In Plato’s Cave

23Sep11

Sontag, Susan. ‘In Plato’s Cave’ On Photography (London: Penguin Books, 1979) 3-24

p.3

In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.

They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.

Finally the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us a sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads – as an anthology of images.

To collect photographs is to collect the world.

Movies and television programmes light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store.

Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken the environment we recognize as modern.

p.3-4

Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.

p.4

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power.

But print seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world, of turning it into a mental object, than photographic images, which now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present. What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

Photographs, which fiddle with the scale of the world, themselves get reduced, blown up, cropped, retouched, doctored, tricked out. They age, plagued by the usual ills of paper objects; they disappear; they become valuable. and get bought and sold; they are reproduced. Photographs, which package the world, seem to invite packaging. They are stuck in albums, framed and set on tables, tacked on walls, projected as slides.

p.5

Chris Marker’s film, Si j’avais quatre dromadaires (1966), a brilliantly orchestrated meditation on photographs of all sorts and themes, suggests a subtler and more rigorous way of packaging (and enlarging) still photographs. Both the order and the exact time for looking at each photograph are imposed; and there is a gain in visual legibility and emotional impact. But photographs transcribed in a film cease to be collectible objects, as they still are when served up in books.

p.5-6

Whatever the limitations (through amateurism) or pretensions (through artistry) of the individual photographer, a photograph – any photograph – seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects.

p.6

Virtuosi of the noble image like Alfred Steiglitz and Paul Strand, composing mighty unforgettable photographs decade after decade, still want, first of all, to show something “out there,” just like the Polaroid owner for whom photographs are a handy, fast form of note-taking, or the shutter-bug with a brownie who takes snapshots as souvenirs of daily life.

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

Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience.

In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects.

p.6-7

Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.

p.7

Those occasions when the taking of photographs is relatively undiscriminating, promiscuous, or self-effacing do not lessen the didacticism of the whole enterprise. This very passivity – and ubiquity – of the photographic record is photography’s “message,” its aggression.

There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.

The subsequent industrialization of of camera technology only carried out a promise inherent in photography from its very beginning: to democratize all experiences by translating them into images.

p.8

It was only with its industrialization that photography came into its own as an art. As industrializatation provided social uses for the operations of the photographer., so the reaction against these uses reinforced the self-consciousness of photography-as-art.

[…] like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

Memorializing the achievements of individuals considered as members of families (as well as of other groups) is the earliest popular use of photography.

Not to take pictures of one’s children, particularly when they are small, is a sign of parental indifference, just as not turning up for one’s graduation picture is a gesture of adolescent rebellion.

Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself – a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness.

It hardly matters what activities are photographed, so long as photographs get taken and are cherished.

p.8-9

Photography becomes a rite of family life just when, in the industrializing countries of Europe and America, the very institution of the family starts undergoing radical surgery. As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of a much larger family aggregate, photography came along to memorialize, to restate symbolically, the imperiled continuity and vanished extendedness of family life.

p.9

Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives. A family’s photograph album is generally about the extended family – and often, is all that remains of it.

As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure. Thus, photography develops in tandem with one of the characteristic of modern activities: tourism. For the first time in history, large numbers of people regularly travel out of their habitual environments for short periods of time.

It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along.

Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the programs was carried out, that fun was had. Photographs document sequences of consumption carried on outside the view of family, friends, neighbors.

But dependence on the camera, as the device that makes real what one is experiencing, doesn’t fade when people travel more.

A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.

p.10

Photography has become one of the principle devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.

p.11

Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events.

A photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer; picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with ever more peremptory rights – to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on.

Our very sense of situation is now articulated by the camera’s interventions. The omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing. This, in turn, makes it easy to feel that any event, once underway, and whatever its moral character, should be allowed to complete itself – so that something else can be brought into the world, the photograph.

Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention.

p.12

The person who intervenes cannot record, the person who records cannot intervene.

Although the camera is an observation station, the act of photographing is more than passive observing. Like sexual voyeurism, it is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging whatever is going on to keep happening.

p.14

To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.

p.15

Guns have metamorphosed into cameras in this earnest comedy, the ecology safari, because nature has ceased to be what it always ad been – what people needed protection from. Now nature – tamed, endangered, mortal – needs to be protected from people. When we are afraid we shoot. But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures.

Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos. An ugly or grotesque subject may be moving because it has been dignified by the attention of the photographer. A beautiful subject can be the object of rueful feelings, because it has aged or decayed or no longer exists.

All photographs are momento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

p.16

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 neighbourhoods now torn down, rural places disfigured and made barren, supply our pocket relation to the past.

A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence.

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, he snapshots of a cabdriver’s children clipped to the visor – all such talismanic uses of photographs express a feeling both sentimental and implicitly magical: they are attempts to contact or lay claim to another reality.

p.17

Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one – and they can help build a nascent one.

p.18

Television is a stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, truned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again. Photographs like the one that made the front page of most newspapers in the world in 1972 – a naked South Vietnamese child just sprayed with 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 hours of televised barbarities.

p.18-19

Though an event has come to mean, precisely, something worth photographing it is still ideology (in the broadest sense) that determines what constitutes an event. There can be no evidence of an event until the event itself has been named and characterized. And it is never photographic evidence which can construct – more properly, identify – events; the contribution of photography always follows the naming of the event.

What determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs is the existence of a relevant political consciousness.

Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel.

One’s first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, to prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany.

p.20

[On viewing photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau concentration camps] Nothing I have seen – in photographs or in real life – ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after, although it was several year before I understood fully what they were about.

What good was served by seeing them?

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 part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying.

To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them.

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. […] But after repeated exposure to images it also becomes less real.

The shock of photographed atrocities wears off with repeated viewings, just as the surprise and bemusement felt the first time one views a pornographic movie wear off after one sees a few more.

p.21

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.

The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past.

Aesthetic distance seems built 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.

p.23

Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy.

Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks.

p.23-24

The limit of photographic knowledge of the world is that, while it can goad conscience, it can, finally, never be ethical or political knowledge.

p.24

Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everybody 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.

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.

The 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.

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