Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo. Some of his books are Places: Things heard, things seen (BlazeVox, 2019) Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prisons (Texas, 2013), Being There: Bruce Jackson Photographs 1962-2012 (Burchfield Penney Art Center, 2013) and Was of the Hand: A Photographer’s Memoir (SUNY Press 2022)
Against Photography: What Sontag Actually Wrote
I: Critical Voices
Susan Sontag, in her prefatory note to On Photography (1977), a compilation of essays published in New York Review of Books 1973-1977, describes the book as “a progress of essays about the meaning and career of photographs.”
It has been, among cultural critics, one of the most highly regarded texts on the photographic image. John Berger gives it a chapter in About Looking (1980): “Uses of Photography: For Susan Sontag.” New York Times culture critic A.O. Scott wrote about it more recently (“How Susan Sontag Taught Me to Think, NY Times, October 8, 2019). On October 1, 2022, The Folio Society announced the publication of a coffee table edition, for $125US, the “First Illustrated Edition,” which “includes 21 key photographs from prestigious photographic archives, all beautifully reproduced and positioned carefully throughout the text” and an introduction by Mia Fineman, a curator in the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The list of non-photographers who written favorably about the book is long.
But few photographers share that regard.
Sontag has little empathy for the people in the few photographs she describes. Photography for her is a world of generalizations. For photographers, as for surgeons and airplane pilots, it is a world of specificity. Surgeons and pilots can speak about bodies and flight, but every gall bladder and takeoff is specific. So with photographs. That’s where the primary discontinuity happens. It may go to the schism between the humanities and art, between a world of about and a world of doing.
On Photography ignores almost entirely the materiality of the craft. Making photographs isn’t theoretical, and neither are photographic prints. The first is a behavior in the real world; the second a fact of it. To write about both with little or no acknowledgment of their physicality or specificity substitutes the critic’s impressions for the reality; it makes her message the medium, at the expense of the medium itself.
In his review of a Peter Hujar exhibit at Le Jeu de Paume (LRB, 19 December 2019), Brian Dillon notes that Hujar’s long relationship with Sontag ended when she published On Photography: “Hujar was not alone in thinking she had no sense of photography as art. Avedon, he reported, had said: ‘You know, Peter – sometimes I think that Susan may be the enemy.’”
The word “photography” is like the word “writing.” It can refer to a behavior, to objects made by that behavior, to the technologies involved in that behavior, and more. The possibilities are inexhaustible. Without a context, the words are so overladen with possibilities they are empty of meaning.
“Writing” includes novels, letters, prescriptions, parking tickets, laundry lists, diaries, moist letters puffed out by a slow-moving airplane in the sky, graffiti, recipes, good and bad checks, judicial opinions. The act of “writing” can be accomplished by making lines in wet clay with a stylus; applying particulate matter to an absorbent or retaining surface with pen, pencil, brush, or other device; pressing keys on a typewriter or computer keyboard. Some written things are, within their category, better or more useful than others; “better” and “useful” depend on the value system and needs of any individual or institutional user and the specific situation. Sylvia Plath’s letters to her mother and analyst were one thing when she wrote them, another when her mother read them, another when we read them knowing the poetry and suicide that followed. The words are the same; the uses and meanings are not. A bank check is fungible: produce it at a bank counter and it is exchanged for specie—unless any part of it is illegible, in which case it is nothing more than a useless slip of paper.
Millions of people write poetry. Some of it is good and some of it is bad. For all of it, “good” and “bad” are meaningful only within the context of a particular poem and its use. A very good graffito or greeting card quatrain might not make it into a collection titled “Great Poems in English That Rhyme Written Before 1900.” Sophocles, Sappho, the biblical David, William Shakespeare, Stephan Mallarmé, e. e. cummings, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Robert Creeley, Emily Dickinson and Anna Akhmatova all wrote poetry. Any generalization—other than the three words ending the previous sentence— that lumps them into a single activity with a single meaning is a generalization that abolishes all distinction.
