Winner of the National Book Critics' Circle Award for Criticism. One of the most highly regarded books of its kind, "On Photography" first appeared in 1977 and is described by its author as " a progress of essays about the meaning and career of photographs." It begins with the famous " In Plato' s Cave" essay, then offers five other prose meditations on this topic, and concludes with a fascinating and far-reaching " Brief Anthology of Quotations."
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.