Susan Sontag’s Pictures at 50

This yr marks 50 years since Susan Sontag’s essay Pictures was printed within the New York Overview of Books. Barely edited and renamed In Plato’s Cave, it will change into the primary essay in her assortment On Pictures, which has by no means been out of print.

The breadth of Pictures is immense. It ranges over inventive, industrial, photojournalistic, and common makes use of of images; and it discusses the {photograph}’s position in each sensitising and desensitising us to different individuals’s struggling – a theme Sontag reconsidered 30 years later in her closing e book, Concerning the Ache of Others.

However maybe nowhere is Sontag’s enduring relevance as a critic clearer than within the essay’s evaluation of images as each a symptom and a supply of our pathological relationship to actuality.

Sontag described images as “a protection towards anxiousness”. She noticed that it had change into a coping mechanism. Confronted with the chaotic surfeit of sensation, we retreat behind the safety of the digicam, whose one-eyed, one-sensed perspective makes the world appear maniable.

Sontag claimed that we {photograph} most once we really feel most insecure, significantly once we are in an unfamiliar place the place we don’t know easy methods to react or what is predicted of us. Taking {a photograph} turns into a manner of attenuating the otherness of a spot, holding it at a distance.

Vacationers use their cameras as shields between themselves and no matter they encounter. In keeping with Sontag, images offers the vacationer’s expertise a particular construction: “cease, take {a photograph}, and transfer on.”

Having taken {a photograph}, we consider its topic as our captive: it’s there now, on the movie, within the digicam’s reminiscence. This may make us inept observers. There isn’t a must expertise one thing now, as we will at all times overview it later. So we seize and run.

Even when we compose rigorously, if we “make” quite than “take” {a photograph}, we’re more likely to really feel the discharge of the shutter as the discharge of a bond, as if we now can (or should) transfer on – to different pictures.

I used to be there

Pictures is a manner of testifying I noticed this, I used to be there.

Kodak’s advertising via the early twentieth century testifies to this urge. “Take a Kodak with you” was one of many firm’s earliest slogans. By 1903, they have been saying that “a trip with no Kodak is a trip wasted”.

Sontag wrote:

A manner of certifying expertise, taking pictures can also be a manner of refusing it – by changing expertise into a picture, a memento. Journey turns into a method for accumulating pictures.

Susan Sontag’s Pictures at 50

Duke College Library/Public Area

By way of images, Sontag argued, we in the end change into vacationers in our personal actuality. Sontag thought this occurred primarily to the photojournalist, the individual on fixed lookout for his or her subsequent topic. However it’s true of most of us right this moment. Now we have change into discontents on the perpetual lookout for content material. Photographic promiscuity is now one among our mores. It’s what we do: we shoot every little thing, not least ourselves.

Within the revised model of the essay, Sontag says that “taking pictures has arrange a power voyeuristic relation to the world.” Her declare is that images has reframed the way in which we see the world and our place in it.

What we see is mediated by expertise. Once we look via the attention of the digicam, every little thing is revealed as a potential {photograph}. This has an atomising impact: individuals and experiences seem discrete, the type of factor appropriate for assortment within the miscellany of reminiscence.

A method of approaching Sontag’s deeper level right here is thru her dialogue of this Leica commercial:

The individuals within the commercial evince concern and shock, however the man behind his viewfinder is self-possessed. The promise is that the digicam will make you the grasp of all conditions. The Soviets crushing the Prague Spring, the Woodstock competition, the struggle in Vietnam, the winter video games in Sapporo, the Troubles in Northern Eire – all of those are “equalized by the digicam”. They’re decreased to the standing of the “Occasion”: one thing that’s “price seeing – and due to this fact price photographing.”

Learn extra:
Richard Avedon, Truman Capote and the brutality of images

An accessible world

Sontag was important of a discount that takes place within the lives of the viewing public (itself a very telling phrase). She wrote that pictures have the impact of “making us really feel that the world is extra accessible than it truly is”.

We see pictures of individuals and occasions which can be distant in area and time. This may increasingly appear to carry them nearer, however the sense through which they’re made accessible is a extremely mitigated one. Elsewhere in On Pictures, Sontag speaks of a “proximity which creates all of the extra distance”. She argues that “it’s not actuality that pictures make instantly accessible, however photographs”.

Flicking via a photograph journal, we encounter a disorienting welter of topics: the horrific, the erotic, the mundane. Every part jostles for our consideration as tokens of 1 all-engrossing class: “the fascinating”. This confusion is the peculiar situation of right this moment’s compulsive screen-stroker.

Drawing of Søren Kierkegaard (c.1845).
Frederiksborg Museum

Sontag’s criticism in regards to the “levelling” impact of media is nothing new. It goes again not less than to the Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard within the 1840s. At the moment, new telegraph networks and sooner printing presses meant that every morning extra eyes have been focussed on information about elsewhere. Kierkegaard thought that as we change into extra interested by distant occasions, our lives lose depth. We stop to see ourselves as concrete people and change into members of that abstraction “the general public”, whose solitary obligation is to be told, to be conversant with the matters of the day.

Like Kierkegaard, Sontag’s goal was, broadly talking, moral. She was involved with our sense of ourselves and our place on the planet. She thought that pictures have been displacing us. What’s furthest in area and time now reaches us as shortly as what’s closest. It’s not that the far has drawn nearer, however that every little thing is held at an equal distance. Our sense of situatedness has been upset. We’re concurrently in every single place and nowhere – an all-seeing, incorporeal eye. Our sense of orientation, our sense of what’s related to us, has diminished.