The same can be said of “photography.” But that is an insight that has gone missing, partly due to the continuing influence of Sontag’s collection, which blends the various possible meanings of that word as act and as object. Sontag uses the word “photography” to mean, interchangeably and usually without modification, what photographers do, how photographic images are used, photographic images themselves, and mechanical reproductions of photographic images. Most of the time, the text treats “photography” as monolithic, as if it were something all photographers engaged in the same ways and for the same reasons. Occasionally it distinguishes different kinds of photographic activity, but again and again, it returns to the overarching “photography.” Sometimes, Sontag’s usage includes cinema; sometimes it doesn’t. She writes about movies and photographs as if they’re the same thing, which they’re not.
She acknowledges this fundamental fact only once in the entire book:
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.
Yes. But On Photography doesn’t “begin with” this. The passage occurs near the end, on page 148 of 180 pages of text (page numbers all refer to the 2002 Penguin Classics edition). She makes no reference to it anywhere else, nor does she acknowledge this concept anywhere else, nor does it inform anything else she says about photographers, photographic work, or the use of photographs.
Save for some comments on the German portraitist August Sander and a chapter on her responses to the work of Diane Arbus, On Photography is almost devoid of reference to specific photographers or photographs. There is almost nothing about people who make pictures or specific pictures. Photographers are named en passant, but almost never in relation to any specific work.
(note: all page numbers refer to “On Photography”,2002 Penguin Classics edition)
I want to gloss one paragraph from On Photography in detail, so my subsequent comments don’t fall into the same error of untethered generalization I find central to the book itself. This is the paragraph as it appears in the book:
Putting on shows of photographs has become as featured a museum activity as mounting shows of individual painters. But a photographer is not like a painter, the role of the photographer being recessive in much of the serious picture-taking and virtually irrelevant in all the ordinary users. So far as we care about the subject photographed, we expect the photographer to be an extremely discreet presence. Thus, the very success of photojournalism lies in the difficulty of distinguishing one superior photographer’ work from another, except insofar as he or she has monopolized a particular subject. (133)
Now the gloss:
Putting on shows of photographs has become [by whom and where? when did it become? what was it previously?] as featured a museum activity as mounting shows of individual painters [other than the few dedicated photography museums, “shows of photographs” nowhere comprise more than a fraction of shows by individual painters].
But [The logical preposition “But” implies that what follows contradicts what preceded it. Not here: the sentence following that “But” has nothing at all to do with the previous sentence. It leads into a non sequitur.] a photographer is not like a painter, the role of the photographer being recessive in much of the serious picture-taking [what is a “recessive” photographic role? how much? who and what defines “serious”? is the article now comparing “serious picture-taking” to all painting by all painters? If so, why not just the “serious” painters?] and virtually irrelevant in all the ordinary users [another shift in subject: picture-takers, “serious” or not, and “users” aren’t the same people, or, if they are the same people, they’re doing different things. A “picture taker” is someone who takes a photograph. A “picture user” could be someone tucking a photo in a letter to a distant lover, a gallery curator, a TSA inspector at an airport, the photo editor at a newspaper, the reader of that newspaper, and so forth. What constitutes “ordinary?” Are those who are not ordinary extraordinary?].
So far as we care about the subject photographed, we expect the photographer to be an extremely discreet presence. [What constitutes “an extremely discreet presence” and what evidence is there that anyone has this expectation, or ever did? What does our “care about the subject” have to do with the photographer’s work? If we don’t “care about the subject photographed,” do we have different expectations about the photographer’s discretion?]
