27 December 2007

Sontag through other eyes

Thirty years ago, Susan Sontag's collection of essays, On Photography, arrived in the literature of photographic criticism and changed the game. Sontag wasn't a photographer, but brought a critic's outside eye to bear on the psychosocial place of photography in our current world. Since then, every student of photography has had to operate in an intellectual framework which includes, and is partly shaped by, the mirror which she held up.

A few days ago, I mentioned that I'd started participating in Photo.net. That participation included poking my nose into the forums, one of which is "Philosophy of photography" which contained an offer from one Robert Hall to share a collection of representative extracts from On Photography. Now, to compile such a collection is to show one's own view of the text from which they were drawn; to have such an insight seemed to me too good an opportunity to miss, so I took up his offer and asked for a copy.

What arrived, by return email attachment, was not one but a pair of Microsoft Word files. The first is the 28 page selection of quotations, and it does indeed do exactly what I expected: provide me with a view of On Photography not through my eyes, nor Sontag's, but through a third party's - Robert Halls. So far, so valuable. The second was an unexpected bonus, in some ways more valuable still, since it provided in depth background, an analogue fossil record of some of the thought processes which accompanied compilation of the extracts. Titled as a study guide, this second file contains a partial concordance of allusive pathways literal, personal, referential and verbal which I would a seduction (a much more interesting and subtle thing) rather than a guide.

Like any critical work of value, On Photography is not an easy read. It is a slim volume, but not lightweight. It is more approachable than most such texts, but requires serious and sustained engagement from the reader who wants to receive what it has to give. Reading it is, to hijack Erica Jong's metaphor for fiction, a relationship which yields according to your level of commitment. A quickie or a one night stand will leave you with nothing but dissatisfaction; an affair must be entered into with respect and at least long term intent if it is to be any better and will, if given the chance, will go on paying dividends into old age.

Robert Hall says, in a later supplement to his Photo.net post:

I made the list of references and the list of quotes for myself ... I found her book very difficult to understand, and these were a first step towards helping me understand her thoughts. ... After reading the book twice, it took me about five days to compile the two lists. ... Her writing inspired me to explore the history of photography.

To embark on creation of either document is a daunting endeavour; to complete both, even more so. I've been reading and using the text for all of its three decade history (I'd say that we have, by now, no longer an affair but a marriage), yet never considered making that effort myself. (Then again, perhaps it can only be done in the first flush while everything is new.)

As with any relationship, it's not agreement that has provided most of the value over the years. The recognition of, respect for, efforts to understand, and learning to accept the richness of difference is what pays off. I disagree with Sontag about far more than I can agree; but the disagreement was one of the biggest influences in opening up my own perceptions and development (not just photographic) in my mid twenties.

And so it is with Robert Hall's two files. After reading both through in parallel with On Photography over the past four or five days I don't agree (for the most part) with his views of either Sontag or her text; but the disagreement provides me with a new place to stand, a new viewpoint, from which to see so much more than I can see alone.

  1. Sontag, S., On photography. 1977, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0374226261. (Original publication).
    [My paperback copy: 1979, Harmondsworth: Penguin. ISBN 0140053972. Current paperback edition: 2002, Penguin, 0141187166]