On photography

by Susan Sontag

Paper Book, 1977

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c1977.

Description

Susan Sontag's On Photography is a seminal and groundbreaking work on the subject. Susan Sontag's groundbreaking critique of photography asks forceful questions about the moral and aesthetic issues surrounding this art form. Photographs are everywhere, and the 'insatiability of the photographing eye' has profoundly altered our relationship with the world. Photographs have the power to shock, idealize or seduce, they create a sense of nostalgia and act as a memorial, and they can be used as evidence against us or to identify us. In these six incisive essays, Sontag examines the ways in which we use these omnipresent images to manufacture a sense of reality and authority in our lives. 'Sontag offers enough food for thought to satisfy the most intellectual of appetites' The Times 'A brilliant analysis of the profound changes photographic images have made in our way of looking at the world, and at ourselves' Washington Post 'The most original and illuminating study of the subject' New Yorker One of America's best-known and most admired writers, Susan Sontag was also a leading commentator on contemporary culture until her death in December 2004. Her books include four novels and numerous works of non-fiction, among them Regarding the Pain of Others, On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, At the Same Time, Against Interpretation and Other Essays and Reborn: Early Diaries 1947-1963, all of which are published by Penguin. A further eight books, including the collections of essays Under the Sign of Saturn and Where the Stress Falls, and the novels The Volcano Lover and The Benefactor, are available from Penguin Modern Classics.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member mhtaylor
If you are serious about the art, implications and philosophy of photography then you must read this book. Don't let i's date put you off - photographic technology may have progressed but it hasn't left Sontag's bible behind - it's just as relevant today as it ever was.
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Susan Sontag's original essays on the meaning of photography and the photographic image are challenging. She presents a wide range of ideas and discusses the work of some of the great photographers of the past century. Whether you agree with her views about the aggressive nature of photography or the essential "nonintervention" of the act of taking a picture, you can savor the intelligent arguments that she presents. I was disappointed, as were others in our study group where we discussed this book, that there were no pictorial examples of the multitude of references made by Sontag. The book was nevertheless an excellent and invigorating read - one to which I shall return.… (more)
LibraryThing member jburlinson
Six meditations on the nature and implications of photography. Each essay pivots engagingly around a provocative theme: the “aesthetic consumerism” exemplified by taking and collecting photographs, the inherent surrealism of photographs, the incurable defensiveness of those who claim photography an art form, photography’s project of beautifying the world, the West as a “culture based on images.” My favorite is the second essay: “America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly,” which traces the metamorphosis of Walt Whitman’s delirious vision of democratic vistas where beauty and ugliness are superseded, through the bland humanism of Edward Steichen and his “Family of Man” exhibit, to Diane Arbus’ clinical freakshow of “assorted monsters and borderline cases.” Being a longtime fan of historic photographs, I greatly enjoy Sontag’s thumbnail assessments of the cavalcade of photographic innovators. What I enjoy most, though, is the chance to savor what I call the “Sontag paragraph.” The SP is never too long or too short. It consists of sentences that are finely balanced carefully concentrated. The SP typically begins with a provocation like, “Photography inevitably entails a certain patronizing of reality,” and ends with something equally arresting, “Life is not about significant details, illuminated a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.” In between twist sinuously a series of asseverations, quotations, questions, asides, (rarely jokes), and speculations that trace the thought-motion of a woman who never stopped thinking.… (more)
LibraryThing member TadAD
This is a slightly uneven collection of essays on photography: when they were good, they were very good. When they weren’t, they were somewhat forgettable.

Her basic premise that the proliferation of photographic images has inured us to certain categories of events and promoted disengagement has some strong arguments. I would be interested to read her Regarding the Pain of Others in which she—reportedly—partially reverses her stance on this.… (more)
LibraryThing member jaygheiser
VERY interesting and provocative read. I learned a lot about the philosophy of photography, some of the social and power aspects, and its relationship to other forms of art.
LibraryThing member emed0s
These book is a collection of essays on the subject of photography written by Susan Sontag. She did a complete review of every aspect the field ... its relation with reality, art, photography on a repressive society (China) ...

