Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Susan Sontag – On Photography – The Heroism of Vision (photographic seeing) – Summary and review

On Photography. Susan Sontag (Penguin Modern Classics)
Susan Sontag's "The Heroism of Vision" (in "On Photography") is a discussion about the relation between beauty in truth and their development throughout the history of photography. Almost right from the beginning, Sontag holds, photography was all about discovering what is beautiful in the world, and it was so successful in this task that photography became the standard of what is beautiful. In other words, photography creates the beautiful to the point in which sunsets are banal because they look too much like a photograph.

But the camera also has a relation to truth, and towards the end of the 19th century it became apparent that the camera could lie, and at that point, Sontag argues, photography became even more popular. Photography has the capacity of forging reality for the sake of its own aesthetic needs. This, along with photography's technical advantage of easy use over painting, gave photographers permission to document everything and produced a new kind of vision, photographic seeing, that could reconcile the need for truth with the need for beauty. With photographic seeing, photography seized to merely document the world and has turned into a norm of how things appear, transforming our perception of reality and realism.

With the rise of photographic seeing the assumption the photographs provide an objective image gave way to the view that photography doesn't only document objects, but also the way a person sees these objects. Photography, in other words, is not just a report about the world, it is also an assessment of it. Photographic seeing meant the ability to find beauty in what everybody sees but ignores on account of being too ordinary. The photographer's aim became the idealization of everyday life through the way of seeing that only a camera can produce.

Sontag describes photography's early fascination with close-ups, holding that the beautiful became at one point simply everything unavailable to the naked eye and that photography was all about the new refreshing manner in which an object was presented. Thus photography changed vision but indorsing the idea of vision for the sake of vision.

For Sontag, one of photography's great successes was in its strategy of transforming living things into objects and objects into living things, the function of alienation and the ability to use the camera's claim for realism to see things in a new way.

Photographic seeing is for Sontag both intensive and cool, yearning and disengaged, but it has to maintain its shock element in order to stay relevant and continue its effect on vision before it becomes banal. This is what Sontag calls "the heroism of vision" – the camera's ability to transform reality into something beautiful which is the result of its weakness in telling the truth. 

Books by Susan Sontag and about photography you should definitely read