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Quotations from On Photography, by Susan Sontag

Section Quotation Page

1-1 “…photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.” 3

“Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we
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recognize as modern.”
“Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive
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1-1 “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.” 4

“Photographs do not seem to be statements about the world so mush as pieces of it, miniatures of reality, that
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anyone can make or acquire.”

1-2 “Photographs furnish evidence…..In one version of its utility, the camera record incriminates.” 5

1-2 “[photographs]…still want, first of all, to show something ‘out there.’” 6

“While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph
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can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency.”

1-2 “…photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects.” 6

1-2 “…photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.” 6-7

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1-2 “There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.” 7

“From its start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible number of subjects. Painting never had so
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imperial a scope.”
“…as a mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense
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against anxiety, and a tool of power.”

1-3 “photographs… help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.” 9

“The camera]… makes real what one is experiencing….A way of certifying experience…converting experience
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into an image, a souvenir.”
“The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to
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be exacerbated by travel.”

1-3 “Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation.” 10

“Photography is become one of the principle devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of
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“Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention….The person who intervenes cannot record; the person
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who is recording cannot intervene.”

1-3 “[Photographing]… is a way of at least tacitly….encouraging whatever is going on to keep on happening.” 11

“The camera doesn’t rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and at the
1-4 farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate—all activities that…can be conducted from a distance, and with some 13

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1-4 “Like a car, a camera is sold as a predatory weapon—one that’s as automated as possible, ready to spring.” 14

“…there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing
1-4 them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into 14
objects that can be symbolically possessed.”

1-4 “But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures.” 15

“Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being
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photographed, touched with pathos.”
“To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability… All
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photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”

1-4 “A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence…photographs…are incitements to reverie.” 16

“The images that mobilize conscience are always linked to a given historical situation. The more general they
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are, the less likely they are to be effective.”

1-5 “Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one—and can help build a nascent one.” 17

“Through an event has come to mean, precisely, something worth photographing, it is still ideology...that
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determines what constitutes an event.”
“What determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs is the existence of a relevant political
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“Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel….One’s first encounter with the photographic
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inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany.”

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“Images transfix. Images anesthetize…. After repeated exposure to images it also becomes less real…In these
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last decades, ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.”
“… most photographs do not keep their emotional charge… Time eventually positions most photographs, even
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the most amateurish, at the level of art.”
“The industrialization of photography permitted its rapid absorption into rational—that is, bureaucratic—ways of
1-6 running society. …photographs became part of the general furniture of the environment---touchstones and 21
confirmations of that reductive approach to reality which is considered realistic.”

1-6 “Photographs were seen as a way of giving information to people who do not take easily to reading.” 22

“The camera makes reality atomic, manageable, and opaque. It is a view of the world which denies
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interconnectedness, continuity, but which confers on each moment the character of a mystery.”
“Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph… Only that which narrates can make us
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“The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or
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1-6 “Photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is.” 24

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to
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which everyone is now addicted.”
“It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a
way of seeing.”
(writing of Walt Whitman) “Great claims were made for candor by our boldest, most delirious prophet of cultural
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“In photography’s early decades, photographs were expected to be idealized images….a beautiful photograph is a
photograph of something beautiful…. And since the 1920s, ambitious professionals, those whose work gets into
2-2 museums, have steadily drifted away from lyrical subjects, conscientiously exploring plain, tawdry, or even vapid 28
material. …revising for everybody, the definitions of what is beautiful and ugly—along the lines that Whitman
had proposed”
“To photograph is to confer importance….No moment is more important than any other moment; no person is
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more interesting than any other person.”
“Whitman though he was not abolishing beauty but generalizing it. … American photography has moved from
affirmation to erosion to, finally, a parody of Whitman’s program.”
“Walker Evans…. Was the last great photographer to work seriously and assuredly in a mood deriving from
Whitman’s euphoric humanism, summing up what had gone on before…, anticipating much of the cooler, ruder,
2-2 bleaker photography that has been done since… Evans found Stieglitz’s work arty…. Evans sought a more 29-30
impersonal kind of affirmation, a noble reticence, a lucid understatement. [Nowhere] was Evans trying to
express himself.
“Like Whitman, Stieglitz saw no contradiction between making art an instrument of identification with the
community and aggrandizing the artist as a heroic romantic, self expressing ego. (Quoting Rosenfeld) ‘There is
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matter in all the world so homely, trite, and humble that through it this aman (Stieglitz) of the black box and
chemical bath cannot express himself entire.”
“Photographing, and thereby redeeming the homely, trite, and humble, is also an ingenious means of individual
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“Even without the heroic inflection, Evan’s project still descends from Whitman’s: the leveling of discriminations
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between the beautiful and the ugly, the important and the trivial.”
“Evans camera brought out the same formal beauty in the exteriors of Victorian houses in Boston…as in… store
2-2 buildings on main streets in Alabama towns… But this was a leveling up, not down. Evans wanted his 31
photographs to be ‘literate, authoritative, transcendent.’”
“Whitman preached empathy, concord in discord, oneness in diversity. …But this message of identification with
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other Americans is foreign to our temperament now.”

