Looking at a … Susan Sontag is an essayist and novelist. “On Photography is to my mind the most original and illuminating study of the subject.”—Calvin Trillin, The New Yorker . We know man by the object, by his conception of what is external to himself; in it his nature becomes evident; this object is his manifested nature, his true objective ego.’78 There is no clear division between the image and the real thing; in fact, it is the presumed division between human beings and God that Feuerbach criticises. I change the object as it is in the imagination into the object as it is in reality’ (Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, p. xix). Thus smoke is an index of fire; and photographs, as well as almost always being iconic, are also indexical. The photographer projects himself into everything he sees, identifying himself with everything in order to know it and to feel it better.’60 Sontag reports that French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson ‘likened himself to a Zen archer, who must become the target so as to be able to hit it; ‘thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards,’ he says, ‘never while actually taking a photograph’.61 Ansel Adams described the camera ‘as an ‘instrument of love and revelation’.62 Then, Sontag herself describes photography in theological language. Her misreading of Feuerbach, however, reveals her hopes for photography: that photography can be a counter-force to the ‘increasingly secular history of painting when secularism is entirely triumphant’.97 Photography, Sontag writes, revives—in wholly secular terms—something like the primitive status of images. 69 Feuerbach’s writing in The Essence of Christianity is thick with visual metaphors. California State University Channel Islands, 1 University Drive, Camarillo, CA 93012 USA. Sontag’s version of the fairy tale is her belief that photographs are revelatory. But a photograph is not only like its subject, a homage to the subject. By 1837, Trachtenberg writes, Daguerre had perfected Niepce’s process to produce a highly detailed, positive picture of a corner of his studio. When Niepce died in 1833, his son Isidore took his place in the partnership. . Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato's Cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth. But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images. There she concludes that the problem of our reliance on images and especially photographic images is not that "people remember through photographs but that they remember only the … Sontag traveled to Hanoi in 1968 to demonstrate her opposition to the U. S. war in Vietnam. They began a correspondence, sharing ideas about their image making attempts and eventually becoming partners. . Screen 13, (1972) p. 7. He considered it his own invention and labelled his pictures daguerreotypes. Thornton writes, ‘The true athiest, then, for Feuerbach, is one who does not value the good for its own sake, but rather because he believes that it has been ordained by the projected and fictitious subject, God, for such a person must accept that, in logical consistency, he would have deemed any action good if it had been ordained by God. It must disclose a world most viewers would rather not see, but a world Sontag believes viewers have an obligation to see and to respond to ethically. Theological language usually emerges when theorists make certain kinds of claims about photography in which they attempt to push beyond finite human experience. Like Feuerbach, Sontag argues that by reclaiming our ‘images’, we might reclaim ourselves and, she hopes, our responsibility to one another. People also read lists articles that other readers of this article have read. Like a pair of binoculars with no right or wrong end, the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much farther away. 822–827; Andrew J. Mitchell, ‘Torture and Photography: Abu Ghraib’. Her essay on Mary McCarthy's Vietnam journalism was recently published in American Literature. Among her books are several works of criticism, Against Interpretation, On Photography, AIDS and Its Metaphors, as well as a novel, The Volcano, and a play, Alice in Bed. Sontag and photography by D. K. McDonald, Colorado Springs, CO, USA . Ironically, some of the texts she misreads—like Feuerbach’s—if read more accurately, would often support what Sontag is claiming. He describes his project in ocular terms: ‘I do nothing more to religion—and to speculative philosophy and theology also—than open its eyes, or rather to turn its gaze from the internal towards the external, i.e. God and man are extremes: God is the absolutely positive, the sum of all realities; man the absolutely negative, comprehending all negations.90. It offers, in one easy, habit forming activity, both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others—allowing us to participate, while confirming alienation’ (Ibid., p. 167). Abstract This article addresses the portrait as a philosophical form of art. As I demonstrated earlier, she is not the only theorist of photography to make an appeal to theology. This is as evident in the 1840s and 1850s, photography's glorious first two decades, as in all the 78 Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, p. 5. The genuine theist, on the other hand, is the man [sic] who values the good whether it has been ordained by God or not. In ‘Facing up to Feuerbach,’ Stephen Thornton argues that a major, and often overlooked, element in Feuerbach’s text is his ‘account of the normative nature of the anthropomorphic attributes in terms of which God is conceived in religious thought’ (Thornton, ‘Facing Up to Feuerbach’, p. 8). Susan Sontag’s On Photography is one of the best studies of photography that you can find. As Alan Trachtenberg describes, during the later 1820s, Joseph Nicéphore Niepce and his brother Claude used the camera obscura and sensitised paper to produce pictures for a lithography press they designed.9 These early experiments produced ‘tonally inversed pictures’, what would now be called negatives. God is the infinite, man the finite being; God is the perfect, man imperfect; God eternal, man temporal; God almighty, man weak; God holy, man sinful. Susan Sontag was born in New York City on January 16, 1933, grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and attended high school in Los Angeles. 21 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003), p. 119. Twenty-seven years later in Regarding the Pain of Others she issued a partial retraction: People can become habituated to images of violence, but some photographs for some people can continue to shock and thereby prompt moral reflection. In Camera Indica, Christopher Pinney summarizes Peirce’s understanding of ‘indexical’: Symbols are arbitrary and conventional; iconic signs have relationship of resemblance to their referents (painting, onomatopoetic sounds); and, ‘Those signs are indexical which have some natural relationship of contiguity with their referent. 222–9. 5 Howick Place | London | SW1P 1WG. In ‘Facing up to Feuerbach,’ Thornton notes that Marx and Engels praised Feuerbach in The Holy Family, writing that Feuerbach ‘has discovered the secret of the ‘system’’ (Ibid., p. 103). 1970) world. Franny Nudelman is an Associate Professor in the English Department and the Institute for the Comparative Study of Literature, Art, and Culture at Carleton University. Born in 1933, Sontag wrote plays, essays, and fiction until her death in 2004. Literature and Medicine 24(2) (Fall 2005) pp. While Sontag does not (usually) treat photographs as duplicates of reality, she recognises that they have functioned and been understood as such, and she examines the impact this understanding has had on the world. Her choice of Feuerbach reveals something about how she understands photography and what she hopes photography might be able to accomplish. But invisible to whom? But the notions of image and reality are complementary. Sontag tells her own version of photography’s fairy tale: photography has reduced the world to its image, and yet it is photography itself that can get us back to ‘reality’. I (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988), p. 223. [T]he process itself remains an optical-chemical (or electronic) one, the workings of which are automatic, the machinery for which will inevitably be modified to provide still more detailed and, therefore, more useful maps of the real.48, Because of the role played by the camera in generating the image, photographs have been considered ‘found objects,’ ‘unpremeditated slices of the world’, rather than simply art.55 Sontag writes, ‘They trade simultaneously on the prestige of art and the magic of the real.’56 While Sontag acknowledges that photographs have been changed, altered, retouched, and manipulated since their invention (and that everyone has always known this), she contends that the consequences of lying are more central to photography than to painting: if a painting is a fake, it falsifies the history of art, while a ‘fake photograph (one which has been retouched or tampered with, or whose caption is false) falsifies reality’.57 Even when photographs distort, their connection to the ‘real’—the presumption that photographs prove that ‘something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture’—remains.58. https://athenareads.home.blog/2019/08/19/on-photography-by-susan-sontag Because an image produced with a camera is, literally, a trace of something brought before the lens, photographs were superior to any painting as a memento of the vanished past and the dear departed.’22 Photographs, she writes, function ‘as secular icons’, ‘objects of contemplation’ that ‘deepen one’s sense of reality’.23 Although Sontag calls photographs secular icons, when photography theorists—including Sontag, as I will explore in this article—write about the relationship between photographs and death, they often appeal to religious language and metaphors to describe that relationship. Attention to Susan Sontag’s (mis)reading of Ludwig Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity reveals her agenda in On Photography: to depart from ‘the new age of unbelief’ and return to ‘something like the primitive status of images’ in which an image participates in the reality of the object depicted. Our irrepressible feeling that the photographic process is something magical has a genuine