Cover of Susan Sontag On Photography

‘An Elegiac Art’: Sontag’s Photographic Legacy

Towards the end of On Photography first published in 1977 and reprinted regularly ever since, the late Susan Sontag quotes an extract from Delacroix’s journal of 1850.

The painter reflects upon contemporary experiments in the new medium of photography; experiments that had enabled astronomers in Cambridge to capture a tiny image of the star Vega:

Since the light of the star which was daguerreotyped took twenty years to traverse the space separating it from the earth, the ray which was fixed on the plate had subsequently left the celestial sphere a long time before Daguerre had discovered the process by means of which we have just gained control of the light.

Sontag is not so much interested in Delacroix’s reference to control here as in the wider sense of the ability of photography to implicate the distance and time separating a subject from its image. Delacroix’s note manifests the unexpected in a profound sense of a photograph’s relationship to temporality. The light of the star captured on the polished metal plate of a daguerreotype bears a sustained relationship to time that pre-dates the invention of the medium itself. It is as if in its journey light anticipates commemoration in the form of a photograph no matter how small.

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Published in Photoworks Issue 4, 2005.

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