Cameras began duplicating the world at that moment when the human landscape started to undergo a vertiginous rate

of change: while an untold number of forms of biological and social

g u s n n. 5 0, n 1" n G~
...... _._ -- ....._j ....... life are being destroyed in a brief span of time, a device is available to record what is disappearing. The moody, intricately textured Paris

of Atget and Brassai is mostly gone. Like the dead relatives and friends preserved in the family album, whose presence in photographs exorcises some of the anxiety and remorse prompted by their disappearance, so the photographs of neighborhoods now torn down, rural places disfigured and made barren, supply our pocket relation to the past.



A p ho ro graph is both a p seudo-pre se n ce a rid a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, pho tographs-c-e speciaf ly those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past-c-are incitements to reverie. The sense of the unattainable that can be evoked by photographs feeds direcrly into the erotic feelings of those for whom desirability is enhanced by distance. The lover's photograph hidden in a married woman's wallet, the poster photograph of a rock star tacked up over an adolescent's bed, the campaign-button image of a politician's face pinned on a voter's coat, the snapshots of a cabdriver's children clipped to the visor-c-all such talismanic uses of photographs express a feeling both sentimental and implicitly magical: they are attempts to contact or lay claim to another real ity.

Mathew Bra dy and his colleagues took of th e horrors of the batilefields did not rna ke people any less keen to go on with the Civil War. The photographs of ill-clad, skeletal prisoners held at Andersonville inflamed No rt h ern public opini on-i--aga in s t the South. (The effect of the Andersonville photographs must have been partly due to the very novelty, at that time, of seeing photographs.) The political understanding that many America ns came to in the 1960s would a lIow them, looking at the photographs Dorothea Lange took of Nisei on the West Coast being transported to internment camps in 1942, to recognize their subject for what it was~a crime committed by the government against a large group of American citizens. Few people who saw those photographs in the ]9405 could have had

Photographs can abet desire in "the most direct, utilitarian way~as when someone c o lle ct s photographs of a no nymous examples of the desirable as an aid to masturbation. The ma t te r is more complex when photographs are used to stimulate the moral impulse. Desire has no history-s-at least, it is experienced in each instance as all foreground, immediacy. It is aroused by archetypes and is, in that sense, abstract. But moral feelings are embedded in history, whos e personae are concrete, whose situations are always specific. Thus, almost opposite rules hold true for the use of the photograph to awaken desire and to awaken conscience. The images that mobilize conscience are always linked to a given historical situation. The more general they are, the less likely they are to be effective.

A photograph that brings news of some unsuspected zone of misery cannot make a den! in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of fee li ng and attitude. The photographs

1.,5uI'-3 1996

images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a"privlleged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again. Photographs like the one that made the front page of mOH newspapers in the world in 1972~ a naked South Vietnamese child jusl sprayed by American napalm, running down a highway toward the camera, her arms open, screaming with pain-probably did more to increase the public revulsion against the war than a hundred h o urs of re levl sed barbarities.

One w ou ld like to imagine that the American public would not· have been so una n imo us ,in its acquiescence to the Korean War if it had been confronted with photographic evidence of the devastation of Korea, an ecocide and genocide in some respects even more thorough than those inflicted on Vietnam a decade later. But the supposition is trivial. The public did not see such


photographs because there was, ideologically, no space for them. No one brought back photogra phs of daily life in Pyongyang, to show that the enemy had a human face, as Felix Greene and Marc Riboud brought back photographs of Hanoi. Americans did have access to photographs of the su ffering of the Vi etn a mese (many of which came from military sources and were taken with quite a different use in mind) because journalists felt backed in the i r efforts to ob ta i n those photographs, the event having been defined by a significant number of people as a savage colonialist war. The Korean War was understood different1y~as part of the JUSt Struggle of the Free Wo r ld against the Soviet Union and China and, given that characterization, photographs of the crue lty of unlimited American firepowel would have been irrelevant.





Though an event has come to mean, precisely, something worth photographing, it is still idcology (in the broadest sense) that determines what constitutes an event. There can be no evidence, photographic or otherwise, of an event until the event itself has been named and characterized. And It is never photographic evidence which can con struct-c-more properly, ide n tifv-c-events ; rhe contribution of photography always follows the naming of the event. What determines the possibi I ity of being affected morally by photographs is the existence of a relevant political consciousness. Without a politics, photographs of the slaughter-bench of history will. most likely be experienced as, simply, unreal or as a demoralizIng emotional blow.

The quality offeeling, including moral outrage, that people can muster in response to photographs of tb e oppressed, the exploited, the sra r ving, and the massacred also depends on the degree of their familiarity with these images. Don McCullin's photographs of emaciated Biafrans in the early 19705 had less Impact for some people tha n We rner Bischof's photographs ofIndian Iarn-


i n e victims In the early 1950s because those Images had become banal, and the photographs of Tuareg families dying of starvation in the subSahara rha r appeared in magazines everywhere in 1973 must have seemed to many like an unbe arable replay of a now familiar atrocity exhibition.

Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raise d-c-partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror. One's first encounter WIth the photographic Inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany. For me, it was photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau which I came across by chance in a bookstore In Santa Monica In July 1945. Nothing I have se e n-sIn photographs or in real life ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, 1t seems plausible to me to d ivi d e my life into two parts, before I saw those photogra phs (I was twelve) and after, though it was several years before I understood fully what they were about. What good was served by seeing them? They were only photograp hs-c-of an event I h ad scarcely heard of and could do ncth i ng to affect, of suffe ri n g I could hardly imagine and could do nothing to relieve. When I looked at those photographs, something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a pa rt of my Fe e l.ngs sta rred to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying.

son T n G

To suffer is one thing; another rh i ng is living with the photographed i mages of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the abi l itv to be co mp a s sro n ate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such Images, one has started down the road of scei ng mo re-i-va n d more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize. An event known through photographs certainly becomes


more real than it would have been if one had never seen the photographs- think of the Vietnam War. (For a counter-example, think of the Gulag Archipelago, of which we have no photographs.) But after repeated exposure to images it also becomes less real.

The same law holds for evil as for pornography. The shock of photographed atrocities wears off with repeated viewings, Just as the surprise and bemusement felt the first time one sees a pornographic movie wear off after one sees a few more. The sense of taboo which makes us indignant and

orrowful is not much sturdier than the sense of taboo that regulates the definition of what is obscene. And both have been sorely tried in recent years. The vast photographic catalogue of misery and injustice throughout the world has given everyone a certain familiarity with atrocity, making the horrible seem more ordinary-making it appear fa m i li ar , remote ("it's'only a photograph"), inevitable. At the time of rhe first photographs of the Nazi camps, there was nothing banal about these images. Afte r rh i rty yea rs , a satu ration pain t may have been reached. In these last decades, "concerned" photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.






The ethical content of photographs is fragile. With the possible exceptIOn of photographs of those horrors, like the NaZL camps, that have gained rh e s r a tu s of erh i ca l reference points, most photographs do not keep their emotional charge. A photograph of 1900 that was affecting then because of its subject would, today, be more likely to move us because it is a phorogr aph taken in 1900. The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of ri rne past. Aesr h eric distance it seems builr into the very experience of looking at photographs, If not right away, then certainly with the passage of time. Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.

1 ss ul!'-3 1996

o n

The industrialization of photography permitted its rapid absorption into rational-that is, bureaucratic-ways of running society. No longer toy images, photographs became part of the general furn itu re of the environment-touch-stones an d con fi rmations 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 objects and as pieces of inform ation. Thus, in the bureaucratic cataloguing of the world, many important documents are not valid unless they have, affixed to them, a photographtoken of the citizen's face.

The" re a l istic" view of the world co m pa tib le with bureaucracy redefines knowledge-as techniques and information. Photographs are valued because they give information. They tell one what there is; they make an inventory. To spies, meteorologists, coroners, archaeologists, and other information professionals, their value is Inestimable. But in the situations in which most people use photographs, their value as information is of the same order as fiction. The information that photographs can give starts to seem very important at that moment in cultural history when everyone is thought to have a right to something called news. Photographs were seen as a way of giving information to people who do not take ca si l y to reading. The Daily News st i II calls .tse l f "N ew York's Picture Newspaper," its bid for populist identity. At the opposite end of the scale, Le Mon de, a newspaper designed for skilled, well-Informed readers, runs no photographs at all. The presumption is that, for such readers, a p hotog rap h could only illustrate the analysis contained in an article.



n P H V


A new sense of the notion of information has been constructed around the photographic lm~ge, The photograph is a thin slice of space as well as urne. In a world ruled by p horog ra ph ic images, all borders ("fram Ing") seem arbi r ra ry, An yrh i ng ca n be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else: all that is necessary is to frame the subject differently, (Conversely, anything can be made adjacent to anything e ls e.) Photography rei nforce s a nominalist view of social reality as consistingofsmall units of an apparently i nfi nire number-as [he number of photographs that cou ld be taken of anything is un'li.rnited. Th rough Photographs, the world becomes a series of u nrelated, fr e es tan d ing particles; an d history, past and presen t, a set of a n e cd ot es and faits divers. The camera makes reality atom ie, manageab Ie, and opaque, It is a view of the world which denies interconnectedness, continuity, but which confers on each moment the character of a mystery. Any photograph has multiple meanings; indeed, to see something In the form ofa phorograph is to encounter a potential object of fascination. The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: "There is the surface. Now think-or rather feel, intuit-what is beyond It, what the reality must be like if it looks this way." Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are i n exhau st.b le invitations to dedu crio n , speculation, and fa nt asy.

which starts from not accepting the world as it looks, AJ] possibility of un de r sta nding is rooted in the ab iliry to say no. Strictly spe aki ng, one never understands anything from a photograph. Of course, photographs fill In blanks In our mental p n.t u res 0 f the present a nd the past: for example, Jacob Riis's Images of New York squalor in the 1880s are sharply instructive to those unaware that urban poverty in late-nineteenth-century America was really that Dickensian. Nevertheless, the camera's rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses. As Brecht points OUt, a photograph of the Krupp works reveals v irtu a l l y nothing about that organization. In contrast to the amorous relation, which is based on how something looks, unders tand-· ing is based on how it fun crion s. And functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand.

