In Plato's Cave
"In Plato's Cave" is the title of the first essay in Susan Sontag's seminal work On Photography first published in 1977 in the USA. Susan Sontag (1933-2004) was a well known intellect, playwright, author and political activist who spent the later part of her life as the partner of Annie Leibovitz
Sontag begins by arguing that photography is flawed and a false way of seeing and we cannot deduce anything from photographs, an allegory to what the prisoners in Plato's Cave saw as shadows cast onto a wall from a fire. Viewing photographs in Sontag's terms comes with a caution. The viewer will never know exactly what was happening when the photograph was taken and as such should it be believed ?. "..being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisnal images" (Sontag p 3) is perhaps true but without this we are deprived of the the experience of others on a worldwide scale.
Sontag soon moves her thesis towards an acceptance of photography, with caveats that, it can fiddle with the scale of the world by cropping retouching etc., revealing the falseness of photographs and requiring the viewer to accept it for a purpose, even if false.
Having (somewhat reluctantly it seems) accepted photography into the world of visual seeing Sontag relates the problems photographs have in being objects. They age, get bought and sold, are in newspapers and books and how we look at them is an influence on their worthiness, extolling the virtues of photographs in books as it has an order for viewing.
"Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we're shown a photograph of it" (Sontag p 5). Sontag's initial reluctance to believe in the authenticity of the photograph is reversed with this statement and she goes on to explain how the State and the Police can use photographs as evidence. "A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened" (Sontag p 5). Given that with modification a photograph is never accurate I believe that Sontag remains ambivalent on the subject and before she moves on to write about why we photograph she states "Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by the tacit imperatives of taste and conscience" (Sontag p 6). As a statement of fact this view has been under attack since 1977 with imagery (especially from war and famine) in the 21st century often being without taste or conscience in a ever present need to gain commercially through extreme imagery.
Sontag spends some time explaining the uses of photography from 1840 onwards with an assumption that although "....it was a gratuitous, that is, an artistic activity, though with few pretensions to being an art" (Sontag p 8) it only becomes an art after its industrialisation and the introduction of social uses. She continues "It is mainly a social rite, a defence against anxiety, and a tool of power" (Sontag p 8). This industrialisation is therefore the democratisation of the act and allows a large number of people to own and take an image. Sontag makes a point that travellers will want to make an image while on holiday, to make the experience real, and is an act of work while on holiday for those who have a high work ethic. She references Germans, Japanese and Americans with this ethical state. Sontag warns us that the act of picture taking is in some way predatory. The end use is after that point in time in the domain of the photographer and can be used in a positive or negative way. "After the event has ended, the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would never otherwise have enjoyed" (Sontag p 11)
Sontag cites Diane Arbus as having said "I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do - that was one of my favourite things about it". Arbus is referring to her genre of work which centered around the taboo, marginal and sexual fantasy. Sontag refers to Blowup (1966) and Peeping Tom (1960) as two examples of films where the photographer is seen as a predator and the camera as an inescapable metaphor of phallus, a predatory weapon, a means of violation. Her assumptions here are as true today as when written and perhaps worse with the insatiable desire of the tabloid media for ever more intimate paparazzi type images of the rich and famous.
Sontag makes a point of comparing film (as in a moving image) and still photography with one of her most relevant statements. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again. (Sontag P 18) and she uses the image from 1972 of a naked South Vietnamese child just sprayed with napalm as a justifiable example enabling a catalogue of cultural and ethical issues to be discussed.
What concerns Sontag it would seem is the ubiquitous nature of photography and its effect on the population. Cameras having come from a time when she states "... had only inventors and buffs to operate them" (Sontag p 7) and they have since become tools for the citizen to enjoy with an addiction as Today everything exists to end in a photograph (Sontag p 24)
Sontag's work is considered by many to be one of the most influential and important works on the subject, and is a particular favourite of the writer and commentator John Berger.
As a student of photography I find myself having a need and a willingness to understand and agree with her while on some levels being offended by her naivety. I try to think back to 1977 and put myself in her position, not knowing the extreme and wide ranging developments in digital awareness, therefore excluding from my understanding the last 37 years and how that will influence my response. I am not sure how accurate her findings are with regard to her factual evidence because at no point does she cite and source to validate her claims, which makes me nervous. Her need to compare the number of people practising photography with the number of people "dancing or having sex as an amusement" is attractive writing but the statement without some statistical evidence is undervalued. The undervalued throw away remark can taint the writing, offering the reader a notion that the whole piece is peppered with such remarks to gain a popular readership, albeit amid the serious academic work.
I will continue with the remainder of the book (the audio version does help before note making is required) but wonder if contemporary writing is more appropriate.
As a photographer any source of opinion is to be explored, notes made and upon reflection a considered view (if any) that this may or may not have an influence on my work. This was certainly the case after having read the day-books of Edward Weston and the general reading around "The New Topographics" but it is here that the difference is exposed. Sontag (as with Berger) are not photographers. They write well on the subject as analysts of art and that is without doubt a worthy pursuit and it is my inability to connect with them at every point that concerns me. This concern may be unfounded, perhaps I am (along with others) too entrenched, too bigoted, too old to see the wood from the trees.
Continue to read widely (and write about it !!). Now back to the coursework.
On Photography, Susan Sontag - Penguin 1977