Windows: Through a Glass Darkly

Windows: Through a Glass Darkly

The World Beckoned Susan: Petra, Jordan (1994)

Photography by: Annie Leibovitz

Susan Sontag: Moral and Ethical Issues in the Medium of Photography

Susan Sontag was engrossed with attempting to clarify the modern relationship between words, pictures, and experience throughout her writing career. She was a major force in the intellectual life of New York for over forty years. Sontag earliest essays about photography appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1973; those essays became 1977’s pioneering publication, On Photography, which received the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism. Her final book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), emphasized the moral issues raised by the medium, as did one of her last essays, a 2004, cover story on the Abu Ghraib photographs for the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Sontag’s contributions about the medium of photography raised questions not only about the worth of photography as an artistic experience, but also furthered discussions about the moral values and ethical obligations of looking. What should a photographer’s images do? More pressing still, what do they do? Further, what should a writer’s words about the photographs do? Can a suitably worded caption prevent photographs from dulling the senses and deadening the capacity for outrage and indignation? “All photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions,” Sontag claimed.

One of the important and engaging contributions in Sontag’s writings about photography was how she treated the work of great artists and the role of photography in everyday life with equal seriousness. Although this is a prominent approach in photography today, it was seldom the case when Sontag began writing in the early 1970s.

Susan Sontag: America Seen Through Photographs, Darkly

“Standing far from the Whitmanesque buoyancy is a bitter, sad embrace of experience. But the seeds of melancholy were already present even in the heyday of Whitmanesque affirmation, as represented by Stieglitz and his Photo-Secession circle. Stieglitz, pledged to redeem the world with the camera, is still shocked by modern material civilization. He photographed New York in the 1910s, as Berenice Abbott did between 1929 and 1939, in an almost quixotic spirit-camera/lance against the windmill/skyscrapers. According to Rosenfeld, Stieglitz’s work is “perpetual affirmation of a faith that there existed, somewhere, here in very New York, a spiritual America.” The Whitmanesque appetites have turned pious: the photographer now patronizes reality. One needs a camera to show that “running right through the dull and marvelous opacity called the United States” are spiritual patterns.

Obviously, a mission as rotten with doubt about America-even at its most optimistic-was bound to get deflated fairly soon, as post-World War I America committed itself more boldly to Empire and consumerism. Photographers with less ego and magnetism than Stieglitz gradually gave up the struggle. They might continue to practice the atomistic visual stenography inspired by Whitman. But, without Whitman’s delirious powers of synthesis, what they documented was discontinuity, material detritus, loneliness, greed.

Once a small tendency in photography, Surrealism has now become the dominant one. America has been discovered as the quintessential Surrealist country. Diane Arbus discovers America is freaks. Michael Lesy, making a collage of photographs that date from turn of the century Wisconsin, discovers that we are on a “death trip.” Since photography cut loose from the Whitmanesque affirmation-since it has ceased to understand what it could mean for photographs to aim at being literate, authoritative, and transcendent-the best of American photography (and much else in American culture) has given itself over to Surrealism.

It is simply too easy to say that America is just a freak show-the Surrealist judgment. Arbus reflects a cut-rate pessimism, naïve and, above all, reductive. Surrealism can only deliver a reactionary judgment. It can make out of history only a garbage can, a joke, a lunatic asylum. But Americans are partial to myths of redemption and of damnation. With Whitman’s dream of cultural revolution discredited, all we have left is a sharp-eyed, witty despair.”

Susan Sontag, The New York Review of Books, 1973.

Windows: Through a Glass Darkly

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One Response to “Windows: Through a Glass Darkly”

  1. neath Says:

    She was brilliant. In art school I wrote a paper about her thinking on Diane Arbus which gave me a few premature gray hairs, but was ok in the end.

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