Visual Culture

Susan Sontag’s Radical Views Still Shape How We See Photography

Photography, more than any other art form, is subject to intense moral scrutiny. We question the proliferation of violent images, worry about subjects’ consent to be photographed, fear that manipulated pictures will create harmful misreadings of critical issues, and fret that taking pictures excessively diminishes our ability to experience the world. These concerns can feel immediate and timely, yet before the close of the 1970s, writer Susan Sontag had already articulated all of these concerns.
Sontag’s 1977 collection of essays entitled On Photography is perhaps the most prescient and influential book ever written on the medium. Though it is now regarded as a seminal art-historical text, Sontag was neither an art professional nor an academic: She was alternately celebrated and derided as a “public intellectual.” Her cogent writing style and full embrace of her status as an amateur allowed her ideas to seep into the mainstream—though she found many detractors. Writer Tom Wolfe once called her “just another scribbler who spent her life signing up for protest meetings and lumbering to the podium encumbered by her prose style.” Scholar Camille Paglia accused her of becoming “synonymous with a shallow kind of hip posturing.” Nevertheless, Sontag’s radical thoughts on photography are as potent as ever.
Born in 1933, Sontag wrote plays, essays, and fiction until her death in 2004. She had no formal training in art or photography—she studied English and philosophy at Harvard—but immersed herself in the New York cultural scene from 1959 onward. The origins of her interest in photography are still debated and analyzed. In addition to her work on the subject, Sontag became famous for her anti-war essays, plus writings on illness and camp. Her 1964 essay-turned-book “Notes on Camp,” a radical dissection of a particular sensibility, helped make her name—and inspired this year’s Met Gala theme.Alternately celebrated and derided during her life, Sontag became an icon herself: chic, queer, vocal, and brilliant. A forthcoming biography on the writer, Benjamin Moser’s Sontag: Her Life (2019), further solidifies her as a formidable thinker and character—teaser press for the book asserts that in her twenties, she wrote a major biography on Sigmund Freud, for which her husband received all the credit.
Though she wrote about artists and aesthetics, political convictions underpinned Sontag’s arguments. Her true concerns over photography featured a Marxist edge. She discussed the “class condescensions” in the work of , who took pictures of Germans beginning in 1911. Sontag noted that he shot portraits of the wealthy indoors, while laborers and derelicts received a setting and props that announced their professions. The latter strategy, she wrote, portrayed the lower class as lacking “the kinds of separate identities normally achieved in the middle and upper classes.” If we want a more equitable society, Sontag argued, we can start by thinking about who we photograph and how we depict them.
Sander is hardly the only photographer that Sontag faulted for using his lens to enjoy “class tourism.” , , , and , she noted, all captured either the very wealthy, the very poor, or both.
Yet not all photographers Sontag commented on simply captured subjects at opposing ends of the economic spectrum. She discussed at length, who photographed people Arbus affectionately called “freaks,” from the inner city to the suburbs. “All her subjects are equivalent,” wrote Sontag. “The subjects of Arbus’s photographs are all members of the same family, inhabitants of a single village. Only, as it happens, the idiot village is America.” Photography, in Sontag’s mind, can offer a meaningful condemnation of the absurdities plaguing an entire society.
While Sontag delved into a few photographers’ careers, she was most prescient in her broader discussion of the medium’s proliferation. She referenced the camera’s addictive nature, but warned that taking pictures only gives “an appearance of participation”—our fevered adoption of Instagram today is the best evidence of her foresight. When we take a photo, we inherently distance ourselves from the world and people around us. Obsessive picture-taking is alienating—those with the most cluttered Instagram feeds, by Sontag’s logic, may be the most isolated, regardless of what their sunny snapshots broadcast.
But more unnerving was Sontag’s proclamation of the camera as a weapon. “To photograph people is to violate them,” she wrote. The more images of violence we see—of war; of victims of hunger or famine; or other injustices—the more immune to them we become.
In recent years, the Black Lives Matter movement has decried the circulation of pictures showing violence against the black body. This issue was at the root of the 2017 protests at the Whitney Museum, which challenged a white painter’s depiction of a photograph of the mutilated Emmett Till in his coffin. “Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel,” Sontag wrote four decades before the brouhaha. “Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised—partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror.”
More than any other 20th-century critic, Sontag gave readers a reason to care about photography. Whether at a conscious or subconscious level, the images that bombard us daily affect how we finetune our sense of morality and our perceptions of the world. In 2019, her writings still incite more mindful looking, picture-taking, and consideration of the way we experience so much of modern life: through screens and lenses.
Alina Cohen