If anything one can regret that the book, written in the 70's, doesn't cover the current state of photography (how we all take pictures and share them on the internet and how that affects our memories and values.)… (more)
LibraryThing member Ibreak4books
When you think the world's gone haywire and nobody out there can think a coherent thought, pick up Sontag. Of course, Sontag's dead, but nonetheless. It gives me hope for the species. Lyrical, needless-to-say thought-provoking, and affirmation that the real world exists behind pics, blogs, and disneymation.
LibraryThing member TomMcGreevy
A work of very high-brow criticism, which at its worst is only clever. The best of it is very good indeed, but most of it is written with no concern for accessibility – it is anything but linear in argument. The epistemological/ontological statuses of photographs are the common threads that try to weave the separate essays together, unsuccessfully in my opinion.… (more)
LibraryThing member LovingLit
This is a collection of related essays, on the topic of photography. Photography as a practice, as an art, as a cultural phenomenon. It was written 40 years ago, and for that reason I could not help but wonder the entire time I was reading it, what on earth would this author think now? With all but the most rudimentary mobile phones having photographic capability, the practice of capturing images (let alone the display of them) is becoming ubiquitous.

Sontag takes a critical view of the proliferation of photography. The higher and higher ownership of cameras, the way cameras dictate the scene and become the focus of an event, the way photography has become art, the voyeuristic nature of it, the removed and passive way images can be 'taken' of people with or without their knowledge. It does go on and on and felt at times like a rant, however intellectually presented. And given that I have a problem with the way art is discussed already- some pretty far fetched things are assumed by the reviewers and the art crowd- I found the musings on whether or not photography should/could be art, rather....well, pointless. (My answer would be yes, its art, but let's not make a big deal of it.)

But, it presented some great starting points for thinking about how cameras and photos have and are changing our lives. In spite of being rather a critical observer myself, I found myself starting to stick up for photography and its value and promise. I look forward to reading her follow-up from this one, Regarding the Pain of Others, where I might find some reflection on how she thinks it stood up.
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LibraryThing member ldallara
A very thought provoking book on the impact of images on our culture and the people who take them. It changed my view of photography.
LibraryThing member soulcruzer
Excellent essays on the role of photography in society.
LibraryThing member georgeslacombe
Very good book from Susan Sontag. Essays about photos and seeing. Dificult to define, but make a whole difference for my understanding of this art.
LibraryThing member gregorybrown
Solid stuff, albeit hopping around all over the place.

Like a lot of Sontag, I'm not really equipped to judge many of their cultural references; she's so rooted in the '60s-'70s NYC and European art scene that's dissipated since, with the influences and artists falling back into obscurity. But her insights on the ideological uses of photography are as brilliant as ever, especially given how ever more widespread it is when everyone has a camera in their pocket. It was originally a series of essays in the NYRB, though, and the seams show.… (more)
LibraryThing member untraveller
Chapters 1 and 6 were exceptional, the others were good to mediocre. Overall, a wonderful thought-provoking look at how photography fits into western civilization, at least as of the mid 1970s.
LibraryThing member RajivC
I started this book with a fair amount of expectation, and this is possibly the mistake I made. The book does have a reputation to uphold and this is what made me buy the book.

It is a useful book, in that it is one written about photography by someone who is not, in my view, a photographer. So, to that extent, she does have an outsider's perspective and this is good. The book started off well, and her comments on some of the early masters are pertinent. Then, someway about a third into the book, I thought that she started to ramble, and started to philosophise for the sake of philosophising. Photographers, like businessmen, politicians, writers, artists etc can take themselves very seriously and it is good to explore some of the myths that have been built up.

To do so, however, you need to try to understand, and this is where I think, she came up short.
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LibraryThing member Michael_Lilly
An intellectual tour de force that discusses photography and much more. Probably the most concise, dense, and thoughtful book I have read.
LibraryThing member Paperpuss
I read this when I was 17 or 18 and it changed the way I looked at photography and art. I was just entering college as a photography major so it had a big influence on me.
LibraryThing member jasonli
On the art of photography and how photography has changed our lives (for better or worse). Many, many great insights and ideas throughout. Definitely recommended.
LibraryThing member peterjawilson
I learned so much from this book by Susan Sontag and rank it right up there with Camera Obscura by Roland Barthes. These collected essays by Sontag draw some very interesting parallels between the works of some of history's most important and prolific photographers. These are fascinating pieces on the role and positioning of photography as an art and a method of documenting the world around us.The wonderful aspect of reading this book now is the ability to sit with laptop close at hand and actually be able to see the works of photographers she references in her essays. These certainly reinforce and support her discussions on the topic and have lead me to learn so much about these key figures in the history of photography.… (more)

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