PRINT March 2005

Abigail Solomon-Godeau

You can photograph anything now.
—Robert Frank1

When Susan Sontag wrote about photography, photographers, or image culture in its broadest sense, even those with no special interest in these topics took notice. One of her accomplishments as a public intellectual was to make photography—understood as a phenomenon rather than a specific technology—a subject worthy of serious critical attention. “It all started with one essay,” she wrote in the opening pages of On Photography (1977), “about some of the problems, aesthetic and moral, posed by the omnipresence of photographed images; but the more I thought about what photographs are, the more complex and suggestive they became.”2 The essays comprising the book, mostly reviews of photography volumes and exhibition catalogues, were originally written for the New York Review of Books beginning in 1973 and slightly edited for their reprinting. Sontag’s writing on the medium did, of course, exceed the borders of the object itself—with such a purview how could it not? But here lies the fundamental importance of her work. Like all significant modern criticism, it conforms to Baudelaire’s famous injunction: “To be just, that is to say, to justify its existence, criticism should be partial, passionate and political, that is to say, written from an exclusive point of view, but a point of view that opens up the widest horizons.”3

On Photography provoked considerable controversy when it was first published, nowhere more so than among the ranks of photographers (especially art photographers). The general (and aggrieved) sense was that Sontag had pronounced herself “against” photography and that she had, in effect, blamed the messenger for the bad news that yes, Virginia, we do all live in a society of the spectacle, with all the alienation, historical amnesia, and diminished ethical faculties that such a society both breeds and disseminates. Whether such an accusation was warranted, doubtless this indignant response was heightened by Sontag’s literary tone, a tone unmistakably that of the moralist as opposed to the more neutral analyst. Dispassionate and usually impersonal, On Photography is characterized by the flat assertion (“Like sexual voyeurism [the act of photographing] is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging whatever is going on to keep on happening”4); the trenchant aphorism (“To collect photographs is to collect the world”5); and the hortatory (“The omnipresence of photographs has an incalculable effect on our ethical sensibility. By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is”6

Such bold and authoritative pronouncements are difficult for the scholar or specialist to match, as experts are apt to be more knowledgeable about (and comfortable with) the photographic trees than the photographic forest. The risk run by the generalist is that of factual error (and Sontag’s periodizations of photographic practice in On Photography are sometimes open to question) or a lack of nuance that sometimes flattens or simplifies photography’s history. But this is finally a quibble; it was a mark of Sontag’s intellectual self-confidence, no less than her great gift for synthesis, that enabled her to assimilate the most significant arguments of André Bazin, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin, Pierre Bourdieu—to name only some of the continental thinkers whose writing informed hers—and to make various aspects of their analyses her own. Indeed, the citations in the final chapter of On Photography, “A Brief Anthology of Quotations,” are an homage to Benjamin’s Arcades Project, his unfinished study of nineteenth-century Paris constructed entirely of textual fragments.

Whether Sontag’s writing on photography was to any degree influenced by the most important Anglophone criticism of the 1970s on the medium—John Berger, Victor Burgin, Rosalind Krauss, Allan Sekula, Martha Rosler, John Tagg—is difficult to say. They are never cited, but much of what Sontag writes is entirely consistent and compatible with their arguments. Always keenly attuned to the seismological tremors of the zeitgeist, Sontag began her considerations of the medium in the early 1970s, when photography again became discursively visible, making it an object of critical and theoretical investigation. In this respect, revisiting Sontag’s earlier writing on photography reminds us that despite its incalculable effects in the 150 years since its debut, photography has rarely been the subject of general—I am tempted to say philosophical—investigation, except at a few critical moments. The recognition of photography as something requiring critical analysis was evident during its first decade of existence, when the task was to try and understand what it was, what it did, how it should be thought of. It was another seventy or eighty years before photography (as technology, medium, machine, apparatus, etc.) became again a discursive object—an object of investigation in and of itself—as Bazin, Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Paul Valéry, and others made their contributions to the subject.7 And it was yet another three decades before photography as such emerged again as a subject of theory. Undoubtedly, it was her work on the subject that helped defamiliarize what had long been so ubiquitous as to be effectively invisible. In other words, Sontag understood that it was the ubiquity of photography both as a cultural practice and as an atmospheric surround that required address, rather than any one of the specific photographic practices that were its tributaries.

