Susan Sontag explores the primitive and the modern in photography

Susan Sontag explores the primitive and the modern in photography

“Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality, understood as recalcitrant, inaccessible." - Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag was one of those restless minds that defy categories and limits. Born in 1933, she wrote about art, culture, politics and human rights with great resourcefulness. “The image-world” is an essay of her book “On photography”, which was originally published in 1977. Written during the 70's, these essays show a interconnected way of thinking the image, even considering their individuality.

Susan Sontag. Photo by Jill Krementz. November 18, 1974.

In “The image-world”, Sontag uses her erudition to show the place of photography in the modern societies through comparisons with pre-industrial cultures or even pre-historic art. As we're going to see, photography and image, as proposed by her, are an extension as real as the original:

“Such images are indeed able to usurp reality because first of all a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask."

This quote is enough to show the challenges of proposing real that which is usually regarded to be only a representation. But she don't avoid the debate. By refering to Plato she defies a whole thinking tradition:

The Photojournalist. Photo by Andreas Feininger. 1951.

“But this venerable naïve realism is somewhat beside the point in the era of photographic images, for its blunt contrast between the image (“copy”) and the thing depicted (the “original”)—which Plato repeatedly illustrates with the example of a painting—does not fit a photograph in so simple a way. Neither does the contrast help in understanding image-making at its origins, when it was a practical, magical activity, a means of appropriating or gaining power over something. The further back we go in history, as E. H. Gombrich has observed, the less sharp is the distinction between images and real things; in primitive societies, the thing and its image were simply two different, that is, physically distinct, manifestations of the same energy or spirit. Hence, the supposed efficacy of images in propitiating and gaining control over powerful presences. Those powers, those presences were present in them.”
“What defines the originality of photography is that, at the very moment in the long, increasingly secular history of painting when secularism is entirely triumphant, it revives—in wholly secular terms—something like the primitive status of images. Our irrepressible feeling that the photographic process is something magical has a genuine basis. No one takes an easel painting to be in any sense co-substantial with its subject; it only represents or refers. But a photograph is not only like its subject, a homage to the subject. It is part of, an extension of that subject; and a potent means of acquiring it, of gaining control over it.”

Giving this condition of reality to the photo, she then argues that there's a true inversion in the way we see the real, a return to the primitive ways of dealing with the image:

“But the true modern primitivism is not to regard the image as a real thing; photographic images are hardly that real. Instead, reality has come to seem more and more like what we are shown by cameras. It is common now for people to insist about their experience of a violent event in which they were caught up—a plane crash, a shoot-out, a terrorist bombing—that “it seemed like a movie.” This is said, other descriptions seeming insufficient, in order to explain how real it was."

Brazilian police spraying immobilized civillian. Photo by Robson Fernandes.

“It is as if photographers, responding to an increasingly depleted sense of reality, were looking for a transfusion—traveling to new experiences, refreshing the old ones.”
“The urge to have new experiences is translated into the urge to take photographs: experience seeking a crisis-proof form.“

Being real, the mobility of the image can be a relief to those who can't experience that content, no matter if the reason is due to time or because of other kinds of constraints:

“As the taking of photographs seems almost obligatory to those who travel about, the passionate collecting of them has special appeal for those confined—either by choice, incapacity, or coercion—to indoor space. Photograph collections can be used to make a substitute world, keyed to exalting or consoling or tantalizing images.”
“For stay-at-homes, prisoners, and the self-imprisoned, to live among the photographs of glamorous strangers is a sentimental response to isolation and an insolent challenge to it.”

Igor Stravinsky. Photo by Arnold Newman. 1946, New York.

“Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality, understood as recalcitrant, inaccessible; of making it stand still. Or they enlarge a reality that is felt to be shrunk, hollowed out, perishable, remote. One can’t possess reality, one can possess (and be possessed by) images—as, according to Proust, most ambitious of voluntary prisoners, one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”

While the photo grants us the chance to keep contact with what's past and some of it's substance, there's also the need to deal with the transference of value that can happen between the “things” and their “images”, something that concerned Plato, even though he didn't saw this phenomenon as a competition between realities, but as the destruction of the only possible reality. Sontag don't accept this argument:

Pepper No. 30. Photo by Edward Weston. 1930.

“The attempts by photographers to bolster up a depleted sense of reality contribute to the depletion. Our oppressive sense of the transience of everything is more acute since cameras gave us the means to “fix” the fleeting moment.”
“The powers of photography have in effect de-Platonized our understanding of reality, making it less and less plausible to reflect upon our experience according to the distinction between images and things, between copies and originals. It suited Plato’s derogatory attitude toward images to liken them to shadows—transitory, minimally informative, immaterial, impotent co-presences of the real things which cast them. But the force of photographic images comes from their being material realities in their own right, richly informative deposits left in the wake of whatever emitted them, potent means for turning the tables on reality—for turning it into a shadow. Images are more real than anyone could have supposed.”

“On photography” is an essential reading to thing the image in our society. The internet and social networks may have added another anxieties and needs to these already proposed by Susan Sontag, however, it's inevitable to read her writings in order to reach something more in this field.

If you want to understand better Plato's hesitation in regarding copies and imitations you can find here the Reading Notes about Plato's idea of expelling the poets from the ideial city. And to have an ideia about how it's possible to change the world through photos and videos read article about Ontological Design as seen by Anne-Marie Willis.