Thus, the very success of photojournalism [The conjunctive adverb “Thus,” as the “But” above, implies that what follows is a consequence of what was just said. It doesn’t: what follows the “Thus” has no connection at all to what precedes it. How did we get from photographs and photographers to the subset “photojournalism?” This is a new subject, a non sequitur.] lies in the difficulty of distinguishing one superior photographer’ work from another, except insofar as he or she has monopolized a particular subject [superior in what regard? who is doing the distinguishing? who is having the difficulty? What does a photographer’s having “monopolized a particular subject” have to do with “the very success or photojournalism” or “the difficulty of distinguishing one superior photographer’s work from another?” What does it mean for a photographer to monopolize a particular subject?]
The paragraph is not about what photographers do, what photographs are, or how photographs are used. The prose in the paragraph flows, but none of it is true.
Here are twelve passages from On Photography in which I have underlined statements that are false, undocumented, undocumentable, absurd, supercilious, or which invoke such questions as: How does this apply to baby photos, autopsy photos, retinal photos, newspaper photos, ID photos, landscape photos? How does it apply to the work of Nan Goldin, Paul Strand, Bruce Davidson, William Eggleston, Annie Leibovitz, Ben Shahn, Cindy Sherman, Sally Mann, Stephen Shore? All those declarations: if there’s nobody there, who’s doing it? Is the generalization so broad it obliterates all meaning? Do the frequent qualifiers (seem, most, may, a certain, often) obliterate all meaning? Does the passage apply to you when you take, look at or otherwise use or employ photographs? And, most important: what’s the evidence for the assertion?
Small wonder that photography critics and photographers seem anxious. Underlying many of the recent defenses of photography is the fear that photography is already a senile art, Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. (10)
Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events. 11
After thirty years, a saturation point may have been reached. In these last decades, “concerned” photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it. 21
The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. It will be a knowledge at bargain prices—a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom; as the act of taking pictures is a semblance of appropriation, a semblance of rape. 24
That most logical of nineteenth-century aesthetes, Mallarmé, said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph. 24
Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people. 70
Photography inevitably entails a certain patronizing of reality. 80
Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. 85
Subjects are chosen because they are boring or banal. 137
Small wonder that photography critics and photographers seem anxious. Underlying many of the recent defenses of photography is the fear that photography is already a senile art, littered by spurious or dead movements; that the only task left is curatorship and historiography. 144
Photography is the reality; the real object is often experienced as a letdown. 147
The possession of a camera can inspire something akin to lust. And like all credible forms of lust, it cannot be satisfied: because the possibilities of photography are infinite; and, second, because the project is finally self-devouring. 179
There’s nobody home in those twelve statements (I could more than quadruple the samples). It’s writing in the service of itself.
And some passages are just gibberish:
Photography is the paradigm of an inherently equivocal connection between self and world—its version of the ideology of realism sometimes dictating an effacement of the self in relation to the world, sometimes authorizing an aggressive relation to the world which celebrates the self. One side or the other of the connection is always being rediscovered and championed. 123
Most of what I’ve noted thus far has been about style, the sort of things a careful editor or English teacher reading a student paper might note. There are more fundamental problems with On Photography: how Sontag imagines the photographic event and how she regards the result of that event, what she thinks (or says) photographers do, and what she says photographs are.
A central aspect of the artistic process and, more fundamentally, of the way the human brain works, is how the awareness of a moment always lags our brains’ response to a moment. There’s a library of neuroscience writing about this half-second gap, but anyone who has ever hit the brakes while driving a car, caught a dish falling off a table, slipped but not fallen on the ice, moved a hand from a hot pot handle, or taken a photograph is fully aware of it. You think before; you think after; in the moment, you act. This is why Sontag’s misrepresentation of the great street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson is even more of a misunderstanding of the role of thought in photography than a misstatement about Cartier-Bresson:
Cartier-Bresson has likened himself to a Zen archer, who must become the target so as to be able to hit it; thinking should beforehand and afterwards,’ he says, ‘never while actually taking a photograph.’ Thought is regarded as clouding the transparency of the photographer’s consciousness, and as infringing on the autonomy of what is being photographed. 116.
