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Review of Susan Sontag's "On Photography"

The theory of photography, it's fundamental character and role in wider culture

There's a lot of discussion surrounding the theory of photography, but it can sometimes all feel a bit rambling and pointless. Photography is, after all, a visual thing, concerned with distilling impressions, observations and feelings into an image created in a fraction of a second.

Susan Sontag's little book, On Photography, cuts straight to the heart of big questions about the medium and has become the central text of photography criticism. So if you need a tonic to the inane pronouncements of photography forum know-alls, this is where to turn!


Title: On Photography

Author: Susan Sontag



The cultural, aesthetic and ethical nature of photography.

There are 7 sections: In Plato's Cave, America SeenThrough Photographs - Darkly, Melancholy Objects, The Heroism of Vision, Photographic Evangels, The Image World, A Brief Anthology of Quotations.


My Thoughts:

On Photography, by Susan Sontag was originally a collection of essays, compiled into a single volume as the author became more aware of a general unifying shape to her thoughts on the subject.

Though first published 40 years ago, the arguments address familiar questions, inherent to the medium of photography.

I found it refreshing to read the insights of someone with the kind of wide ranging inter-disciplinary scope that's needed to really think about the place of photography in the modern world.

Sontag comes at it from all angles, asking what lies behind the acquisitive instinct for capturing bits of the world and solidifying experience into neat little pictures. She asks how this desire to record life influences political trends and ambitions, social attitudes, international awareness and psycological bearings.

On Photography is definitely one of the best books to get hold of for anyone interested in the theory of photography and has more or less become the key text in this area.


Best Thing:

Sontag tackles photography at a pretty fundamental level, seeking to get to grips with its essential character. Often attempts at this become rather narrow and self-defeating, but she has such a wonderful breadth of knowledge and reference, that she's always persuasive.


Worst Thing:

My personal view is that photography is basically a fairly unpretentious, interested response to the world. The cultural and aesthetic complexity of a medium that alleges so convincingly to reproduce the objective reality of things is very apparent, and vividly explored by Sontag.

But no-one approaches any depiction of the world with absolute trust, whether a painting, poem or even historical account. So I think it's almost best to just let photography be, reserving the same caution as for all things persuasive. Sontag herself acknowledges, 'Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art'.



On Photography, by Susan Sontag is a beautifully written and skillfully argued discourse on photography.

For anyone with the remotest interest in the theory of photography it will be a pleasure to read.

Any attempt at assessing the massive cultural role of photography requires a correspondingly broad intellectual perspective.

That's exactly what Sontag brings to the discussion, which, so far in my reading, is unique.


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