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“The last sigh of the Whitmanesque… embrace of the nation…was heard in the ‘Family of Man’ exhibit
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organized in 1955 by Edward Steichen, Stieglitz’s contemporary and co-founder of Photo-Secession.”

2-3 Diane Arbus’s work…imposed a feeling exactly contrary to the reassuring warmth of Steichen’s material.” 32

2-3 “Humanity is not one.” 32

“’The family of Man’ denies the determining weight of history—of genuine and historically embedded
differences, injustices, and conflicts. Arbus’s photographs undercut politics just as decisively, by suggesting a
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world in which everybody is an alien, hopelessly isolated, immobilized in mechanical, crippled identities and
(speaking of the two shows) “…either experience serves equally well to rule out a historical understanding of
reality. … The pious uplift of Steichen’s photograph anthology and the cool dejection of the Arbus retrospective
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both render history and politics irrelevant. One does so by universalizing the human condition, into joy; the other
by atomizing it, into horror.”
“Arbus’s work… (concentrates) on victims, or the unfortunate—but without the compassionate purpose that such
2-3 a project is expected to serve…..a dissociated point of view….unsentimental empathy with (the photograph’s) 33
Arbus’s photographs…suggest a naivety…based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is
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asked to look at is really other…. That there is another world.”

2-3 “The photographer chooses oddity, chases it, frames it, develops it, titles it.” 34

“The authority of Arbus’s photographs derives from the contrast between their lacerating subject matter and their
2-3 calm, matter-of-fact attentiveness.” …the mystery of Arbus’s photographs lies in what they suggest about how 35
the subjects felt after consenting to be photographed. …Do they know how grotesque they are?”
Arbus’s work “…excludes sufferers who presumably know they are suffering, like victims of accidents, wars,
2-3 famines, and political persecutions. Arbus would never have taken pictures of accidents…. She specialized in
slow-motion private smashups, most of which have been going on since the subject’s birth.”

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2-3 “In the world colonized by Arbus, subjects are always revealing themselves. There is no decisive moment.” 37

“Arbus’s view that self-revelation is a continuous, evenly distributed process is another way of maintaining the
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Whitmanesque imperative: treat all moments as of equal consequence.”
“In the normal rhetoric of the photographic portrait, facing the camera signifies solemnity, frankness, the
2-3 disclosure of the subject’s essence. That is why frontality seems right for ceremonial pictures (like weddings, 38
graduations) but less apt for photographs used on billboards to advertise political candidates.”
“(For politicians the three-quarter gaze is more common: a gaze that soars rather than confronts, suggesting
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instead of the relation to the viewer, to the present, the more ennobling abstract relation to the future.)”
“[Diane Arbus’s suicide] … proved the photographs to have been dangerous to her… she fell in a psychic
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ambush, a casualty of her own candor and curiosity.“

2-4 “…photography is normally anb omnipotent viewing from a distance.” 39

“To discover (through photographing) that life is ‘really a melodrama,’ to understand the camera as a weapon of
aggression, implies there will be casualties.”
“In the old romance of the artist, any person who has the temerity to spend a season in hell risks not gettout alive
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or coming back psychically damaged. One volunteers to seek out the pain of others.”
“… is finally most troubling in Arbus’s photographs is not their subject at all but the cumulative impression of the
2-4 photographer’s consciousness…Arbus was …a photographer venturing out into the world to collect images that 40
are painful.”
[People seek pain] … to feel less….art is a self-willed test of hardness…life’s horror can be faced without
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“Arbus’s work is a good instance of a leading tendency of high art in capitalist countries: to suppress, or at least
reduce, moral and sensory queasiness. Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is
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terrible… …art changes morals—that body of psychic custom and public sanctions that draws a vague boundary
between what is emotionally and spontaneously intolerable and what is not.”

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“But our ability to stomach this rising grotesqueness in images (moving and still) and in print has a stiff price….a
2-4 pseudo-familiarity with the horrible reinforces alienation, making one less able to react in real life. …The 41
photographs make a compassionate response feel irrelevant.”