Sontag transforms Cartier-Bresson’s descriptive statement into an intransitive prescriptive: “Thought is regarded” followed by something he did not say. Henri Cartier-Bresson did not say that thinking clouds a photographer’s consciousness; Susan Sontag said it. Cartier-Bresson was writing about how a photographer no more has to pause to think what the shutter finger is up to than a touch typist has to wonder where each individual letter might be or a pianist has to wonder where each ivory key might be or why dancer or ice-skater has to wonder where this or that foot should go to keep one from falling on one’s ass.
Cartier-Bresson explained this in a passage she did not quote:
“The photographer’s eye is perpetually evaluating. A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimeter. He can modify perspectives by a slight bending of the knees. By placing the camera closer to or farther from the subject, he draws a detail—and it can be subordinated, or he can be tyrannized by it. But he composes a picture in very nearly the same amount of time it takes to click the shutter, at the speed of a reflex action.” (Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers, New York: Aperture, n.d., 33)
Artists work with what they’ve got. Photography, like all the other arts, is physical. Art may start in the head, but it manifests elsewhere. There are real-world components to artistic work. Just as a dancer can jump only so high and the human ear can hear only certain pitches and the human eye can only see certain parts of the visual spectrum, photographers operate within the boundaries of their physical options: what can my camera do? how fast is the film? how can the print be produced and managed? how can it be displayed?
Everything about the making of a photograph involves choice and trade-offs. Alter the aperture (to alter the depth of focus, or admit more or less light) and you have to alter the shutter speed or change the recording ability of the medium (in film days, it was ASA or EI).
The choice between color and black and white is grounded in what the photographer wants the photograph to look like. Colorized versions of film noir classics almost always look wrong. Why? Because the photographers were organizing the images in terms of shadow and light, not patches of color. A colorized version of a Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange image from the 1930s: something always looks wrong.
Contra Sontag, Cartier-Bresson was fully aware of these issues:
“The operation of bringing the color of nature in space to a printed surface poses a series of extremely complex problems. To the eye, certain colors advance, others recede. So we would have to be able to adjust the relations of the color one to the other, for colors, which in nature place themselves in the depth of space, claim a different placing on a plane surface—whether it is the flat surface of a painting or a photograph.” (Mind’s Eye, 37)
He is writing about the way a burst of red or yellow in an image can dominate the organization of space in that image. A photographer can organize an image in terms of color, in terms of planes and lines, in terms of light and dark, or all three. In each instance, a different set of choices dominate.
By contrast, Sontag is disdainful of actual practice in her comments on color versus black and white: “…many photographers continue to prefer black-and-white images, which are felt to be more tactful, more decorous than color—or less voyeuristic and less sentimental or crudely lifelike. But the real basis for this preference is, once again, an implicit comparison with painting” .
What evidence is there for any of that? The only photographer she cites here is, again, Henri Cartier-Bresson, nearly all of whose career took place when there was no high-speed color film available. She faults him for not endorsing color photography late in his life, after he’d abandoned photography for drawing. Most of the time he was working, there was no color film available that could capture what he was trying to show or was suitable for the kind of work he did. The fault wasn’t in him; it was simply a fact of the technology available during which his vision matured. He did use color in some of his commercial photography (Sontag seems unaware of this), but it wasn’t a suitable medium for his preferred realm of street photography. When he turned to drawing, he drew only in shades of black, the color space he’d spent most of a lifetime mastering.
Why does she use the intransitive: “which are felt?” Felt by whom? And, if that feeling does in fact exist among “many photographers,” how does she know that their “real basis for this preference” has to do with painting? And what kind of painting and by whom? Jackson Pollack? Rembrandt? Mary Cassat? the highway crew putting down new lane stripes? the guy who painted her house?
