On Photography

When I started this project I was pretty naive. I’m not ashamed to say it. I knew that I wanted to work on pictures for me and not for someone else but had no idea about what I wanted to say in the pictures. If I had read Susan Sontag On Photography back in 2013 for inspiration I don’t think I would have appreciated as much as I do today.

I had heard of Susan Sontag before getting this book but all I know about her was that she was an American writer on “intellectual” subjects. This book, I have to say, is like a succinct summary of the mess inside my head for the past five years. There is so much that lines up with the things I have either been thinking or have posted about.

Looking back on what I have said on here has been a really good exercise. And here is a chronological run down of what I have learnt from it.

  • In Privates on parade I asked why we view a piece of art differently if it was displayed in a gallery or an adult store. Sontag explains how often the same photograph is used in different contexts without us even noticing. You might have seen an example of this over the last few weeks of a photograph of Dr Christine Blasey Ford in news articles before her Senate hearing. The photograph appears to be a happy holiday snap taken from the Internet. When Dr Christine Blasey Ford posed for that picture I am sure she did not dream that it would be seen around the world by millions but was just a record of a happier time.
  • I explained in Half Time the reason why I choose to photograph people rather than landscapes. In the book, Sontag manages to make a connection between people photography and landscape photography, a connection I would never have made. And how similar they are. In landscape photography the photographer pays a vist to a part of the planet earth and the photographer is a visitor to a part of a person’s life in people photography. Being a tourist and a photographer go hand in hand.
  • When I questioned in Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2013 if it was worth going to a photography exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery as I thought there is no difference between viewing the image in a printed book seeing it on a wall, the book argues that all photographs are just facsimiles. Compared to a painting it is true that there can only be one original. It is true that photography is a mechanical process. Multiple prints can be made from the film the image is recorded. In the electronic age it is even easier to replicate the file. To be fair, having been to some photographic exhibitions recently there is definitely a different feeling seeing an image printed big on a wall compared to squinting at the same image on an electronic device.
  • In Time for your close up I explored the idea of taking photos with a new micro lens. After reading the book, it seems like I’m not the only one taking advantage of advances in camera technology to see the world in ways beyond what our eyes can do by themselves.
  • And finally, in Is this art? I wrote about how photographers were searching for aesthetic perfection and in this quest were moving further and further away from reality. The book makes a very similar argument about the language used in photography to communicate an idea or a feeling.

The text for this book was written in the 1970s before the social media culture had even been invented. I have to say that Susan Sontag was ahead of her time. There are clues throughout the book about what the future would hold.

I will leave you with this quote from the book

It is not altogether wrong to say that there is no such thing as a bad photograph – only less interesting, less relevant, less mysterious ones.