2-4 “To photograph people, according to Arbus, is necessarily ‘cruel,’ ‘mean.’ The important thing is not to blink.” 41

“The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the
2-4 photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed….You are not intervening in their lives, 42
only visiting them.”
“The photographer is always trying to colonize new experiences or find new ways to look at familiar subjects—to
2-4 fight against boredom. For boredom is just the reverse side of fascination: both depend on being outside rather 42
than inside a situation, and one leads to the other.”
“Arbus’s interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being
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privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe.”
“..the inhabitants of deviant underworlds…increasingly come to infiltrate consciousness as the subject matter of
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art, acquiring a certain diffuse legitimacy and metaphoric proximity which creates all the more distance.”
Arbus …was by profession a fashion photographer—a fabricator of the cosmetic lie that masks the intractable
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inequalities of birth and class and physical appearance.”
“Arubus’s work is reactive—reactive against gentility, against what is approved…a revolt, itself hotly moralistic,
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turn(ed) against the success world.”
“The moralists’ subversion advances life as a failure as the antidote to life as a success. The aesthete’s
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subversion, …advances life as a horror show as the antidote to life as a bore.”
“Sophisticated in the familiar modernist way—[Arbus chose] awkwardness, naivety, sincerity over the slickness
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and artificiality of high art and high commerce…”
“Arbus’s photographs … [are].. in the main tradition of Surrealist art—their taste for the grotesque, their
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professed innocence with respect to their subjects, their claim that all subjects are merely objects trouves.”

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“…All her subjects are equivalent. And making equivalences between freaks, mad people, suburban couples, and
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nudists is a very powerful judgment…”
“Succeed the more buoyant hopes for America has come a bitter, sad embrace of experience. There is a particular
2-5 melancholy in the American photographic project…. The Whitmanesque appetites have turned pious: the 46
photographer new patronizes reality.”
“Photographers with less ego and magnetism than Stieglitz gradually gave up the struggle. They might continue
2-5 to practice the atomistic visual stenography inspired by Whitman. But without Whitman’s delirious powers of 47-48
synthesis, what the documented was discontinuity, detritus, loneliness, greed, sterility.”
“Since photography…ceased to understand how photographs could aim at being literate, authoritative,
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transcendent—the best of American photography… has given itself over to the consolations of Surrealism…”
“..the American partiality to myths of redemption and damnation remains one of the most energizing, most
2-5 seductive aspects of our national culture. What we have left of Whitman’s discredited dream of cultural 48
revolution are paper ghosts and a sharp-eyed witty program of despair.”

3-1 “Photography has the unappealing reputation of being the most realistic, therefore facile, of the mimetic arts.” 51

“Surrealisms’ contentious idea (is) blurring objects and events, between the intended and the unintentional,
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between pros and amateurs, between the noble and the tawdry, between craftsmanship and lucky blunders.”
“(Only when its libertarian rhetoric helped to nudge Jackson Pollock and others into a new kind of irreverent
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abstractions did the Surrealist mandate for painters finally seem to make wide creative sense.)”
“The photographers who concentrated on interfering with the supposedly superficial realism of the photograph
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were those who most narrowly conveyed photography’s surreal properties.”
“Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality
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in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision.”

3-1 “Surrealism has always courted accidents, welcomed the uninvited, flattered disorderly presences.” 52

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“Unlike the fine-art objects of pre-democratic eras, photographs don’t seem deeply beholden to the intentions of
3-1 an artist. Rather, they owe their existence to a loose cooperation (quasi-magical, quasi-accidental) between 53
photographer and subject…”
“In the fairy tale of photography the magic box insures veracity and banishes error, compensates for inexperience
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and rewards innocence.”
“What renders a photograph surreal is its irrefutable pathos as a message from time past, and the concreteness of
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its intimations about social class.”

3-2 “Surrealism is a bourgeois disaffection….an aesthetics that yearns to be a politics…” 54

“The view of reality as an exotic prize to be tracked down and captured by the diligent hunter-with-a-camera has
3-2 informed photography from the beginning, and marks the confluence of the Surrealist counter-culture and
middle-class social adventurism.”
“Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order
to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them…. Gazing on other people’s reality with
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curiosity, with detachment, with professionalism, the ubiquitous photographer operates as if that activity
transcends class interests as if its perspective is universal.”
“Photography has always been fascinated by social heights and lower depths……. The perennial surreal subject
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is How the Other Half Lives…”
“Photography conceived as social documentation was an instrument of that essentially middle-class attitude, both
3-2 zealous and merely tolerant, both curious and indifferent, call humanism—which found slums the most 56
enthralling of decors.”
“The justification is still the same, that picture-taking serves a high purpose: uncovering a hidden truth,
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conserving a vanishing past.”

