Saturday, May 28, 2011

Susan Sontag – On Photography – "America, Seen through Photographs Darkly" – summary (on Diane Arbus)

In the essay "America, Seen through Photographs Darkly" in her "On Photography" Susan Sontag inspects visions of America through the eyes of photographers and especially Diane Arbus.

She starts off with the vision of Walt Whitman who rejected the distinction between beautiful and ugly for a cause of seeing America united in perception. In the first decades of photography photographs were expected to idealize images, and a beautiful picture was thought to be a picture of something beautiful. But as photography developed more and more artistic interest was directed to the less-glorified, banal and casual aspects of American life, the realization Whitman's vision.

Sontag holds that to take a picture is to assign importance. But this importance varies in culture and history, from the pursuit of "worthy" subjects to the Andy Warhol stance of "anybody is somebody". For Sontag Alfred Stieglitz was such an affirmator of life with his wish the redeem the banal and the vulgar as a means of expression. Stieglitz wished to transcend differences between human being and show humanity in the totality of its beauty.

The work of Diane Arbus, for Sontag, was far different from what Whitman envisioned and Stieglitz attempted to realize. Her treatment of the marginal spheres of society does not invite people the identify with the "freaks" she displays, and in that humanity is no longer "one". While the Whitman heritage strove for a universalization of the human condition, Arbus fractured this unity into isolated fragments of anxiety.
For Sontag, Arbus looked for the other world which is, obviously, situated though often invisible inside this world. Arbus photographed the "miserable consciousness" of marginal people who submitted themselves willingly to her camera. She offered, Sontag holds, the enjoyment of high-art's overcoming disgust. This is for Sontag a trend of high art in capitalist counties, the suppression of over-selectiveness in matters of morals and aesthetics. The thrill of observing Arbus's work is the success of observing them without impedance. It's about not avoiding what is considered low. As Sontag puts it, Arbus's interest in the weird and marginal was a will to "rape" her own innocence by bringing in the marginal into the center of the frame. For Sontag, Arbus's work is a reaction against manners and bourgeois good taste, and it is a rebellion against boredom.

Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph

Chapter one - In Plato's Cave
chapter two - America, Seen Through Photographs Darkly
chapter four - The Heroism of Vision
chapter five - Photographic evangels

Books by Susan Sontag and about photography you should definitely read