On Photography by Susan Sontag

On Photography by Susan Sontag

Author:Susan Sontag [Sontag, Susan]
Language: eng
Format: epub, mobi, pdf
Tags: Photography, Criticism, Art, Criticism & Theory
ISBN: 9780312420093
Publisher: Picador
Published: 1973-01-01T00:00:00+00:00

“is now incapable of photographing a tenement or a rubbish-heap without transfiguring it. Not to mention a river dam or an electric cable factory: in front of these, photography can only say, ‘How beautiful.’.It has succeeded in turning abject poverty itself, by handling it in a modish, technically perfect way, into an object of enjoyment.”

Moralists who love photographs always hope that words will save the picture. (The opposite approach to that of the museum curator who, in order to turn a photojournalist’s work into art, shows the photographs without their original captions.) Thus, Benjamin thought that the right caption beneath a picture could “rescue it from the ravages of modishness and confer upon it a revolutionary use value.” He urged that writers start taking photographs, to show the way.

Socially concerned writers have not taken to cameras, but they are often enlisted, or volunteer, to spell out the truth to which photographs testify—as James Agee did in the texts he wrote to accompany Walker Evans’s photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, or as John Berger did in his essay on the photograph of the dead Che Guevara, this essay being in effect an extended caption, one that attempts to firm up the political associations and moral meaning of a photograph that Berger found too satisfying aesthetically, too suggestive iconographically. Godard and Gorin’s short film A Letter to Jane (1972) amounts to a kind of counter-caption to a photograph—a mordant criticism of a photograph of Jane Fonda taken during a visit to North Vietnam. (The film is also a model lesson on how to read any photograph, how to decipher the un-innocent nature of a photograph’s framing, angle, focus.) What the photograph—it shows Fonda listening with an expression of distress and compassion as an unidentified Vietnamese describes the ravages of American bombing—meant when it was published in the French picture magazine L’Express in some ways reverses the meaning it had for the North Vietnamese, who released it. But even more decisive than how the photograph was changed by its new setting is how its revolutionary use-value to the North Vietnamese was sabotaged by what L’Express furnished as a caption. “This photograph, like any photograph,” Godard and Gorin point out, “is physically mute. It talks through the mouth of the text written beneath it.” In fact, words do speak louder than pictures. Captions do tend to override the evidence of our eyes; but no caption can permanently restrict or secure a picture’s meaning.

What the moralists are demanding from a photograph is that it do what no photograph can ever do—speak. The caption is the missing voice, and it is expected to speak for truth. But even an entirely accurate caption is only one interpretation, necessarily a limiting one, of the photograph to which it is attached. And the caption-glove slips on and off so easily. It cannot prevent any argument or moral plea which a photograph (or set of photographs) is intended to support from being undermined by the plurality of


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