3-2 [John Thompson, around 1880, pioneered the vogue of at-home photographic portraiture.” 56

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“Poverty is no more surreal than wealth… What is surreal is the distance imposed, and bridged, by the
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photograph: the social distance and the distance in time.”
“Some photographers set up as scientists, others as moralists. The scientists make an inventory of the world; the
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moralists concentrate on hard cases.”
“…Sander chose individual for their representative character as that he assumed, correctly, that the camera cannot
help but reveal faces as social masks. Sander was not looking for secrets; he was observing the typical.”
“…Sander’s social sample is unusually, conscientiously broad. …But such variety does not rule out class
condescension… Sander’s complicity with everybody also means a distance from everybody. His complicity
with his subjects is not naïve (like Carrell’s) but nihilistic……Sander did not know he was photographing a
disappearing world.”
Photography in Europe was largely guided by notions of the picturesque (i.e., the rich, the famous), and the
beautiful. Photographs tended to praise or to aim at neutrality. Americans…have more often made photography
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partisan. Pictures got taken not only to show what should be admired but to reveal what needs to be confronted,
deplored—and fixed up.”
“American photography implies… a relation to geographic and social reality that is both more hopeful and more
predatory. The hopeful side is exemplified in the well-known use of photographs in America to awaken
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conscience. … But even at its most moralistic, documentary photography was also imperious in another sense….
reflect(ing) an urge to appropriate an alien reality.”

3-4 “The predatory side of photography is at the heart of the alliance…between photography and tourism.” 64

3-4 “The photographer both loots and preserves, denounces and consecrates.” 64

3-4 [The camera is]a way of taking possession of the places they (tourists) visited.” 65

“… for the main tradition of American photography—the prevailing mood is sadness… a mournful vision of
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“In addition to romanticism (extreme or not) about the past, photography offers instant romanticism about the
3-4 present. In America, the photographer is thus not simply the person who records the past but the one who invents 67
[Bernice Abbott’s book] is setting down … the ceaseless replacement of the new… documenting ten years of the
3-4 chronic self-destruct quality of American experience, in which even the recent past is constantly being used up, 68
swept away, torn down, thrown out, traded in.”
“Photographs, which turn the past into a consumable object, are a short cut. Any collection of photographs is an
3-5 exercise in Surrealist montage and the Surrealist abbreviation of history. …The Surrealist purchase on history 68-69
also implies an undertow of melancholy as well as a surface voracity and impertinence.”
“Photography is the inventory of mortality…. Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading
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toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people”
“As the fascination that photographs exercise is a reminder of death, it is also an invitation to sentimentality.
3-5 Photographs turn the past into an object of tender regard, scrambling moral distinctions and disarming historical 71
judgments by the generalized pathos of looking at time past.”

3-5 “Surrealism is the art of generalizing the grotesque and then discovering nuances (and charms) in that.” 74

“The Surrealist strategy, which promised a new and exciting vantage point for the radical criticism of modern
culture, has devolved into an easy irony that democratizes all evidence, that equates its scatter of evidence with
history. Surrealism can only deliver a reactionary judgment; can make out of history only an accumulation of
oddities, a joke, a death trip.”

3-6 “The taste for quotations (and for the juxtaposition of incongruous quotations) is a Surrealist taste.” 75

“The past itself, as historical change continues to accelerate, has become the most surreal of subjects—making it
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possible… to see a new beauty in what is vanishing.”

3-6 [Walter Benjamin was photography’s most original and important critic.] 76

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“A disavowal of empathy, a disdain for message-mongering, a claim to be invisible—these are strategies
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endorsed by most professional photographers.”
…Traditional arts of historical consciousness attempt to put the past in order, distinguishing the innovative from
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the retrograde, the central from the marginal, the relevant from the irrelevant, or merely interesting…
“…the photographer’s approach—like that of the collector—is unsystematic, indeed anti-systematic. The
3-6 photographer’s ardor for a subject has no essen6tial relation to its content or value, that which makes a subject’s 77
classifiable. It is above all, an affirmation of the subject’s thereness; its rightness….”
“In principle, photography executes the Surrealist mandate to adopt an uncompromisingly egalitarian attitude
3-6 toward subject matter. (Everything is ‘real.’) … The Surrealist’s… acuity was directed to finding beautiful what 79
other people found ugly or without interest and relevance…”
“Photography extends the eighteenth-century literati’s discovery of the beauty of ruins into a genuinely popular
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“Illustrating that partly jubilant, partly condescending relation to reality that is the rallying point of Surrealism,
3-6 the photographer’s insistence that everything is real also implies that the real is not enough…. Surrealism 80
bespeaks a posture of alienation…”
“In the past, a discontent with reality expressed itself as a longing for another world. In modern society, a
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discontent with reality expresses itself forcefully and most hauntingly by the longing to reproduce this one.
“Photography inevitably entails a certain patronizing of reality. From being ‘out there’ the world comes to be
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‘inside’ photographs.”

3-6 “Life is not about significant details, illuminated (in) a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.” 81

“The lure of photographs, their hold on us, is that they offer at one and the same time a connoisseur’s relation to
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the world and a promiscuous acceptance of the world.”
“Photographers, operating within the terms of the Surrealist sensibility, suggest the vanity of even trying to
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understand the world and instead propose that we collect it.”

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“…what moves people is finding something beautiful. …So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying
4-1 the world that photographs,, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful. … Photographs 85
create the beautiful and….use it up.”
“We learn to see ourselves photographically: to regard oneself as attractive is, precisely, to judge that one would
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look good in a photograph.”