Sontag’s problems with color photography go far beyond her arguments with Cartier-Bresson:
(The fact that color photographs don’t age in the way black-and white photographs do may partly explain the marginal status which color has had until very recently in serious photographic taste. The cold intimacy of color seems to seal off the photograph from patina.) For while paintings or poems do not get better, more attractive simply because they are older, all photographs are interesting as well as touching if they are old enough. It is not altogether wrong to say that there is no such thing as a bad photograph—only less interesting, less relevant, less mysterious ones. 140-141
I haven’t a clue what “The cold intimacy of color seems to seal of the photograph from patina” means. If “there is no such thing as a bad photograph,” can we also say there is no such thing as a bad painting or poem? Once again, there is no agency: “less interesting” to whom? “Less relevant” to what? “Less mysterious” than what?
All photographs of the real are, by their very nature abstractions: for starters, they are flat. The world is not flat. A photographic print is, absent decay, the same this moment and the next: the world is not. A photograph stops at its edges; the world continues in all directions. The world is not black and white, but neither is it the color of a color print: different brands of color film record colors differently, and different brands of printing paper render information from a color negative differently, and a color print looks different under different lighting conditions. Black and white film and print is extremely more stable over time that color film and color prints. Kodachrome, the most stable of color films, does not have the stability of black and white films.
Sontag faults photographs for not providing something photographs cannot possibly provide. This derives from her commingling of the making, manifestations and uses of photography.
Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph. Of course, photographs fill in blanks in our mental pictures of the present and the past: for example, Jacob Riis’ images of New York squalor in the 1880s are sharply instructive to those unaware that urban poverty in late-nineteenth-century America was really that Dickensian. Nevertheless, the camera’s rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses. As Brecht points out, a photograph of the Krupp works reveals virtually nothing about that organization. In contrast to the amorous relation, which is braced on how something looks, understanding is based on how it functions. And functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand. 23
She’s discovering the wheel.
A photo does not show what it does not show; that doesn’t mean the camera is hiding anything any more than an angiogram hides the lifestyle or hereditary traits that produced what it reveals to someone making use of it.
Every proud papa showing a photo of his new baby to someone at the office knows he has to explain who the person in that photo is. As Gary Winogrand said, “The fact that photographs — they’re mute, they don’t have any narrative ability at all. You know what something looks like, but you don’t know what’s happening, you don’t know whether the hat’s being held or is it being put on her head or taken off her head. From the photograph, you don’t know that. A piece of time and space is well described. But not what is happening” (Interview with Bill Moyers, Creativity, WNET, 1982).
Furthermore, not all photographs are informational; some are compositional, as in much of the work by Man Ray, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Josef Sudek, André Kertész, Frederick Sommer, Josef H. Neumann, László Moholy-Nagy, Minor White, Aaron Siskind, Lotte Jacobi and Nathan Lyons.
One needs information to understand an informational photograph in exactly the same way one needs information to understand a number: “12” has no meaning other than that it designates the serial entity between 11 and 13. To know what at particular 12 means, you have to know if you’re discussing a carton of eggs, the months in a year, a roll of the dice, an example of a superior highly composite number, the number of Earth years for a full cycle of Jupiter, the number of sides in a dodecagon, the number of keys on a piano comprising an octave, etc. Sontag may find the import of Riis’ images in her Dickensian comment; that is nicely literary. But the impact of those photographs had nothing at all to do with Dickens: they revealed what had not been seen, and there were specific social and legal consequences of that. Embedded in Riis’ narrative, they had a real impact in the world.
Finally, what does any of this have to do with photography, as opposed to everything else? A horseshoe is useless without a horse or a doorway or spike in the ground, and a shell casing found in an empty room is, absent a collateral narrative, just a shell casing. A medical diagnosis is a narrative. We live in narrative. And we make, have and use photographs. The place of photographs in narrative is entirely incidental.
