Tag Archives: part

On Photography, Susan Sontag

On_Photography

Susan Sontag, On Photography, (1979) London, Penguin, ISBN: 978-0-14-005397-5.

This book by Susan Sontag is a collection of essays discussing how photography has influenced the world since its invention and how it has played a part in the surrealist art movement in the 20th Century.

The book was first published in 1977 and although photography has moved on she spends a lot of time discussing how photography was first introduced accepted or not and how it came to be the most enduring and influential part of the surrealist movement.  She also looks at how photographs are used and how they can be re-used.

Topics and points to note:

  • In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge out notion of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.
  • Photos are a grammar and even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.
  • Photos give us the sense that we can hold the world in our hands.
  • In photographs the image is also an object.
  • As object they can be collected, bought & sold, cherished, thrown away, lost & found, etc, etc.
  • Photographs furnish evidence, they appear to provide proof when something is in doubt.
  • A photograph justifies, for example through use of surveillance and is a presumption of proof that something exists.
  • Photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that like all mass art form, photography is not practiced by people as an art.  It is mainly a social rite, a defence against anxiety and a tool of power.
  • Photographs can abet desire and emotions of morality.
  • The industrialisation of photography permitted its rapid absorption into bureaucratic ways of running society…photographs became part of the general furniture of the environment – touchstones and confirmations of that reductive approach to reality which is considered realistic.  Photographs were enrolled in the service of important institutions of control, notably the family and the police, as symbolic object and as pieces of information….many important documents are not valid unless they have affixed to them, a photographic-token of the citizen’s face.

Ways of Seeing by John Berger

I have just read a good book by John Berger called Ways of Seeing (1972) London: Penguin. ISBN: 978-0-141-03579-6.

The book complemented a BBC four part TV series of the same name first broadcasted in 1974 and is available to watch on YouTube.  The T.V. series and book was ground breaking work for demystifying the Art of oil paintings and demonstrating how the reading of pictures has changed and been adapted for modern life.  John Berger begins by explaining how photography has had a dramatic effect on art particularly for the oil painting by both making it more democratically available to be seen by many but by producing facsimile copies it has also changed the way pictures are and can be seen.  For example a facsimile of Adam and God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome will not be identical (a perfect double) as there will only be one original and can only be seen in situ above your head.  Therefor any facsimile will be seen out on context of it’s location and out of context from the rest of the fresco.  By removing the original context will potentially change the meaning and interpretation of the picture.

Publicity – John Berger has used examples of advertising (he refers to it as publicity) to demonstrate how the meanings of pictures can be changed and manipulated.  He also discussed how the Nude has been used in art and how the pictorial language for the female Nude has changed over the centuries from medieval Adam and Eve frescos to the 19th century realists illustrating the symbols of vanity, desire, purity, and ownership, etc. that have been associated with the Nude in the language of the picture.  Again John Berger has illustrated how modern photographers have used oil painting of nudes to construct their own nude images by copying poses and themes and how advertising has also used the nude to convey a message for commerce.

Ways of Seeing is made up of seven chapters, three of these chapters are picture essays with no text.

A good book but perhaps a little hard to understand without watching the BBC series as well.  However, it is easy to find on YouTube and I am sure the BBC still broadcast it for Schools and Colleges.