Susan Sontag

In the essay titled “America Seen through Photographs Darkly” Susan Sontag discusses the advent of realism, the misinterpretations of realism, and the acceptance of surrealism as a substitute for realism in the realm of photography in America. Sontag chooses the thoughts of Walt Whitman to provide a framework for studying the works of photographers from the 1930s to the 1960s. In so doing, Susan Sontag makes many controversial statements. While some may be accepted logically, there are others which can be refuted. What is significant however is that Susan Sontag through this essay creates awareness of what beauty and importance means, and of what realism means in the context of photography.Walt Whitman perceived the democratic values of culture as that which existed beyond the contexts of beauty and ugliness, importance and triviality. According to Walt Whitman, nobody would fret about beauty and ugliness. The views of Walt Whitman changed the view of artists in many fields dramatically. Artists took seriously Whitman’s program of populist transcendence of the democratic transvaluation of beauty and ugliness, importance and triviality. This resulted in an inclination to portray reality as it was rather than focusing only on traditional concepts of beauty. In the case of photography, this desire, instead of resulting in demystification of reality has resulted in a mystification of the art according to Sontag. This argument of Sontag is further strengthened by Susie Linfield who says that though photographs (of humanism) don’t explain the way the world works ….it’s true that photographs document the specific, they tend, also, to blur—dangerously blur—political and historic distinctions”. She explains this with the example. A photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Berlin, circa 1945, looks much like a photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Hanoi, circa 1969, which looks awfully similar to a photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Baghdad from last week.This is a mystifying aspect of realism. Further according to Susie Linfield, people generally approach photographs, first and foremost, on an emotional level. She points out that Brecht regarded all feeling as dishonest and dangerous. In the book “Witness Iraq: A War Journal February–April 20003” there is one image showing six women in a cemetery outside Baghdad. The picture was taken by Jerome Delay, a French war photographer for the Associated Press and the caption tells us, “Relatives of Mohammed Jaber Hassan weep over his coffin . . . Hassan, 22, died when a bomb fell on a busy market in Baghdad’s Shula district.” Because the picture is dated “03/29/03,” we know that the bomb was probably an American one and that it was dropped on the civilian marketplace almost certainly by accident. If the picture were dated 2006, then, it would imply that the bomb was planted by insurgents in Iraq (Linfield, 2006). Thus, we can conclude that Susan Sontag is very right in pointing to the mystification that happens when photographers become humanistic in approach.Sontag says, “To photograph is to confer importance. No moment is more important than any other moment; no person is more interesting than any other person”. One of the most talked about photographs of recent times is the picture of an anonymous Afghan refugee woman taken by photographer Steve McCurry for the cover of National Geographic Magazine June 1985.  The photograph showed the piercing stare of a young woman peering from a bedraggled cloak. The piercing green eyes epitomized the tragic story of dispossessed children everywhere and the image became a 20th-century icon. It was only recently in 2002, that Steve McCurry could trace her back and found that the woman’s name was Sharbat Gula (Connor, 2002).“Whitman thought he was not abolishing beauty but generalizing it. So, for generations, did the most gifted American photographers, in their polemical pursuit of the trivial and the vulgar”. Susan Sontag talks about Walker Evans as the last great photographer to have worked seriously in mood derived from Whitman’s euphoric humanism. She says that Evans was not as arty as Stieglitz. In the words of Sontag, “Evans sought a more impersonal kind of affirmation, a noble reticence, and a lucid understatement”. She justifies her statement that Evans was not arty by pointing out that Evan never tried to express himself in the photographs (like an artist does).  He took photographs of architectural still life of American facades and exacting portraits of Southern sharecroppers in the 1930s. This view of Sontag is supported by Lincoln Kirstein who wrote ‘Looked at in sequence they are overwhelming in their exhaustiveness of detail, their poetry of contrast, and, for those who wish to see it, their moral implication”. This explains why Sontag said that Evan’s project seemed to descend from Whitman. Evans project showed a leveling of discriminations between the beautiful and the ugly. Sontag further makes the point that everything is morally equivalent to a photograph. Evans wanted his works to be literate, authoritative and transcendent. Whitman preached empathy, concord in discord oneness in diversity. This message of identification with other Americans links Whitman and Evans in a subtle manner.