4-1 “Many people are anxious when they’re about to be photographed…because they fear the camera’s disapproval.” 85

“The history of photography could be recapitulated as the struggle between two different imperatives:
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beautification,…and truth-telling.

4-1 “…the photographer was supposed to unmask hypocrisy and combat ignorance.” 86

“Once an object of wonder because of its capacity to render reality faithfully as well as despised at first for its
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base accuracy, the camera has ended by effecting a tremendous promotion of the value of appearance.”
“Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby
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changing the very idea of reality, and of realism.”
[In the earliest days] The photographer was thought to be an acute but non-interfering observer—a scribe, not a
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“…photographs are evidence of not only of what’s there but of what an individual sees, not just a record but an
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evaluation of the world.”
“…’photographic seeing’ (is) a new way for people to see and a new activity for them to perform. …
4-2 Photographic seeing meant an aptitude for discovering beauty in what everybody sees but neglects as too 89
ordinary….. (photographers) were to create interest, by new visual decisions”
“Alfred Stieglitz proudly reports that he had stood three hours during a blizzard on February 22, 1893, ‘awaiting
the proper moment’ to take his celebrated picture, ‘Fifth Avenue, Winter.’ The proper moment is when you can
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see things (especially what everyone has already seen) in a fresh way. The quest became the photographer’s
trademark in the popular imagination.”

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“Everyday life apotheosized, and the kind of beauty that only the camera reveals—a corner of material reality
4-2 that the eye doesn’t see at all or can’t normally isolate,; or the overview, as from a plane—these are the main 90
targets of the photographer’s conquest.”
“For a while the close-up seemed to be photography’s most original method of seeing…..objects isolated from its
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surroundings, rendering it abstract—new conventions about what was beautiful took hold.”

4-2 “Photography seemed to have found its grandiose role, as the bridge between art and science….” 91

4-2 “The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.” 92

“…The formal qualities of style—the central issue in painting—are, at most, of secondary importance in
photography, while what a photograph is of is always of primary importance. …we don’t know how to react to a
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photograph (if the image is visually ambiguous…) until we know what piece of the world it is. … Photography
is commonly regarded as an instrument for knowing things.”
“[Cameras] changed seeing itself, by fostering the idea of seeing for seeing’s sake….[a world] in which
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observation [is] a moral duty.”
“[Photographic seeing is] the didactic cultivation of perception, independent of notions about what is worth
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perceiving, which animates all modernist movements in the arts.”
“By taking over the task of realistic picturing hitherto monopolized by painting, photography freed painting for
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its great modernist vocation—abstraction.”
“The other important aspect of the relation between painting and photography… that the frontiers of the new
territory acquired by photography immediately started expanding. …Gradually photographers joined in the
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pursuit of more abstract images, professing scruples reminiscent of the modernist painters’ dismissal of the
mimetic as mere picturing.”
“…photographers have come to share some of the same attitudes about the inherent value of perception exercised
4-2 for perception’s sake and the (relative) unimportance of subject matter which have dominated advanced painting 95
for more than a century, their applications of these attitudes cannot duplicate those of painting.”

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“For it is in the nature of a photograph that it can never entire transcend its subject, as a painting can.. Nor can a
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photograph ever transcend the visual itself, which is in some sense the ultimate aim of modernist painting.”
“Poetry’s commitment to concreteness…parallels photography’s commitment to pure seeing. Both imply
4-2 discontinuity, disarticulated forms and compensatory unity: wrenching things from their context…, bringing 96
things together elliptically…”
[Challenging notions of the beautiful] ..heroic modernists like Weston, the photographer’s venture is elitist,
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prophetic, subversive, revelatory…’showing to them what their own unseeing eyes had missed.’”
“Weston’s notion of the photographer’s agon.....: affirmation of the sensual life, rage at bourgeois sexual
4-3 hypocrisy, self-righteous defense of egotism in the service of one’s spiritual vocation, manly appeals for a union 96
with nature.”
“..the habit of photographic seeing—of looking at reality as an array of potential photographs—creates
4-3 estrangement from, rather than union with, nature. Photographic seeing…turns out to be mainly the practice of a 96
kind of dissociative seeing…”
“Thus, one of the perennial successes of photography has been its strategy of turning living beings into things,
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things into living beings.”
“In the main tradition of the beautiful in photography, beauty requires the imprint of a human decision: that this
4-3 would make a good photograph, and that the good picture would make some comment. …Now photographers 98-99
are more likely to emphasize the ordinary humanity of their revelations.”
“Ambitious modernists, like Weston and Cartier-Bresson, who understand photography as a genuinely new way
of seeing (precise, intelligent, even scientific), have been challenged by photographers of a later generation, like
4-3 99
Robert Frank, who want a camera eye that is not piercing but democratic, who don’t claim to be setting new
standards for seeing.”
“Insofar as photography does peel away the dry wrappers of habitual seeing, it creates another habit of seeing:
4-3 100
both intense and cool, solicitous and detached; charmed by the insignificant detail, addicted to incongruity.”