basis. It appears when theorists wrestle with the relationship between photography and death, with the relationship between the viewer and the one photographed, and with ethical questions about what is required of viewers who look at photographs that show the suffering of others. On Photography by Susan Sontag By Tourmaline . ― Susan Sontag, On Photography. Although it seems Sontag would like to leave behind the understanding of photograph as trace, ultimately it is the relationship between the photographed subject and the photograph that drives her project. Susan Sontag Despite the illusion of giving understanding, what seeing through photographs really invites is an acquisitive relation to the world that nourishes aesthetic awareness and … Susan Sontag represented not just passion, but also a demand for unblinking intellectual honesty. Like theorists who argue that photography is different from other forms of representation, Feuerbach argues that religion is different from other forms of consciousness. In her review of On Photography, Janet Fletcher opens with a similar idea, calling the book ‘Sontag’s brilliantly if erratically argued case against photography’ (Fletcher, ‘On Photography’ [Book Review] p. 2250). Attention to Susan Sontag’s (mis)reading of Ludwig Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity reveals her agenda in On Photography: to depart from ‘the new age of unbelief’ and return to ‘something like the primitive status of images’ in which an image participates in the reality of the object depicted. In humans’ consciousness of empirical objects, we distinguish ‘between the conscious subject and the object of which it is conscious,’ but in religion, this distinction is impossible, according to Feuerbach, because ‘self-consciousness and consciousness of the religious object are identical’ (Thornton, ‘Facing Up to Feuerbach’, p. 109). 36 Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. This essay argues that Susan Sontag's 1968 trip to Hanoi paved the way for her groundbreaking reflections on photography. She writes, ‘[This view] assumes that what is real persists, unchanged and intact, while only images have changed . The area exposed to light became insoluble, while the area hidden by the engraving’s lines was washed away. For Sontag, photography has reduced the world to its image, yet it is photography that can get us back to ‘reality’. 27 likes. Farrar, Straus and Giroux) On Photography is a 1977 collection of essays by Susan Sontag. 16 Andre Bazin, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’. Feuerbach writes, ‘In the object which he contemplates, therefore, man becomes acquainted with himself; consciousness of the objective is the self-consciousness of man. He criticises the impoverishing function of religion as it has been conceived: Religion is the disuniting of man from himself; he sets God before him as the antithesis of himself. Library Journal 102(19) (1 November 1977) p. 2250. As everything she wrote, Susan Sontag's book on photography is brilliant. Photography has created the sickness, and it is photography that offers the remedy. According to Sontag, Feuerbach belongs to a long line of ‘defenders of the real’ inaugurated by Plato and, as a defender of the real, Feuerbach equates ‘image with mere appearance’ and presumes that an image is ‘absolutely distinct from the object depicted’.72 Sontag maintains that Feuerbach subscribes to too static a definition of reality and image. For one thing, there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention. susan sontag on photography summary throughout history reality has been related through images and philosophers such as plato have made efforts to diminish our 214–36. First, Sontag has a tendency to make arguments about photography in general rather than arguments about specific photographs in particular contexts, and this occasionally causes her to move too quickly past information that might trouble her position and, in some cases, to misread texts she uses to make her point. Anyone interested in the social roles of photography will find this book fascinating and thought-provoking. Alan Trachtenberg (New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980). They are iconic because they resemble whatever was originally in front of the lens and they are indexical because it is the physical act of light bounced off an object through the lens and on to the filmic emulsion which leaves the trace and becomes the image’ (Christopher Pinney, Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997], p. 20). Portraits seek ... Roland Barthes • Susan Sontag • Art • Depiction • Subjects • Subjectification • ... photography, like painting, leaves room for the expressive aims and intentions of artists. 38 Sontag’s ethical concern is another similarity she shares with Feuerbach, although she does not acknowledge this similarity in On Photography. This language emerges when they posit certain kinds of claims about photography that attempt to push beyond finite human experience. Sontag troubles this notion of hiddenness, asking key questions about why certain realities are hidden from others, or why we tell ourselves that they are hidden, and whether seeing a photograph of something actually makes that thing visible (and to what effect).68 And yet, even as she argues that photography creates a false sense of hiddenness, she ultimately depends on its revelatory powers to make the invisible visible, to make the ‘unreal’ real. When The Essence of Christianity appeared, Engels wrote, ‘No one can have an idea of the liberating influence of this book unless he himself experienced it. