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.


In my previous post I was saying how similar the David Lynch Nudes and Ralph Gibson Nude books were. When I wrote the post, I didn’t question why this would be. Looking around, it is not just these books that the “language” used in them is near identical but you can also be easily find similar elsewhere.

Near the shelf where the David Lynch book was sitting was this tutorial book.

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Photographing Models: 1000 poses by Eliot Siegel

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The book is page after page of young (white) women in passive, some may argue, sexually provocative poses.

I don’t have a problem with photographers choosing to create this style of work. It is their prerogative after all, but what is new or fresh about producing such work? Is it a real lack of imagination. Maybe, but it does give an insight into the heads of these photographers. Or their fantasies.

So what is this art saying? Is it just a pretty picture? Art, to me, is meant to give intellectual stimulation and not just visual stimulation. Just because it is aesthetically pleasing doesn’t make it great art. Great advertising yes, but great art, no. I just can’t figure out why this type of imagery is so prevalent.

Like I said, I have no problem with people choosing to express their creativity in this way. There must be a different way of doing things as this isn’t what I am about.

Venus Figurines

Through a viral tweet I discovered a research paper by Catherine Hodge McCoid and Leroy D. McDermott from the University of Central Missouri in which they argue that the earliest sculptures of the female nude commonly known as the Venus figurines may well have been created by women.

The paper Toward Decolonizing Gender: Female Vision in the Upper Palaeolithic (published in the American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 98, No. 2 (Jun., 1996), pp. 319-326) compares images taken looking down the body to how they match closely to the top down view of the sculptures. In a way they are self portraits before the invention of the mirror.

The authors ask the question why it has taken so long to consider that a female point of view was involved in the creation of these pieces. And twenty two years later it is still a surprise to many (me included) that the very first depictions of the female nude could have been created by women.

In what is considered the “bible” of the human body in art, The Nude by Kenneth Clark, describes the Venus figurines as

the bulging statuettes from palaeolithic caves, which emphasise the female attributes till they are little more than symbols of fertility

There is no suggestion from the text that the creators of the sculptures could have been women. Instead, from my reading of his book, suggests that it is the beginning of an evolution of female nudes created by men. To me this is a big omission.

Having investigated this a bit more, the British Museum in 2013 did have an exhibition called Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind in which it featured these sculptures of the female form.

They too argue that they were “made by women for women”.

I am not ashamed to say that I learnt something new today. Which is more than I can say when I was in a Waterstones bookshop the other day.

On the shelves was a copy of Nudes by David Lynch and it struck me how similar this book was to Nude by Ralph Gibson. The style and posing are virtually the same and so to are the ages and ethnicity of the (young) women.

I reviewed Gibson’s book back in 2013 and it did make me a bit sad that one of the creative forces behind the original and outlandish Twin Peaks TV series and Blue Velvet film, just did a recreation rather than trying something different. To be fair David Lynch may never have heard of Ralph Gibson. But it does question why two men produced very similar styles of work years apart from one another.

Judging by these two books, it seems the evolution of the art nude has got stuck with the same tune.