It was another twenty-five years before Sontag returned to the subject of photography, in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2002). Here, she reengaged her central concern with the atrophying effects of photographic images and the ethical stakes of photographic reception. Sontag’s insistence on these stakes in the viewing of imagery of slaughter and catastrophe, like the more general critique in On Photography, can seem simplistic, but this hardly invalidates her arguments. Morality, moreover, is not the same as moralism, just as religiosity must be distinguished from religious faith and belief. (Or so it is said.) Sontag may have seized the moral high ground in debates about the place of photography in our culture, but is this not entirely to her credit? Moreover, in her last writing on the medium, where it was the photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib that were her subject, ethical and moral claims were inseparable from the nature of the images.

Somewhat uncannily, this return to photography at the end of her life parallels that of Barthes, one of Sontag’s major influences and models. Barthes’s own considerations of photography began early in his career in several lapidary newspaper essays (e.g., “The Great Family of Man”), continued in essays written under the influence, so to speak, of semiotic analysis (e.g., “The Photographic Message,” “The Rhetoric of the Image”), and concluded with his somber final book, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (La Chambre Claire: Note sur la photographie, 1980). Like Barthes, Sontag understood her critical purview to include aspects of the common culture as well as more elite cultural productions. Similarly, too, neither Barthes’s nor Sontag’s writings on photography were composed from the perspective of expert, connoisseur, practitioner, or academic specialist. One might well argue that freedom from the prolixity of specialized knowledge is arguably a necessity if one takes on board such an amorphous, boundless subject. Whether there is, in fact, such an entity as photography as such, which, should it exist, would then be subject to ontological definition, is open to debate. But such a presupposition would appear to inform the writings of both Barthes (especially in Camera Lucida) and Sontag. Both, moreover, were preoccupied with photography’s effects on subjectivity and consciousness, although it was Barthes who was more attentive to photography’s complex orchestration of political, psychosexual, and social ideologies, or what he termed the doxa.

Her frequent reference to Plato’s allegory of the cave notwithstanding—it serves as the title of the first chapter of On Photography, is invoked in the book’s first sentence, and echoes throughout her writing—Sontag was by no means an iconoclast. Film, for example (and Sontag was herself an occasional filmmaker) seemed not to pose for her the same issues as the still image, which in both her early and late writing raised the specter of a form of ethical neurasthenia, deadening empathetic capacities, inoculating its spectators to real violence, colonizing, if not lobotomizing, its consumers.

Despite this elision, there seems little to refute Sontag’s conviction that photographic imagery (because of the way it works and how it is used) has become a surrogate for lived experience, a pseudoknowledge, a form of social control, a thoroughly ritualized practice of appropriation, objectification, reification, and commodification. (I would add fetishization, but Sontag rarely brought feminist questions to bear on her political or cultural diagnostics.) And there is no greater testimonial to Sontag’s importance as public intellectual, human rights activist, and—in the most honorific sense—moralist than her last words on the subject. In her devastating New York Times Magazine account of the implications of the Abu Ghraib pictures—the camera culture of our very own gulag—Sontag traced the hidden links between the ostensibly “public” domain of the news media and the most personal and intimate relations one can have to the image. In this respect the medium—dematerialized, digital not analog, circulating instantly and globally (as private porn and public news)——raises new issues about the politics of viewing: “Where once photographing war was the province of photojournalists, now the soldiers themselves are all photographers—recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities.”9

In recognizing that the most troubling truth of the Abu Ghraib videos and photographs lay—self-evidently—in their having been made in the first place, Sontag emphasized their public function: Such photographs, she maintained, were always intended to be viewed by others, as was the case with twentieth-century photographs of lynchings (a genre of photography ignored in standard photographic histories). “Intrinsic to the perpetration of this evil is the shamelessness of photographing it,” she wrote. “The pictures were taken as souvenirs and made, some of them, into postcards; more than a few show grinning spectators, good churchgoing citizens as most of them had to be, posing for a camera with the backdrop of a naked, charred, mutilated body hanging from a tree. The display of these pictures make us spectators too.”10