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), pp. The last, essentially, is Sontag's subject, approached—after a splatter of (as yet) unsupported assertions —via touchstone figures: writers, photographers, painters interchangeably. . (publ. 37 First published as essays in The New York Review of Books, On Photography began as Susan Sontag’s attempt to write about ‘some of the problems, aesthetic and moral, posed by the omnipresence of photographed images’. It is a set of essays on the "philosophy" of picture-taking and the meaning of photography in the modern (ca. . Whether photography has been claimed as ‘true expression’ or as ‘faithful recording’, there has been a presumption that photography is a ‘unique system of disclosure: that it shows us reality as we had not seen it before’.65 Sontag argues that photographers’ fascination with photography’s ability to reveal, to disclose reality, exposes something profound: the belief that reality is hidden, and, because it is hidden, it must be unveiled by the camera.66 Sontag writes, ‘Whatever the camera records is a disclosure—whether it is imperceptible, fleeting parts of movement, an order that natural vision is incapable of perceiving or a ‘heightened reality’ … or simply a way of seeing … Just to show something, anything, in the photographic view is to show that it is hidden.’67 Sontag suggests that photography creates the sense that reality is hidden. Sontag reveals that photographers use theological language to describe this special relationship. . Enthusiasm was general: we were all for the moment ‘Feuerbachians’’ (Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach und der Ausang de klassichen deutschen Philosophi, Berline, 1886, pg. This essay argues that Susan Sontag's 1968 trip to Hanoi paved the way for her groundbreaking reflections on photography. 181–208. She is at times critical of it, disparaging the tendency to see images as more real than the world itself and arguing that the confusion between the image and the thing—mistaking the image for the thing and the thing for the image—has turned the world itself into an image. Nineteenth century ‘spirit photography’ is also an excellent illustration of this manipulation. 13 The term ‘indexical’ comes from the writings of C.S. A special representational status—indexical, transcendent, revelatory—is reserved for photographs. In her book, Trip to Hanoi, she describes the trip as an inward journey and a means to self-transformation; recording and critiquing her narrow-minded response to North Vietnam, Sontag tries to radicalize her perspective. from the College of the University of Chicago and did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard University and … The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself’ (Ibid., pp. She understands photography in a similar way to how Feuerbach understands theology. Sontag notes in a brief preface to the paperback version of the text that the more she thought about ‘what photographs are, the more complex and suggestive they became’ (Sontag, On Photography, Preface). American Anthropologist 108 (1) (2006) pp. In On Photography, Sontag is interested in a photograph’s ability ‘to stimulate the moral impulse’.103 She wants photography to be able to cause something—to stop violence, to effect change, to protect. Feuerbach’s task is to return humanity to itself, and he uses religion to do so. . Here, Sontag traces a belief shared by some photographers that they are not simply copying reality, but revealing it, disclosing it, as if the world is something hidden waiting for the photographer to appear, camera in hand, to make it visible. Part of what is interesting about the use of photography in colonialism and about ‘spirit photography’ is that it is the myth of indexicality that allowed falsified images to become ‘proof’—of the truth of the afterlife, of the possibility of communicating with the dead, of the need to ‘save’ the ‘other.’. Her book is a collection of six essays that explore photography in the deepest of manners. Sontag examines the ‘surrealism’ that ‘lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise:’ ‘the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision’.47 Unlike paintings, photographs are created not only by a human being but also by a machine. Cited by lists all citing articles based on Crossref citations.Articles with the Crossref icon will open in a new tab. He writes, Man—this is the mystery of religion—projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject; he thinks of himself is [sic] an object to himself, but as the object of an object, of another being than himself. Photographs ‘can and do distress’, she writes, but their aestheticizing tendency means that ‘the medium which conveys distress ends