The Photographic original
Sontag’s writing about the photographic original reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what a photographic image is, or, worse, a disinterest in engaging it:
Furthermore, although no photograph is an original in the sense that painting always is, there is large qualitative difference between what could be called originals—prints made from the original negative at the time (that is, at the same moment in the technological evolution of photograph) that the picture was taken—and subsequent generations of the same photograph. (What most people know of the famous photographs—in books, newspapers, magazines, and so forth—are photographs of photographs; the originals, which one is likely to see only in a museum or a gallery, offer visual pleasures which are not reproducible). 140
This assumes that the “original” is the first print, or the first print displayed, or, as she says here, “prints made from the original negative.” The original isn’t the print; the original is the negative, and that is as specific and unique as any painting. A print from a negative—one made in the day or a century later—is an interpretation of that negative, in exactly the same way that a performance of a Schubert quartet is an interpretation of Schubert’s score. Each performance of a piece of music and each print of a photographic image is unique—to that performance or printing. None of them is the original of anything but itself.
No print drawn from a negative or positive transparency is an original image; it is a product of the original image. A print from a negative made in a darkroom may vary from another print not only in the aperture and time settings of the enlarger, but the temperature and vigor of the various liquids: developer, fix, stop, rinse, as well as the particular paper used. A single contact print made from a glass plate that is shattered immediately after that print was made is still not the original image; it is rather the single print made from that original.
(Two kinds of photographs are themselves unique: they come into existence in the course of a process that consumes the original material: Polaroids and Daguerreotypes, for example. They can be copied, but there is only one original: the developed Polaroid or Daguerreotype. Sontag writes about neither of them.)
Sontag wrote before the digital age, but what I write here applies equally well to photography now. Prints made from a digital file are, just like prints made from a negative: all are extractions from the original.
A book has different demands than a journal opinion article. Assertion and opinion may provide enough structure to hold up through an article in a journal that prizes both, but a book needs more. Over the length of a book, the assertive flaws of the articles don’t diminish one another, they multiply, just as the probability of two events, each with a 50% chance of happening is not 100%, but 25%. What may have worked in the narrow bounds of an article in a periodical becomes, in the context of a book, epidermal intellectualizing and solipsism about the unspecified work of unnamed others. It’s beef stew—absent the beef.
On Photography is a book only in the most obvious physical sense: it is a lot of pages, bound by covers, with a spine holding them together. There is no interpretive or analytical arc holding the chapters together. To the contrary, in juxtaposition, the individual chapters reveal how small a part the work of photographers and the nature and use of photographs has to do with any of this. Photography isn’t the subject of On Photography; it is the excuse for it.
What if all or most of On Photography were written in the first person rather than positing a world in agreement with the absent author? What if Sontag had written, “I think” or “I feel” or “It seems to me,” rather than all those intransitives implying action, thought or motive to unnamed people? I haven’t a clue. That’s not the book she wrote. There’s no “what if” once a manuscript is printed and bound any more than there is about a choice we made last week or last year: it is what it is. It’s done, fixed in time, just like a photograph. Speculation is another enterprise entirely.
The six chapters comprising On Photography are barely altered from the way they originally appeared over a three-year period as articles for New York Review of Books, a journal in which books are the ostensible subject, but in which opinion and writing often are the primary product. How would these articles have fared at the New Yorker, with its rigorous fact-checking department? All the questions I’ve posed here, and more, would have been delivered to the author of a submission there. The kind of global utterance prized by NYRoB (based on the presumed authority of the writer), is what is consistently challenged at The New Yorker. At the New Yorker, you can get away with some sentences like these, but you have to earn them.
I thought of ending with the last line of Macbeth’s soliloquy after his wife’s suicide: “a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
It fits, but better, I think is William Blake’s marginal note to Sir Joshua Reynolds’ assertion (in Discourses, 1778) that the “disposition to abstractions, to generalizing and classification, is the great glory of the human mind.”
Blake, master of words and images and also of them in combination, wrote, “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.”
It wasn’t that Blake disavowed all generalization—that very gloss was one—but for him, a generalization had to be earned. There is a lot of good writing about a lot of things in On Photography. Photography is not one of them.