4-3 [Weston’s ideal of beauty was perfection.] 100

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“the photographer has ‘proved that nature offers an endless number of perfect ‘compositions’—order everywhere.
4-3 Behind the modernist’s belligerent stance of aesthetic purism lay an astonishingly generous acceptance of the 100
“But displaying the perfection of the world was too sentimental, too ahistorical a notion of beauty to sustain
4-3 101
“Strand, like Cartier-Bresson, was attracted to the picturesque desolations and damages of urban life….but still
4-3 101
photograph with the same fastidious eye that discerns order everywhere.”
“The view of Stieglitz and Strand and Weston—that photographs should be, first of all, beautiful (that is,
4-3 101
beautifully composed)—seems thin now, too obtuse to the truth of disorder…”
“Imperfect technique has come to be appreciated precisely because it breaks the sedate equation of Nature and
4-3 102
“Darker, time-bound models of beauty have become prominent, inspiring a reevaluation of the photography of
the past; and, in an apparent revulsion against the Beautiful, recent generations of photographers prefer to show
4-3 102
disorder, prefer to distill an anecdote, more of then than not a disturbing one, rather than isolate an ultimately
reassuring ‘simplified form’ (Weston’s phrase).”
“Indeed, the most enduring triumph of photography has been its aptitude for discovering beauty in the humble,
4-3 102
the inane, the decrepit. At the very least, the real has a pathos. And that pathos is—beauty.”
The evaluation of photographs is always shot through with such aesthetic double standards. Initially judged by
the norms of painting, which assume conscious design and the elimination of nonessentials, the distinctive
4-3 achievements of photographic seeing…were thought to be identical with …photographers, who, through 103
reflection and effort, managed to…meet the standards of art.” But it is now clear that there is no inherent conflict
between the mechanical or naïve use of the camera and formal beauty of a very high order…”
This democratizing of formal standards is the logical counterpart to photography’s democratizing of the notion of
4-3 103
For photographers there is, finally, no difference—no greater aesthetic advantage—between the effort to
4-3 104
embellish the world and the counter-effort to rip off its mask.”

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“The camera can be lenient; it is also expert at being cruel. But its cruelty only produces another kind of beauty,
4-3 104
according to the surrealist preferences which rule photographic taste.”
“…fashion photography is based on the fact that something can be more beautiful in a photograph than in real
4-3 104
“The traditional function of portrait painting, to embellish or ideals the subject, remains the aim of everyday and
4-3 105
of commercial photography, but it has had a much more limited career in photography considered as an art.”
“As the vehicle of a certain reaction against the conventionally beautiful, photography has served to enlarge
4-3 vastly our notion of what is aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes this reaction is in the name of truth. Sometimes it 105
is in the name of sophistication or of prettier lies…”
“Even the most compassionate photojournalism is under pressure to satisfy simultaneously two sorts of
4-3 expectations, those arising from our largely surrealist way of looking at all photographs, and those created by our 105
belief that some photographs give real and important information about the world.”
[W.Eugene Smith’s photos at Minamata] move us because they document a suffering which arouses our
4-3 indignation—and distance us because they are superb photographs of Agony, conforming to surrealist standards 105
of beauty.”
“A photograph changes according to the context in which it is seen… Socially concerned photographers assume
4-3 that their work can convey some kind of stable meaning, can reveal truth. But…this meaning is bound to drain 106
away…in particular political [photographs]…”
“One of the central characteristics of photography is that process by which original uses are modified, eventually
4-3 106
supplanted by subsequent uses…”
‘What is compelling about [some photographs] partly derives from what it shares, as a composition, with
4-3 [paintings]. Indeed, the very extent to which that photograph is unforgettable indicates its potential for being 107
depoliticizes, for becoming a timeless image.”
“Moralists who love photographs always hope that words will save the picture. …In fact, words do speak louder
than pictures. Captions do tend to override the evidence of our eyes; but no caption can permanently restrict or
4-3 108
secure a picture’s meaning. What the moralists are demanding from a photograph is that it do what no
photograph can ever do—speak.”