by neutralizing it’ (Ibid., p. 109). We use cookies to improve your website experience. Metaphorical interpretation started as an attempt to make old work stand the test of time. The ‘Thou’ of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship is ‘human nature externalised and reified’.34 In religion, however, the distinction between the individual and the species is misapprehended as a distinction between the individual and God.35 Feuerbach describes God like Bazin describes the photograph: ‘The divine being is nothing else than the human being, or, rather, the human nature purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, made objective.’36At some points in The Essence of Christianity, it is almost as if ‘God’ is like the ‘films’ described by Epicurus and Lucretius, shed from humans and projected onto a screen. Photography (for Sontag) and theology (for Feuerbach) have been forces of alienation, but they can also be forces of participation; they can bring us close, and they can create distance.102 For Feuerbach, religion is a projection of what belongs to the human species onto God; his task is to use religion to return what rightfully belongs to human beings. 54–76; Stephanie Ross, ‘What Photographs Can't Do’. Sontag writes, Photography has powers that no other image-system has ever enjoyed because, unlike earlier ones, it is not dependent on an image maker . . 12, quoted by Thornton in ‘Facing up to Feuerbach,’ p. 104). . Published by Oxford University Press 2010; all rights reserved. Sontag apparently considers photography to be predominately and fundamentally the production of a paper image for commercial use. Critical Inquiry 2 (1) (Autumn, 1975) pp. 176–9). Thus here. I read it myself a good year before starting this course but if there was ever a case of something you read going in one eye and out the other this was it. Sontag aims to correct this flawed understanding of photography, but she does so by depending on a version of the very claim she is criticising: the photograph as a trace of the real. Alan Trachtenberg (New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980). Abstract. 7–8. She has studied at Berkeley, Harvard, Ox­ ford, and the Sorbonne and considers herself a writer without specialization. Like Feuerbach, Sontag argues that human beings have mistaken the copy for the thing itself and, as a result, have created a false division between the copy and the ‘real,’ devalued both the copy and the thing itself, and overlooked the profound ways images affect the world. 20 Bazin writes, ‘The photographic image is the object itself, freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it’ (Ibid., p. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide, This PDF is available to Subscribers Only. Richard Howard, 1st American ed. 12 For a survey of the debates about what, if anything, is peculiarly ‘photographic’ about photography, see Joel and Neil Walsh, ‘Allen Snyder, Photography, Vision and Representation’. Susan Sontag’s “On Photography” is one of the worst texts you can ever assign to an aspiring photographer, photography student, photography beginner, or lover of photography. He made the images by polishing and cleaning the silver-coated side of a copper plate. Peirce who identifies three types of signs: symbols, icons and indexes. The image plays an essential role in The Essence of Christianity. Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. 14 Although digital images seem to introduce the possibility that photographs can be manipulated, the writings of postcolonial theorists like Malek Alloula and Christopher Pinney reveal that photographs have always been changed, manufactured and falsified)—(Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986) and Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson, Photography's; Other Histories (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003)). Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 120 (3) (2005) pp. . The plate was then placed in a camera obscura window before being exposed to a scene or landscape. Susan Sontag’s On Photography is a text that every photography theory student grapples with at one point or another. Afterimage 31 (6) (May/June 2004); Judith Butler, ‘Photography, War, Outrage’. My analysis of Sontag’s use of Feuerbach is part of a larger project exploring how theological language functions in the work of several theorists of photography, and I think this is an area where scholars in religious studies and theology can make a contribution to visual studies, art history, and photography criticism.40 Third, and most important for my purposes in this article, attention to Sontag’s (mis)interpretation of Feuerbach’s text uncovers something about how Sontag understands photography and its relation to ‘the real’, which might otherwise remain hidden. The belief that photographs both ‘capture’ and ‘free’ their subjects in ways other forms of images do not creates the sense that photographs, in Susan Sontag’s terms, ‘can be used as memento mori’.21 In Regarding the Suffering of Others (2003), Sontag writes, ‘Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death. 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