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Photography: A Little Summa by Susan Sontag

January 13, 2012

1. Photography is, first of all, a way of seeing. It is not seeing itself.

2. It is the ineluctably ‘modern’ way of seeing – prejudiced in favour of projects of discovery and innovation.

3. This way of seeing, which now has a long history, shapes what we look for and are used to noticing in photographs.

4. The modern way of seeing is to see in fragments. It is felt that reality is essentially unlimited, and knowledge is open-ended. It follows that all boundaries, all unifying ideas have to be misleading, demagogic; at best, provisional; almost always, in the long run, untrue. To see reality in the light of certain unifying ideas has the undeniable advantage of giving shape and form to our experience. But it also – so the modern way of seeing instructs us – denies the infinite variety and complexity of the real. Thereby it represses our energy, indeed our right, to remake what we wish to remake – our society, our selves. What is liberating, we are told, is to notice more and more.

5. In a modern society, images made by cameras are the principal access to realities of which we have no direct experience. And we are expected to receive and to register an unlimited number of images of what we don’t directly experience. The camera defines for us what we allow to be ‘real’ – and it continually pushes forward the boundary of the real. Photographs are particularly admired if they reveal hidden truths about themselves or less than fully reported social conflicts in societies both near and far from where the viewer lives.

6. In the modern way of knowing, there have to be images for something to become ‘real’. photographs identify events. photographs confer importance on events and make them memorable. For a war, an atrocity, a pandemic, a so-called natural disaster to become a subject of large concern, it has to reach people through the various systems (from television and the internet to newspapers and magazines) that diffuse photographic images to millions.

7. In the modern way of seeing, reality is first of all appearance – which is always changing. A photograph records appearance. The record of photography is the record of change, of the destruction of the past. Being modern (and if we have the habit of looking at photographs, we are by definition modern), we understand all identities to be constructions. The only irrefutable reality – and our best clue to identity – is how people appear.

8. A photograph is a fragment – a glimpse. We accumulate glimpses, fragments. All of us mentally stock hundreds of photographic images, subject to instant recall. All photographs aspire to the condition of being memorable – that is, unforgettable.

9. In the view that defines us as modern, there are an infinite number of details. Photographs are details. Therefore, photographs seem like life. To be modern is to live, entranced, by the savage autonomy of the detail.

10. To know, first of all, is to acknowledge. Recognition is the form of knowledge that is now identified with art. The photographs of the terrible cruelties and injustices that afflict most people in the world seem to be telling us – we who are privileged and relatively safe – that we should be aroused; that we should want something done to stop these horrors. And then there are photographs that seem to invite a different kind of attention. For this ongoing body of work, photography is not a species of social or moral agitation , meant to prod us to feel and to act, but an enterprise of notation. We watch, we take note, we acknowledge. This is a cooler way of looking. This is the way of looking we identify as art.

11. The work of some of the best socially engaged photographers is often reproached if it seems too much like art. And photography understood as art may incur a parallel reproach – that it deadens concern. It shows us events and situations and conflicts that we might deplore, and ask us to be detached. It may show us something truly horrifying and be a test of what we can bear to look at and are supposed to accept. Or often – this is true of a good deal of the most brilliant contemporary photography – it invites us to stare at banality. To stare at banality is also to relish it, drawing on the very developed habits of irony that are affirmed by the surreal juxtapositions of photographs typical of sophisticated exhibitions and books.

12. Photography – the supreme form of travel, of tourism – is the principal modern means for enlarging the world. As a branch of art, photography’s enterprise of world enlargements tends to specialize in the subjects felt to be challenging, transgressive. A photograph may be telling us: this too exists. And that. And that. (And it is all ‘human’.) But what are we to do with this knowledge – if indeed it is knowledge, about, say, the self, about abnormality, about ostracised or clandestine worlds?

13. Call it knowledge, call it acknowledgement – of one thing we can be sure, about this distinctively modern way of experiencing anything: the seeing, and the accumulation of fragments of seeing, can never be completed.

14. There is no final photograph.

Dilonardo, Paolo, Anne Jump eds. At the Same Time: Essays & Speeches. New York : Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 2007.

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