Sontag recognized that the digital photographic documentation produced by the soldiers and reservists was not “merely” the evidence of the sanctioned sadism of the young, working-class, mostly rural prison guards and soldiers, nor a demonstration that sexual abuse and s/m scenarios are staple features of torture, nor a signal of a “breakdown” in the chain of command. Nor, she argued, were these pictures mere evidence of an administration run so amok it attempts to legally justify, as well as countenance, “abuse.” More basically, the pictures, as she observed, make a profound statement about the workings of power. “The photographs,” she insisted, “are us.” They are us because “they are representative of the fundamental corruptions of any foreign occupation together with the Bush administration’s distinctive policies.”11

Sontag’s writing on photography in all its breadth is effectively a discursive mapping of how photo culture operates within civic, social, and political life. In this respect, perhaps those who resented her being “against” photography were not entirely misguided in their characterization. Other than her wanly expressed call for an “ecology of images” (in On Photography), Sontag implied that there was no solution to the problems posed by photomechanical or digital-image culture. Amalgamated as it is to the macro and micro mechanisms of late capitalism and its technologies of manipulation, mobile as a viral infection (a metaphor Sontag herself would deplore), image culture does not on the evidence appear to propagate anti-war, antiviolent, democratic, egalitarian, or other humane attitudes. War photography, she remarked, especially the representation of civilian slaughter, can be used by all sides of any given conflict. But she strongly affirmed the value of the historical—visual—evidence of historical crime. The Auschwitz image archive was for Sontag a distinctive criterion, a kind of infernal benchmark with which to gauge the political and ethical efficacy of the photographic record.

Today, criticism and theory—even the politically committed criticism and theory that was Sontag’s territory—nests quietly, for the most part, in academic preserves, and few available arenas exist beyond them. And so, while the death of a public intellectual, young or old, is always untimely, the loss of Sontag’s polemical voice in media res (or so it seems) is especially unfortunate. Sontag’s writing was at its best when confronting hypocrisy and mendacity and worse, cutting like a laser through lard, as in her scathing discussion of Leni Riefenstahl’s rehabilitation (“Fascinating Fascism”). Reflecting, for example, on the vogue for commemorative museums in our capital, Sontag mordantly observed that the United States has no museum of the history of slavery: “To have a museum chronicling the great crime that was African slavery in the United States of America would be to acknowledge that the evil was here. Americans prefer to picture the evil that was there and from which the United States—a unique nation, one without any certifiably wicked leaders throughout its entire history—is exempt.”12

All this said, it is virtually impossible to judge to what degree the writing of Sontag or others of her stature and influence might have on actual, concrete political circumstances. Nor can we judge the effect of the cumulative photographic record itself. If the lynching photographs cause a visceral shock for those who view them, is that not all we can fairly demand of the photographic record? Photographs do not substitute for all the other ways in which history is recorded, documented, dreamed, or otherwise represented. From the first, Sontag acknowledged this: Photographs as such, as discrete pictures, were usually irrelevant to political comprehension, much less outcomes, and were no substitute for historical memory or historical explanation. But as an aggregate archive (and the recent indictments of Augusto Pinochet and Edgar Ray Killen) should also remind us, it is the patient work of those who demand justice that animates the evidence from the past. For Benjamin, it was this “redemptive” work on photography that sparked the dialectical moment: “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.”13 Photographs of our war, our war crimes, and, yes, our torture may later contribute to a wider reckoning. The pictures, like all pictures, will yet circulate in other contexts, take on other meanings, have other instrumentalities. The picture of the hooded Iraqi prisoner, balanced precariously, abjectly, on the box, electric wires dangling from his arms, has made its way to many places and has become, as pundits like to say, an “iconic” image. Indeed. Photography, as Sontag knew but never explicitly said, is the inescapable terrain of our haunted past, our haunted present, and doubtless, our haunted future.

Abigail Solomon-Godeau is professor of art history at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


1. Susan Sontag, “ A Brief Anthology of Quotations,” in On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), 187.

2. Ibid., front matter, n.p.

3. Charles Baudelaire, “Salon de 1846,” in Baudelaire: Oeuvres completès (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1961), 877. My translation.

4. Sontag, On Photography, 12.

5. Ibid., 3.

6. Ibid., 24.

7. Significantly, these texts were published in the centenary period.

8. “Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth.” Susan Sontag, On Photography, 3.

9. Susan Sontag, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” New York Times Magazine, May 23, 2004, 27.

10. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 91.

11. Sontag, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” 26.

12. Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 88.

13. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1968), 257.

#image 4#