“The moral universe of the 1930s being no longer ours, these adjectives are barely creditable today. Nobody demands that photography be literate. Nobody can imagine how it could be authoritative. Nobody understands how anything, least of all a photograph, could be transcendent”. John Szarkowski, in his introduction to “Walker Evans” explains the meaning thus: “The photographer must define his subject with an educated awareness of what it is and what it means; he must describe it with such simplicity and sureness that the result seems an unchallengeable fact, not merely the record of a photographer’s opinion; yet the picture itself should possess a taut athletic grace, an inherent structure, that gives it a life in metaphor”. There have been impressive photographers whose work can be considered literate, authoritative and transcendent, such as those of Weegee, Helen Levitt, Homer Page, Gordon Parks, Roy DeCarava, Robert Frank, and others. The works of these photographers convey the mixed artistic mood of the postwar period. The most subjective artistic photography of the period is seen in the work of Frederick Sommer, Minor White, Harry Callahan, and Aaron Siskind, while the art of applied photography is exemplified in fashion and portrait images by Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Arnold Newman, and others. Thus, Susan Sontag seems to be somewhat pessimistically judgmental in holding that there is no one who understands what it means to be literate, authoritative and transcendent.Susan Sontag compares the works of Edward Steichen and Diane Arbus. Steichen’s work was aimed at showing all human is one and that human beings are attractive creatures. Steichen’s choice of photographs assumes a human condition or a human nature shared by everybody. Individuals are born work laugh and die everywhere in the same way. Arbus showed that this is a world in which everybody is an alien, hopelessly isolated, and immobilized, in mechanical crippled identities and relationships. Diane Arbus aimed at showing that all human is one and that human beings are horrific monsters.  According to Sontag, while Steichen universalized the human condition into joy, Arbus universalized it into horror. Everybody Arbus photographed was a freak. This argument can be refuted. The main complaint Sontag places against Arbus is that she chose ugliness and horror subjects, made them pose, and took frontal pictures that were grotesque. Sontag, with an air of disapproval, claimed that Arbus’ work “lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases-most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings’. Sontag says that Arbus interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe. This accusation by Sontag does not have any truth in it. Arbus’ work took a dark turn in her final works when her mental health deteriorated and that was seen in the collected grouped as “Untitled, 1970-71” in the retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that showed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in spring 2005. In her early works, Arbus brought out humanity in her subjects and coaxed out their personality. Sontag says that “Anybody Arbus photographed was a freak,” citing, as one of several examples, a boy waiting to march in a pro-war march wearing a “Bomb Hanoi” button. This earnest young man is definitely not a freak. The picture is of a naïve, fresh-scrubbed boy, rather typical of the 1960s, and shows the young man as he is. No doubt he is shown as ignorant and absurd in his act of wearing the Bomb Hanoi button, but he cannot be considered a “freak,” when the truth is that many Americans, sadly, supported the Vietnam War. One of the best pictures of Arbus is “The 1938 Debutante of the Year at Home, Boston, 1966,” a picture of an extremely privileged woman well into the transition from middle age to seniority smoking in her bed. Every pore of this woman exudes privilege, captured in astonishing clarity by Arbus, a perhaps unequaled master of technique (Dolack, 2006). This woman would not have considered herself a ‘freak’.  Another photo that Sontag did specifically mention is the “human pincushion” of New Jersey, a middle-aged man who, while demonstrating his specialty, nonetheless is very proud. The privileged once-debutante and the circus performer are both comfortable with themselves and thus in front of the camera.Also evident in her attack on Arbus is the fact that Sontag considers the aim of a photograph is to make something beautiful. Well, one can disagree with this statement. A photograph doesn’t necessarily make something beautiful. Consider, for example, Garry Winogrand’s picture of a legless veteran surrounded by pedestrians on a busy New York street. It’s a very strong picture, compelling and well-made. Yet, the ugliness of that man’s situation is not only exposed but amplified. Then consider Winogrand’s picture of a black man looking at a rhinoceros in a zoo – the animal’s horn is missing and what’s left in its place is ugly and disturbing, as is the recognition seen in the man’s face. Thus, two photographers whose work quickly refutes Sontag’s contention are Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand. There are several others. Arbus explains: “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” These words show clearly that Arbus’s personal and intellectual attractions to oddities of nature and society convey a responsiveness that is also a sense of responsibility (Schjeldahl, 2005).Thus in the essay “America Seen through Photographs Darkly” Susan Sontag makes some intellectual observations and some controversial statements. While it is true that realism in American photography has been mystifying to a certain extent and every person is given importance in a photograph, it is false that there have been no photographers who understand the meaning of making a photograph ‘literate, authoritative and transcendent” Sontag is false in her claim that photographs should aim to capture the beautiful; –  and false in her attacks on Arbus.


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