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Books: For Sontag, a lover's quarrel with the image

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  December 29, 2008 04:55 PM

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Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag in 1982 / Photo by Thomas Victor

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff

Susan Sontag took a trip once to Archer City, Texas, to visit her friend Larry McMurtry. McMurtry, who set many of his novels in the vicinity, later recalled how Sontag teased him about living in his own theme park.

She could have said something similar about herself and photography.

Although Sontag died nearly four years ago, at 71, she very much remains an active cultural presence. Farrar, Straus & Giroux has just published her "Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963." "At the Same Time," a collection of speeches and essays, came out last year. "Swimming in a Sea of Death," a memoir by Sontag's son, David Rieff, of her final illness, appeared in January.

So much of her continuing presence concerns seeing as much as reading. It's no small irony that Sontag - high priestess of the intellect, as ardent a lover of word and idea as the 20th century knew - should have had so much of her life and career defined by images.

Her most lasting work is "On Photography" (1977) - the guide book to the theme park, you might say - which retains a forcefulness and suggestiveness that, say, "Against Interpretation" (1966) or "Illness as Metaphor" (1978) or her fiction does not. If images did so much to define (and propel) Sontag's career, that book was her chance to define them, in turn. Three decades after its first publication, it remains exhilarating and maddening, sweeping and limited, aroused and censorious. There's a fabulous tension in the book between Sontag's fundamental disapproval of photography and how the medium clearly excites her (which makes her disapprove all the more).

That Sontag had a lover's quarrel with the image there can be no doubt. She made several experimental films, participated in Andy Warhol's "Screen Test" series, and appeared as herself (her most challenging and alluring role) in Woody Allen's "Zelig." She also wrote about filmmakers as diverse as Jack Smith, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, and Leni Riefenstahl (whom Sontag famously excoriated).

Still images mattered even more. No small part of the aura that surrounds Sontag emanates from how a succession of well-known photographers captured her exotic good looks. Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe, Dominique Nabokov, Diane Arbus (a mother-and-son portrait of Sontag and Rieff): All memorably took her portrait.

Others photographed her in leather jacket (Carlos Freire) or in jeans and boots (Thomas Victor). A willing sitter, Sontag was extremely photogenic and knew it. That lightning-bolt streak of white hair in the last few decades of her life was no accident. The index of Carl E. Rollyson and Lisa Paddock's comprehensive, if rather heavy-breathing, 2000 biography, "Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon," has 23 entries under "Sontag, Susan, photographs of."

What is likely the most famous image of Sontag was taken by Peter Hujar in 1975. She lies supine, eyes narrowed, arms behind neck, wearing a thin-ribbed turtleneck. "A literary pinup," The New York Times once called her. Has erudition ever seemed so sexy?

Another famous photographer shot Sontag. Annie Leibovitz was Sontag's longtime companion. One of the stranger aspects of reading "On Photography" is how certain passages seem to foreshadow their relationship. When Sontag mentions "the elegant, ruthless portraits Avedon did of his dying father," one can't help but feel a jolt. A quarter century later Leibovitz would be photographing Sontag - far less elegantly, just as ruthlessly - as she, too, was dying of cancer.

Fame and love are no small things, yet photography provided something else, something that may have mattered even more to Sontag: a defining moment. She recalls in "On Photography" the experience of first encountering in a Santa Monica, Calif., bookstore images of Nazi concentration camp survivors. "It seems plausible to me," she writes, "to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after."

That is one of the few excursions into explicit autobiography in "On Photography." Part of the book's fascination is its inadvertence. It more or less just happened. Like many others, Sontag found herself overwhelmed by the 1973 Arbus retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art. She wrote about it for The New York Review of Books. This led to five other essays on aspects of photography, such as the centrality of surrealism and the slipperiness of the medium's relationship to truth and beauty.

Neither history nor survey nor attempt at overarching theory, "On Photography" is an unsystematic if highly focused meditation on the medium: "a progress of essays," as Sontag puts it, "about the meaning and career of photographs." (Note the faint self-congratulation of "progress" and less-faint condemnation of "career.")

The book generated a remarkable response. It went through five printings in six months and won a National Book Critics Circle Award. As discerning a critic as John Berger called it "the most original and important work yet written on the subject," and as ferocious a critic as Robert Hughes gushed, "Not many photographs are worth a thousand of Sontag's words."

Praise wasn't universal. In Artforum, the photographic historian Colin Westerbeck said Sontag should have called the book " 'Off Photography,' for 'offing,' in the '60s sense of committing murder, is what the book really intends to do."

Westerbeck exaggerates the hate aspect of Sontag's very marked love/hate relationship with the medium. He was shrewd to fasten on the title, though. Sontag approaches photography on her own terms, from on high. The title says as much. It might seem unemphatic, tentative, even modest. Yet it's modesty of a most prepossessing sort. Unlike such alternatives as "About Photography" and "Of Photography," "On Photography" indicates superiority as well as locus.

