Susan Sontag's 1973 book, On Photography, is a true classic and should be read by all photographers. Not only is the book a great intellectual stimulant, but it is also a trove of practical information for photographers too. On Photography is a study of the subject endowed with wit and wisdom, intellect and intent - it is a brilliant and profound look at the very essence of photography. Every page of the book raises important questions that often challenge accepted knowledge and practice. On Photography is disruptive in the best way.
It is pointless to try and recapture Sontag's words here. The book cannot be done justice through second-hand description. Yet, at the same time, I am eager to bring some of Sontag's brilliance to you here in an attempt to encourage you to read the book for yourself. Your photography will improve, your mind will improve, and you will likely become a Sontag fan from page one.
My well-worn copy of Susan Sontag's On Photography
With all of this in mind, I decided the best way to showcase this book to my readers is by way of a selection of quotes - little nuggets - by this visionary 20th century intellectual. Hopefully, this little taste will leave you wanting more, wanting the whole thing. Even that - the whole thing - will, undoubtedly, leave you wanting more. And that is the brilliance that is Susan Sontag.
"The omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing" (11).
"Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder - a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time" (15).
"Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art" (21).
"The camera has the power to catch so-called normal people in such a way as to make them look abnormal. The photographer chooses oddity, chases it, frames it, develops it, titles it" (34).
"But essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own" (57).
"Through photographs we follow in the most intimate, troubling way the reality of how people age. . . . Photography is the inventory of mortality" (70).
"What is true of photographs is true of the world seen photographically" (79).
"Life is not about significant details, illuminated a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are (81).
"The painter constructs, the photographer discloses. That is, the identification of the subject of a photograph always dominates our perception of it - as it does not, necessarily, in a painting" (92).
"But photographic seeing has to be constantly renewed with new shocks, whether subject matter or technique, so as to produce the impression of violating ordinary vision" (99).
". . . an unassuming functional snapshot may be as visually interesting, as eloquent, as beautiful as the most acclaimed fine-art photograph" (103).
"Photographs are often invoked as an aid to understanding and tolerance. In humanist jargon, the highest vocation of photography is to explain man to man" (111).
So, there you have it - some good old-fashioned food for thought. Photographers are often quick to buy books of pictures, but here is one with none - mere words upon the page - which, should you acquire, will enrich and expand every other book in your photography collection. On Photography is highly recommended.
There is also a great documentary on Susan Sontag by Nancy Kates. It too is highly recommended.
Susan Sontag was an American writer and filmmaker, teacher and political activist. Her best-known works include, On Photography, The Way We Live Now, and In America. Susan Sontag was long-time partner to famed photographer Annie Leibovitz. Sontag died in 2004 at the age of 71.
Michael Ernest Sweet is a Canadian New York-based writer and photographer.