Course Reading: Photography texts pt.2

Notes on Chapter 2; America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly.

“In photographing dwarfs, you don’t get majesty & beauty. You get dwarfs.”

The above quote is part of a discussion about a movement started by Walt Whitman (I had no idea who he was until reading this chapter), of seeing the beauty in anything and everything. Sontag clearly doesn’t hold to this view herself and thus the odd sentence at the start of the post was recorded. She says that ‘in recent decades, photography has succeeded somewhat in revising, for everybody, the definitions of what is beautiful and ugly’.

She comments on two photographers work between the 1950’s-1970’s; Edward Steichen’s ‘Family of Man’ exhibition in 1955, and a retrospective of Diane Arbus’s work held at the MoMa in 1972. Both are in contrast to each other, Steichen’s work celebrates and elevates the ordinary man, ‘universalising the human condition’, Arbus’s shows a world where ‘everybody is an alien’. Interesting as an example of two contrasting uses of photography.

‘The camera has the power to catch so-called normal people in such a way as to make them look abnormal. The Photographer chooses oddity, chases it, frames it, develops it, titles it’.

In discussing Diane Arbus’s work at some length Sontag makes an observation about modern art which I can equate to and have not seen so clearly explained before by an academic. (Sontag, 1979 p.40),

“Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible. By getting us used to what, formerly, we could not bear to see or hear, because it was too shocking, painful or embarrassing, art changes morals…”

I personally feel those two sentences could sum up what most modern art seems hell bent on doing today, I say most because I don’t feel its fair to class all art in the category!

Notes on chapter 3; Melancholy Objects

On Photography and Surrealism or the surreal. Here’s an interesting quote, (Sontag, 1979, p.52);

“Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision”,

By this, I think she refers to how photographs allow us to see the world but, almost in another form, in creating a photograph you create another reality, something of a mix of the real world and your interpretation of it.

She speaks of photography as some kind of strange hybrid between man’s actions and machines ability, but fairly negatively, saying photographs, (Sontag, 1979, p.53) “owe their existence to a loose co-operation between photographer and subject – mediated by an ever simpler and more automated machine….which even when capricious can produce a result that is interesting and never entirely wrong”.

Even more damning, (Sontag, 1979, p.53);

“In the fairytale of photography the magic box insures veracity and banishes error, compensates for inexperience and rewards innocence”.

Sadly I can see some validity in her comments. There is a setting on the digital camera I use which literally sorts out the right aperture, ISO and shutter speed for the ‘perfect’ amount of light, so all I have do is push a button, it can even do the focussing automatically for me.

On the subject of time and photography she writes, (Sontag, 1979, p.54);”What renders a photograph surreal is its irrefutable pathos as a message from time past”.

Documentary Photography:

August Sander is listed as an example of someone who used Photography to document a variety of human classes, social structures, photographing people from all kinds of backgrounds. Sontag asks the reader to compare Sander’s photographs of Circus People to Diane Arbus’s.  The contrast is striking, one photographs work appears menacing almost, scary (Arbus’s), and the others seems vaguely compassionate, seemingly passing no judgement on the circus people.


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