Friday
Oct222010

Susan Sontag on Photography in "Regarding the Pain of Others"

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Penguin, 2003)

There is no war without photography, that notable aesthete of war Ernst Jünger observed in 1930, thereby refining the irrepressible identification of the camera and the gun, 'shooting' a subject and shooting a human being. War-making and picture-taking are congruent activities: 'It is the same intelligence, whose weapons of annihilation can locate the enemy to the exact second and meter,' wrote Jünger, 'that labors to preserve the great historical event in fine detail.' 

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The dual powers of photography-- to generate documents and to create works of visual art-- have produced some remarkable exaggerations about what photographers ought or ought not do. Lately, the most common exaggeration is one that regards these powers as opposites. Photographs that depict suffering shouldn't be beautiful, as captions shouldn't moralize. In this view, a beautiful photograph drains attention from the sobering subject and turns it toward the medium itself, thereby compromising the picture's status as a document. The photograph gives mixed signals. Stop this, it urges. But it also exclaims, What a spectacle!

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Photographs had the advantage of uniting two contradictory features. Their credentials of objectivity were inbuilt. Yet they always had, necessarily, a point of view. They were a record of the real-- incontrovertible, as no verbal account, however impartial, could be-- since a machine was doing the recording. And they bore witness to the real-- since a person had been there to take them.

Photographs, as Woolf claims, 'are not an argument; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye.' The truth is they are not 'simply' anything, and certainly not regarded just as facts, by Woolf or anyone else. For, as she immediately adds, 'the eye is connected with the brain; the brain with the nervous system. That system sends its messages in a flash through every past memory and present feeling.' This sleight of hand allows photographs to be both objective record and personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality-- a feat literature has long aspired to, but could never attain in this literal sense.

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Photography is the only major art in which professional training and years of experience do not confer an insuperable advantage over the untrained and inexperienced-- this for many reasons, among them the larger role that chance (or luck) plays in the taking of pictures, and the bias toward the spontaneous, the rough, the imperfect. (There is no comparable level playing field in literature, where virtually nothing owes to chance or luck and where refinement of language usually incurs no penalty; or in the performing arts, where genuine achievement is unattainable without exhaustive training and daily practice; or in film-making, which is not guided to any significant degree by the anti-art prejudices of much of contemporary art photography.)

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