Susan Sontag’s On Photography is a text that every photography theory student grapples with at one point or another. I read it myself a good year before starting this course but if there was ever a case of something you read going in one eye and out the other this was it. Second time around it’s a bit more accessible but the sheer density of ideas in it makes it a challenging read. “The Image World” is the last essay in the book and sums up many of the ideas that went before.
In spite of the claims of science and humanism that an objective non-image based understanding of reality is now possible, our culture has become more and more dependent on images, rather than less, and this can be attributed to the influence of photography. Photography and the “Image World” that it creates, has unique and peculiar properties that make it radically different to other forms of image-making, and Sontag’s essay explores the ramifications of this.
Photography can provide knowledge independent of experience and can capture, classify and store the information in a way that provides possibilities for control not feasible under earlier forms of information storage. It is an incomparable tool for predicting, analysing and controlling behavior because it is closer to the real, in fact it is a “trace, something directly stenciled off the real”. Like Barthes, in Camera Lucida, Sontag sees photographs, and the reality they depict, as inextricably linked. A photograph is an “extension of the subject” and a “potent means of acquiring it, of gaining control over it”. This echoes pre-Christian attitudes towards the image: photography has rekindled “something like the primitive status of images”.
She explains how photography is a form of acquisition in several senses: surrogate possession of cherished people or things; a way of consuming events; and a means of acquiring something as information. Photography’s close proximity to the real gives it a power akin to the “primitive status” of images. Balzac’s fear of being photographed (echoes of Barthes again); our increasingly tenuous grasp of reality itself; superstitions about destroying photographs of loved ones; people’s obsessive urge to photograph and be photographed: these are all cited as evidence of the primacy of the magical “image-world”. Photographs as substitututes for erotic experiences (Cocteau, Ballard) is also described as a common facet of the image-world.
Sontag also discusses photography as a means of possessing reality itself, particularly the past but notes Proust’s scorn for this notion: he derides the visual image as a poor substitute for the full spectrum of senses. She concludes this section of the essay by reiterating that photographs do more than document the past, they provide a “new way of dealing with the present”- in essence a new way of documenting, reflecting upon, mediating and experiencing reality.
It can however deaden our experience of the real world; if we have experienced it before in the image-world, it’s impact is lessened. It allows us a form of vicarious experience and in doing so anaesthecises us from the real.
She then takes the example of China, where uses of photography are limited to propaganda and family (posed) snapshots. She discusses how the non-participation of the Chinese with the image-world, results in a radically different interpretation of imagery and uses Antonioni’s film about China (or more precisely the Chinese reaction to it) as an illustration of this.
She discusses the issue of the aesthetic versus the instrumental, deciding these approaches are both inherent to photography, and returns again to the centrality of the image-world to a capitalist society – the masses consume images and the rulers use them to control the masses. Photography has in essence destroyed Plato’s idea of an image-free way of considering the world, as images and reality are bound together as never before. Her final call is for an “ecology of images” – a way of preserving, documenting, classifying, understanding and navigating the image-world.
This essay is very dense stuff so it is difficult to take it all in, even with multiple readings. In summary it’s about how the image-world affects our experience of reality and functions as something of a warning – unless we learn to control it, it will be used to control us. It’s difficult to extract a single overall point other than that photography has radically altered our culture (and it is its realist nature that is responsible) and that we need to work out ways of dealing with this. If we don’t it will be used as an instrument of control and repression, as is the case in China.
I didn’t fully get her point about China – is she saying that it is the population’s lack of participation in the image-world that is allowing them to be easily controlled? That they are not visually literate enough to see how they are being duped? If so, that seem somewhat unfair on the Chineses, even taking into account the fact that this was written in the mid-70s.