Sontag very much writes from outside photography as well as above it, and a rather superior outsider she is. Her friend Roland Barthes, if anything an even greater worshipper of the word than Sontag, gave photography the honor of capitalizing it throughout his own study of the medium, "Camera Lucida." (He also wrote in that book of how "looking at certain photographs, I wanted to be a primitive without culture" - not the Sontag approach.) Sontag not only lower-cases "photography"; she includes no photographs in the book. She does, however, append a 25-page selection of quotations about photography. Its presence amounts to a pledge of verbal allegiance, an implicit reminder that word remains superior to image in Sontag's cultural hierarchy.

"The language in which photographs are generally evaluated is extremely meager," she writes. Notice the wiggle room the first adverb bestows, even as the second delivers a sucker punch. What more telling indictment could be lodged by someone with Sontag's prejudices than impoverished language?

Sontag the outsider is more than matched by Sontag the moralist. Advocating an "erotics of art" a decade earlier had helped secure her fame. But at heart she owed as much to the Old Testament as to Oscar Wilde, something that most clearly emerged in Sontag's bent for salt-sowing political diatribes. (Remember "The white race is the cancer of human history"?)

She doesn't fail to indulge her extremist bent here. "Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun," she declares, "to photograph someone is a sublimated murder - a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time." This is splendid as rhetoric, rousing even, but absurdly overstated. It's also not atypical.

Yet the single biggest failing of "On Photography" isn't hyperbole but Sontag's inability to respond to photography in terms of sheer beauty. Photographs, she says at the outset, "are a grammar, and even more importantly, an ethics of seeing." This may be the most important statement in "On Photography." For her, the ethical is very much more important. What's most striking about the book, perhaps - even more so now than then - is precisely this moralistic quality. Sontag doesn't so much pass aesthetic judgment on the medium and its handiwork as pass judgment on its very existence.

A telling moment comes in the fourth essay, "The Heroism of Vision." It debunks the aesthetic value of the medium's ostensibly humanist thrust, which largely superseded formalist approaches in defining serious photography. In an aside, Sontag quotes William Carlos Williams's famous phrase from "Paterson," "no ideas but in things." Except she gets it wrong: "No truth but in things," she writes. Well, ideas may or may not partake of the truth, and truth is an idea. Otherwise they are vastly different.

This is the misquotation as Freudian slip. Of course Sontag got the word wrong. The truth is what she's most concerned with throughout "On Photography," and truth is a moral rather than an aesthetic concept. It's photography's intermittent and not infrequently specious relationship to the truth that most galls and repels her about the medium.

Sontag concludes the book with a call for an "ecology" of images. It's a startling, up-to-the-minute trope; Earth Day was less than a decade old. But what can "ecology" mean in this context? Unless she has in mind some kind of censorship (and she doesn't) or visual rationing (which she knows is ludicrously unfeasible), it's nothing more than intellectual posturing - the verbal equivalent of striking a pose for the camera. You can almost hear the scrunch of earth as ground is being broken for the theme park.

To her credit, Sontag acknowledged in "Regarding the Pain of Others" (2003), "There isn't going to be an 'ecology of images.' " That book isn't about photography, per se. Goya matters more to her argument about how we respond to images of violence and torture than any single photographer does. But photography predominates. It's a quarter-century since the publication of "On Photography," and Sontag seems more comfortable with what the camera does: less demanding, more accepting. There's a lessening of intensity, a general mellowing. Is it age? Experience? The influence of Leibovitz? The survival of so many soft murders? She even confesses to her sadness at the demise of Life magazine, in 1972.

"Regarding" had nothing like the impact "On Photography" did. The latter came out at a significant moment in photographic history. The medium had finally established its credentials as a freestanding cultural enterprise - no longer painting's camera-happy kid brother - a fine art in full standing. The most obvious proof of that was the then-novel eagerness of museums to acquire photographs and collectors to buy them, not to mention the start of a boom in photography prices that has yet to abate.

The appearance of "On Photography" contributed to that moment. It was as if the sustained attention of no less an authority than Sontag had given the medium a final stamp of cultural approval. The fact of her having no background in writing about photography made her taking it seriously seem that much more impressive.

For all its shortcomings, "On Photography" is Sontag's most enduring and instructive book. Think of it, perhaps, as her "To the Finland Station." Edmund Wilson's study of revolutionary ideology and action leading up to the Russian Revolution now seems in so many ways wrongheaded as well as outdated; yet it retains real force, even monumentality. It also provides a kind of precis of its author's intellectual and rhetorical strengths.

So, too, with Sontag and "On Photography." There's something thrilling about the spectacle of so powerful a mind engaging so directly, so extensively, so searchingly with an entire art form. "Photographs do not explain; they acknowledge," she writes at one point. She's absolutely right, as she so often is on specifics. The greatness of "On Photography," and why the theme park remains worth visiting, is how each manages to do both.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

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