The l im it of photographic knowledge of the world is that, while it can goad conscience, It can, finally, never be et h ica l or politrcal knowledge. The knowledge g a m e d through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynica I or humanist. It will be a knowledge at bargain prices-a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom; as the act of taking pictures i s a semblance of appropriation, a semblance of rape. The very

Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding,


muteness of what is, h yporh etica lly, comprehensible in photographs is what constitutes their attraction and provoca tive n ess. The omnipresence


of p h ccogr ap hs has an incalculable effect on our ethical se n s ib il i ry , By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is,

Needing to have reality confirmed and expertc ncc en ha nced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to w h ic h everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens Into i rrrage-Junkles; it is the most .rres ist.ble form of mental pollution. Poignant longIngs for beauty, for a n end to probing below the su rface, for a redemption and celebration of the body of the world-all these elements of erotic fce l ir.g are affirmed in the pleasure we take in photographs. But other, less liberating feelings are expressed as well. It would not be wrong to speak of people having s cornp ui uo n to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of see1l1g. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form. That most logical of nineteenth-century aesthetes, Mallarme, said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book.Today everything exists to end in a photograph.


It all started wilh one essay ~ about some of the problems, esthetic and moral, posed by the omnipresence 01 photoqraphic Images: bullhe more I Ihought abou1 wha1 pbotcqrapbs are, the more complex and suggestive Ihey became So one generated another. and Ihat one 110 my bemusement) another, and so on a progress 01 essays, aboi.t the meaning and career of pholographs . unlill'd gone far enough so that the argument sketched in the lirsl essay, documented and digressed Irom in the succeeding essays could be recap,lulated and exlended in a more theoretical way; and could slop. lii6+i.liMEIiMtiiiii

1~~UI'-3 1996


ESSJy.~ lie all over (he la n d , stored II p like the unused wheat ora decade .<Igo in the silos of old mag az inc s a nd modest collccno ns . In the rnid sr of thi:-; clu ms y ab u n d a ncc , there a rt: r a rc lovers of [he Iorm , the great lovers b eing some few who p r actice it as the rorna ncc tb is dedication can be. And r orna ncc for u s , the rea de rs, when ce rt a in names r pp ca r on r hc cov c r of periodicals. Su s a n Sontag. the n am c is H:SOn nrcc of qua lu ics, of q u ality irsclf The drama of the id c a , the composition, a r cco gnino n from the past that [ells us what [he present may bestow w h c n we hear her n a mc. The tc r rn "CSS;)y" itself is somewhat nat as a dcfinirion or the liberality of her floa ri ng, r c stlcss expositions.

0" Photography;, one of the r r u l y notable books of Our period. It i s a pr od ig al iry, ;1£1 accc l cr a n o n , a ca p ido which carries an immense r.c.c u m ul a n o n of rhoughr, i n r e r p re tan o n, hi s to r y, o nd derail OS l ig b rly as eggs i n a basket Photographs, the idea of ph otogr a ph y, the familiarity of it explode 10 a d a z z l e of light. Su s an Son tog has made rh rcc remarkable films a nd is h er se lf a son of pictorial object, a s [he many arrc sting photographs of her show. But her book ends on a wistfu l i mag ining or a e ecology ro lima rhe cxploita-ion , the strip-mining of reality by [he greedy photographic image.

"Wh atcvc r the morn! claims made o n bc ha l r of p ho rog r aph y, irs main effect is to convert (he world into a department store Or m u scu m-wt ho u t -wa l l s in which every subject is dcpr cc iarcd into an article of consumption, pr ometed i n to an item for ac s th ct ic a pp r cci atio n." , ...

Thinking of Susan Sontag in [he rn iddl c ofher career is to fcc- the happiness of more, more, nothing e n dcd. An exquis ir c rcs poos ivcncss or this kind is un pr cdi ctable , ;)[though one of the i n te nti nn s of her work is to f nd the cc ntr al, to tcll U~ wh a r we arc t h i nk i ng, whn r is ha p pcn i ng [0 o u r rn ind s and to culture. There are po liric s , fo s hi o nv, nrt itsclf, and of co urs c the storehouse of learning to be looked .H ag.nn and :Jgai n in her own way. ( notice that in her" work she xt r cs s c s the n or i cn or pleasure in [he- UlS, pl c a s u r c in rhin king < Only the serious can offer us th ar

r;HC, warm, bright-he a rtcd fc h cit y.


Exn·rjJ1.j Ji·om lnJ.rodlicliQn by Elizabr:tI, Hard wich to:

"<>Illa!I.ll.«~d",_" _


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