This may increasingly give a misunderstanding of Sontag’s argument. Her political dedication is past query (simply examine her 1968 go to to North Vietnam, or her 1993 staging of Ready for Godot in Sarajevo). She was actually not making an attempt to justify inattention or insularity.

Sontag’s objection is primarily to the way in which we’re remodeled into, as she writes elsewhere, “clients or vacationers of actuality”. Our duty turns into perpetual consumption of what’s served up by the media. We relate to the world past the media as if it have been media, as if it have been content material.

Sontag’s criticism of “mediation” is, partially, a few lack of depth. However extra to the purpose, it’s about (to make use of one among her key phrases) a lack of complexity.

Susan Sontag on the Frankfurt E-book Truthful in October 2003.
Michael Probst/AP


Contact calls for greater than a picture hitting the attention. It requires immersion, it requires physicality, it requires understanding. Sontag envisages a duty past that of the so-called “involved spectator”, whose consideration she describes elsewhere as “proximity with out threat”.

In a late interview, Sontag stated that she was for “complexity and the respect for actuality.” However what precisely does she imply by actuality? Pictures begins:

We linger unregenerately in Plato’s cave, nonetheless reveling, our age-old behavior, in mere picture of the reality.

For Plato, actuality is a world of summary concepts hidden behind sensory expertise. His cave-dwellers are prisoners compelled to observe flickering, evanescent photographs solid on the wall. Data alone can loosen our bonds, enable us to find the supply of the phantasm that we mistake for actuality.

Sontag’s cave is a special proposition. It’s the cave of the Cyclops and the Gorgon, the place all that strikes turns into ossified earlier than that one enframing eye. What Sontag sought weren’t the truths of static information, however these of lived expertise. Within the worn existentialist jargon, she was after authenticity within the relationship of the person to themselves and to their society. She was additionally after presence, an immersion within the second, as long as we don’t assume this implies the non-discursive presence advocated by her contemporaries in slogans similar to “Be Right here Now”.

Sontag was above all in enriching the kinds of tales which we inform ourselves and others. She was keen on “consciousness”, not within the slim sense of the thoughts versus physique, however within the novelist’s sense of the narratives of embodied topics. Understanding, for Sontag, shouldn’t be a matter of taking issues at face worth, however a matter of interpretation. “Solely that which narrates could make us perceive,” she writes.

Sontag has a robust sense of the the interpenetration of thoughts and world. Her conception of consciousness shouldn’t be Platonic however Proustian. How we take a look at issues profoundly influences what we see. We’re not extricable from what occurs to us. Our current is pregnant with our previous. The world shouldn’t be a composite of objects on the market, which could be put in our pockets. Our experiences should not objects in right here, which could be filed away within the thoughts’s albums.

The psychological distance required to file an expertise doesn’t depart that have unchanged. Not solely that, however these recordings can come to dominate and displace our narratives, our reminiscences.

Learn extra:
Friday essay: my brush with Susan Sontag and different tales from the homosexual ‘golden age’

Recollections in flux

Within the final of the On Pictures essays, Sontag writes that pictures are “not a lot an instrument of reminiscence as an invention of it or a alternative”.

Our reminiscences are in flux, our narratives are without end being rewritten. The {photograph} turns into iconic: as a tangible doc to which we will return, it eclipses the delicate and at all times equivocal texture of multisensory affiliation. That is what Aunt Léonie appeared like. This is what occurred on that journey to Combray.

Kodak knew this, too: people overlook, they stated, however “snapshots keep in mind”. To have a Kodak with you is to have the ability to seize the second, to own it. “They All Remembered the Kodak” – however maybe it’s all they remembered.

Our historical past thus begins to current itself as a set of snapshots, static occasions. Our reminiscences are made available to us by the digicam as issues. However for Sontag, our reminiscences should not possessions. Our reminiscences possess us, hang-out us.

After all, pictures can hang-out us too. In her final e book, Sontag argued that we must always let sure photographs accomplish that. However her sense of the hazard of what we’d name a photographic relationship to actuality shouldn’t be solely related right this moment; it’s liable to look positively prescient.

The twenty years since Sontag’s demise in 2004 have seen the best modifications in common photographic follow for the reason that Brownie introduced images to the plenty a century earlier.

In 1973, Sontag spoke of the “omnipresence of cameras”. How does one trump a declare to ubiquity? When Sontag wrote that, solely essentially the most earnest shutterbug took their digicam with them in every single place. However since her demise cameras have change into not solely smaller but additionally indiscrete. The digicam is now not one thing one decides to pocket; it piggybacks on the presence of the smartphone.

The coupling of digicam and web has modified the character of images. Kodak tells us in a 2010 marketing campaign that “the true Kodak second occurs if you share”. This marks an vital shift in emphasis away from the expertise one tried to seize and in the direction of the expertise of publicity.

We now not have to attend to point out others what we’ve seen. However extra importantly, these others have modified. Not solely can we present pictures to extra individuals, however the viewer now not must be chosen in any respect. Our viewers has change into obscure: it’s (that abstraction once more) “the general public”.

We now have a compulsion not solely to file, however to share. And for what? Sontag stated that every little thing exists to finish in {a photograph}. At the moment every little thing exists to be scrolled previous in a feed.