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“But the aestheticizing tendency of photography is such that the medium which conveys distress ends by
4-3 neutralizing it. Cameras miniaturize experience, transform history into spectacle. As much as they create 110
sympathy, photographs cut sympathy, distance the emotions.”
“Whatever the moral claims made on behalf of photography, its main effect is to convert the world into a
department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption,
4-4 110
promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation. Through the camera people become customers or tourists of
“What is humanity? It is a quality things hae in common when they are viewed as photographs. …In humanist
4-4 jargon, the highest vocation of photography is to explain man to man. But photographs do not explain; they 111

4-4 “If photographs are messages, the message is both transparent and mysterious.” 111

“Despite the illusion of giving understanding, what seeing through photographs really invites is an acquisitive
4-4 111
relation to the world that nourishes aesthetic awareness and promotes emotional detachment.”
“This freezing of time—the insolent, poignant stasis of each photograph—has produced new and more inclusive 111-
canons of beauty.” 112
‘…The camera’s ability to transform reality into something beautiful derives from its relative weakness as a
4-4 112
means of conveying truth.”
“The reason that humanism has become the reigning ideology of ambitious professional photographers—
4-4 displacing formalist justifications of their quest for beauty—is that it masks the confusions about truth and beauty 112
underlying the photographic enterprise.”
“Nothing is more acceptable today than the photographic recycling of reality, acceptable as an everyday activity
5-1 115
and as a branch of high art.”
“Picture-taking has been interpreted in two entirely different ways: either as a lucid and precise act of knowing,
5-2 116
of conscious intelligence, or as a pre-intellectual, intuitive mode of encounter.

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“In this century, the older generation of photographers described photography as a heroic effort of attention, an
5-2 ascetic discipline, a mystic receptivity to the world which requires that the photographer pass through a cloud of 116
“Photography is advanced as a form of knowing without knowing: a way of outwitting the world, instead of
5-2 116
making a frontal attack on it.”
Quoting Ansel Adams: ‘A photograph is not an accident—it is a concept.’ “To take a good photograph, runs the
5-2 common claim, one must already see it. That is, the image must exist in the photographer’s mind at or just 117
before [it is taken].”
“…photographers have always had—with good reason—an almost superstitious confidence in the lucky
5-2 117
“The anti-intellectual declarations of photographers, commonplaces of modernist thinking in the arts, have
prepared the way for the gradual tilt of serious phototography toward a skeptical investigation of its own powers,
5-2 117
a commonplace of modernist practice in the arts. Photography as knowledge is succeeded by photography as—
“Similarly, Weston insists over and over that photography is a supreme opportunity for self-expression, far
5-2 118
superior to that offered by painting.”
“For photography to compete with painting means invoking originality as an important standard for appraising a
5-2 118
photographer’s work, originality being equated with the stamp of a unique, forceful sensibility.”
“…there is a difference between photography conceived as ‘true expression’ and photography conceived (as it
5-2 118
more commonly is) as faithful recording…”
“Photography is seen as an acute manifestation of the individualized ‘I,’ the homeless private self astray in an
overwhelming world—mastering reality by a fast visual anthologizing of it. Or photography is seen as a means
5-2 119
of finding a place in the world (still experienced as overwhelming, alien) by being able to relate to it with
detachment—bypassing the interfering, insolent claims of the self.”
“But between the defense of photography as a superior means of self-expression and the praise of photography as
5-2 a superior way of putting the self at reality’s service there is not as difference as might appear. Both presuppose 119
that photography provides a unique system of disclosures: that it shows us reality as we had not seen it before.”

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“All that photography’s program of realism actually implies is the belief that reality is hidden. And, being
5-2 120
hidden, is something to be unveiled.”
“Insofar as photography is (or should be) about the world, the photographer counts for little, but insofar as it is
5-2 122
the instrument of intrepid, questing subjectivity, the photographer is all.”
“Photographers who came to maturity in the 1940s or later are bolder, openly snubbing art, equating art with
5-3 artiness. They generally claim to be finding, recording, impartially observing, witnessing, exploring themselves 127
—anything but making works of art.”
“For it is the very nature of photography that it be a promiscuous form of seeing, and, in talented hands, an
5-3 129
infallible medium of creation.”
“Classical modernist painting presupposes highly developed skills of looking, and a familiarity with other art and
5-3 with certain notions about the history of art. Photography, like pop art, reassures viewers that art isn’t hard; it 131
seems to be more about subjects than about art.”
“Many professionals are now worried that…the public will forget that photography is, after all, a noble and
5-3 131
exalted activity—in short, an art.”
“But when viewed in their new context, the museum, or gallery, photographs cease to be ‘about’ their subjects in
5-4 133
the same direct or primary way; they become studies in the possibilities of photography.”
“The conflict of interest between objectivity and subjectivity, between demonstration and supposition, is
5-4 unresolvable. While the authority of a photograph will always depend on the relation to a subject (that it is a 136
photograph of something), all claims on behalf of photography as art must emphasize the subjectivity of seeing.”
“…from Stieglitz through the reign of Weston—it appeared that a solid point of view had been erected with
5-4 which to evaluate photographs: impeccable lighting, skill of composition, clarity of subject, precision of focus, 136
perfection of print quality.”
“What position has replaced Weston’s? A much more inclusive one, with criteria which shift the center of
5-4 judgment from the individual photograph, considered as a finished object, to the photograph consider as an 136
example of ‘photographic seeing.’”
“The new position aims to liberate photography, as art, from the oppressive standards of technical perfection; to
5-4 136
liberate photography from beauty, too. It opens up the possibility of a global taste….”

