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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For Sontag, central to Delacroix’s comment is a dialectics of small and large as newly focused by photography, its ability to realise the ‘unimaginably’ tiny as well as the ‘unimaginably’ distant. Photography as a still fledgling medium anticipates the arrival of the light of the star in the sense of rendering what will be present before it is so, but after the fact. That miraculous facility to capture the invisible is bound up with the relationship of a future tense, of that which will be but which has reciprocally already been, by a photograph’s having, as Merleau-Ponty might say, ‘almost all its life still before it’.

As is characteristic of Sontag’s writing as a whole, its tissue of quotation the warp and weft of which are intricately bound, Delacroix’s words do more than simply move the argument forward. Rather they throw into relief, and allow us to experience as if for the first time, such spatial and temporal revelations as part of photography’s legacy in magic; Sontag’s fascination for the ontological as well as the material status of the medium.

At issue, throughout her thinking on photography is a question of duration not so much in the Bergsonian sense of an experience of the continuity of time, but duration as discontinuity, the petrification of the instant. ‘The force of a photograph’ she reminds us ‘is that it keeps open to scrutiny instants which the normal flow of time immediately replaces.’ Sontag frequently returns to those instants, otherwise invisible, that are rendered miraculously present by the way in which a photograph petrifies the moment.

Such an understanding of duration is manifest in a photograph’s assault on temporality as a kind of metamorphosis; the posthumous revelation of the future in the present, Walter Benjamin’s ‘spark of contingency’ the realisation of which ‘sears the subject’.

Sontag was an aesthete who espoused the object, who was alert to the material distinctiveness of its representations. For her, it remained the case that ‘movies and television programs light up walls, flicker and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object.’(3) That object as material thing is what makes photography ‘an elegiac, a twilight art’ and what imbues photographs with talismanic properties. ‘In its simplest form’, Sontag writes ‘we have in a photograph surrogate possession of a cherished person or thing’ (155). For, as her work bears witness, although photography appears to offer up a more perfect representation than any hand could achieve, by a peculiar persistence or causal connection to the referent it retains a metaphysical capacity and re-defines a straightforwardly imitative relation to the object. In fact a photograph uniquely harbours resemblance as a process of referring to an original in a movement that is distinct from an imitative one.

As equally motivated by a politics and an ethics of seeing as an ontology of sight, Sontag’s extended critique of the work of Diane Arbus and of the Surrealist sensibility derives from an acute understanding of the political power of the photographer to oppress, to exploit and humiliate his or her subjects. Arbus’s camera was, Sontag maintains ‘a passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility towards the people photographed’. The colonising, anthropological stare of Arbus’s camera, by definition creates, Sontag, believes the insatiable desire for ever more disturbing subjects. At the same time, she believes that the willful constructedness of an image by Arbus evades the surreal that may be captured most effectively simply by photography’s unique relationship to temporality.

In On Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) she somewhat poignantly revisits her position of thirty years earlier in On Photography. Her main concern is that ‘in a world hyper-saturated with images, those that should matter have a diminishing effect: we become callous’ and thereby immune to an ethics of seeing and witnessing: ‘Transforming is what art does’, she writes, but a photograph ‘bears witness to the calamitous and the reprehensible’ and can be used ‘as objects of contemplation to deepen one’s sense of reality.’ (107) On Regarding the Pain of Others, as with all her texts along the way, was seeded in On Photography. Both of the studies of illness, Illness as Metaphor (1978) and Aids and Its Metaphors (1989) resist metaphoric thinking as a way of regarding illness, by exposing what is at stake in the history of figurative language attached to the visible and hidden manifestations of disease. Both books make us aware of representation and the dominance of certain figurative mappings of illness. For Sontag, ‘the military metaphor’(179) remains the most pernicious especially with regard to the Aids virus precisely because it ‘over-mobilises, it over describes, and it powerfully contributes to the excommunicating and stigmatizing of the ill’. (180)

What most distinguishes the philosophy of photography that resonates throughout Sontag’s work, and her influence has been wider than that of most academic theorists, is the way in which it occupies a theoretical space beyond both the shadow of the connoisseurship and technical overload of some photo-historians, and the modishness of theoreticians on the look out for a new object to pin down butterfly-like for scrutiny. Her work arose in, and continues to haunt, those difficult and hesitant spaces between established disciplines. Sontag remained until her recent death keen to point up the contradictions inherent to a medium which evaded discrete disciplinary categorization, and she did so with an almost Wildean facility for the aphorism: ‘photography has the unappealing reputation of being the most realistic, therefore facile of the mimetic arts’. She recognized the linguistic power of the aphoristic as a method able to capture subtle fluctuations. Aphorisms, by way of their reduction or encapsulation of larger linguistic formulations, suggest a movement or metamorphosis akin to that of photography itself. Like an aphorism’s sudden impact upon familiar patterns of thought, a photograph holds the means to radically translate the unfamiliarity of space into an unfamiliarity of time, and thereby to transform the ancient aesthetic category of mimesis.

Recent theoreticians bemoan the fact that a few critical works have tended to dominate photography theory but those few texts remain alive for a reason. Sontag is a writer chiefly responsible for recognising and disseminating such now seminal texts without which photography theory would have found little way forward.

From within philosophical discourse, inherently threatening to many ‘experts’ of the photographic medium, she made sense of, and promoted, not only texts that are now long familiar and which were simply unavailable to many readers such as those by Benjamin and Roland Barthes (she was the first to review Camera Lucida in the US), but also equally contemporary nineteenth and twentieth century commentaries on the medium which few took seriously.

It remains the case that we can only afford the luxury of turning a blind eye to that which we believe we have comfortably assimilated, which we think we have used up. Yet what Sontag’s recent book on photography On Regarding the Pain of Others discloses is that we have hardly begun to use up such theories precisely because they were the ones that exposed contradictions at the heart of photography. Contradiction remains the lot of photography and it remains the most fundamental reason why Sontag’s name will stick to the medium.

Published in Photoworks Issue 4, 2005.

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