all, and potentially you’ll wonder further exactly when her relationship with Annie Leibovitz started (in the late 80s, well after the publication of this book, though her 2004 book Regarding the Pain of Others also discusses photography and doesn’t acknowledge her personal involvement with the form, from what I’ve been told). At times she doesn’t seem to think photography should be utilized as an art medium at all. She hates on Diane Arbus just enough that I wondered if there’s some personal issue between them (like near the end, she throws in a parenthetical comment that Arbus’s photographs only serve to make “the greatness” of Lewis Hine’s work more apparent). But she also has a lot of interesting things to say about the aggression involved in “taking” pictures. Referencing Honoré de Balzac’s anxiety of being photographed —

every body in its natural state was made up of a series of ghostly images superimposed in layers to infinity, wrapped in infinitesimal films… each Daguerreian operation was therefore going to lay hold of, detach, and use up one of the layers of the body on which it focused

— she concludes that “images consume reality.”