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“While in principle all subjects are worthy pretexts for exercising the photographic way of seeing, the convention
has risen that photographic seeing is clearest in offbeat or trivial subject matter. …Photography’s adoption by the 136-
museum is now firmly associated with those important modernist conceits: the ‘nominal subject’ and the 137
‘profoundly banal.’”
“The ostensibly formalist, neutral criteria of photographic seeing are in fact powerfully judgmental about subjects
5-4 138
and about styles.”
“The language in which photographs are generally evaluated is extremely meager….:composition, light, and so
5-5 forth….(or) the vaguest sorts of judgments, as when photographs are praised for being subtle, or interesting, or 138-9
powerful, or complex, or simple, or—a favorite—deceptively simple.”
“…in photography a large individual body of work does not necessarily have an inner stylistic coherence, and an
5-5 139
individual photographer’s relation to schools of photography is a much more superficial affair.”
“One criterion of evaluation…is innovativeness; …they impose new formal schemes or changes in the visual
5-5 language. Another criterion …is the quality of presence, which Walter Benjamin considered the defining F139
characteristic of the work of art.”
“For while paintings or poems do not get better, more attractive simply because they are older, all photographs
5-5 141
are interesting as well as touching if they are old enough.”
“It is not altogether wrong to say that there is no such thing as a bad photograph—only less interesting, less
5-5 141
relevant, less mysterious ones.”
“For several decades American photography has been dominated by a reaction against ‘Westonism’—that is,
5-5 against contemplative photography, photography considered as an independent visual exploration of the world 142
with no evident social urgency.”
“Taste in photography tends to be, is perhaps necessarily, global, eclectic, permissive, which means that in the
5-5 143
end it must deny the difference between good taste and bad taste.”

5-5 “Photography, though not an art form in itself, has the peculiar capacity to turn all its subjects into works of art.” 149

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“While many people in non-industrialized countries still feel apprehensive when being photographed, divining it
to be some kind of trespass, an act of disrespect, a sublimated looting of the personality or the culture, people in
6-1 161
industrialized countries seek to have tehri photographs taken—feel that they are images, and are made real by
“The urge to have new experiences is translated into the urge to take photographs: experience seeking a crisis-
6-2 162
proof form.”
“Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality….or they enlarge a reality that is felt to be shrunk. One can’t
6-2 163
possess reality, one can possess images—one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”

6-2 “The point of the standard portraits in the bourgeois household of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was to 165
confirm an ideal of the sitter (proclaiming social standing, embellishing personal appearance)…..”
“What the photograph-record confirms is, more modestly, simply that the subject exists; therefore, one can never
6-2 165
have too many.”
“But if photographs demean, paintings distort in the opposite way: they make grandiose. …Paintings invariably
sum up; photographs usually do not.”
“Photography, which has so many narcissistic uses, is also a powerful instrument for depersonalizing our elation
to the world; and the two uses are complementary. …It offers in one, easy, habit-forming activity, both
6-3 167
participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others—allowing us to participate, while confirming
“A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in
6-4 178
order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex.”

6-5 “The possession of a camera can inspire something akin to lust.” 179

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Notes: These quotes are personal choices. Some are used to instruct or define, others to summarize a section (Sontag did not number
sections as I have done). There is no attempt to summarize each section, however. Many quotes are pulled out of context. Sontag’s
style is dense. Her sentences are often long (as much as a quarter-page.) She often includes several ideas in one sentence. Here
vocabulary is large, and sometimes invents words. All of these create obstacles to distilling her genius. Often I have assembled
quotes together which were originally separated by more than one sentence; the intent was to convey her thoughts. Sometimes these
assemblages do not convey the intent of the section. Never was my effort designed to distort her views.

This was created in one large table in Microsoft Word. The document was edited for typing errors, but not carefully checked for errors
of transcription. Comments and corrections are appreciated.

Permission granted to copy or duplicate this guide for non-profit use provided transcriber is given credit.

Sontag’s brilliance cannot be denied, nor her abilities with words, nor her knowledge of the history of photography. One can criticize
her writing style: long, dense sentences often containing multiple ideas, extensive vocabulary. It is difficult to summarize and to find a
title for, each section. The whole book is simply, “on photography;” there is no one main point. Her critique of Diane Arbus’s work
is brilliantly insightful. What is clear is that Sontag is an unhappy person writing about a subject she loves. Negativity pervades, or
invades, the whole. Probably Sontag was a disheartened idealist and social revolutionary. However, this was written at one of
America’s most difficult times, a time of great frustration for hopeful idealists. And she was ill, facing cancer. Sympathy must be
extended and negativity forgiven. That that this set of essays is provocative is an understatement.

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