Susan Sontag: On Photography

Beginning as an assignment for my second year at graduate school at Eastern Michigan University, my professor Jason DeMarte had me read On Photography, which turned out to be one of the most reflective books I’ve ever read on the subject. This book is more than just another artists opinion, it’s rings deep and true on almost every level. Even if you’re not a photographer I’m sure you will find value in what Susan has to say on the subject. Below are is a summary of my favorite quotes.


Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. (3-4)

Photographs images of not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or enquire. (4)

The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture. (5)

…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. (8)

Photography develops in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism (9)

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. (9)

Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. (10)

This method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic—German, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.(10)

Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events. (11)

After the event has ended, the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would never otherwise have enjoyed. (11)

Photography is essentially an act of non-intervention… The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene. (11-12)

Even if incompatible with intervention in a physical sense, using a camera is still a form of participation…The act of photographing is more than passive observing. (12)

The camera/gun does not kill, so the ominous metaphor seems to be all bluff—like a man’s fantasy of having a gun, knife, or tool between his legs. Still, there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. 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 them into objects that can be symbolically possessed. (14)

…All photographs testify to time’s relentless melt. (15)[photographs] attempt to contact or lay claim to another reality (16)

The images that mobilize conscience are always linked to a given historical situation. The more general they are, the less likely they are to be effective (17)

Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one—and can help build a nascent one. (17)

Photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow. (17)

Television [or film] is a stream of under selected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privaleged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again. (18)

The vast photographic catalogue of misery and injustice throughout the world has given everyone a certain familiarity with atrocity, making the horrible seem even more ordinary—making it appear familiar, remote (“it’s only a photograph”), inevitable. (21)

…Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy. (23)

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. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no. Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph. (23)

…Industrial societies turn their citizens into image junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution…it would not be wrong to speak of people having compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing. (24)


Each thing or person photographed becomes—a photograph; and becomes, therefore, morally equivalent to any other of his photographs (31)

The other world [regarding photographs] is to be found, as usual, inside this one. (34)

In the normal rhetoric of the photographic portrait, facing the camera signifies solemnity, frankness, the disclosure of the subject’s essence (37-38)

What makes Arbus’s use of the frontal pose so arresting is that her subject’s are often the people one would not expect to surrender themselves so amiably and ingeniously to the camera. Thus, in Arbus’s photographs, frontally also implies in the most vivid way the subject’s cooperation. To get these people to pose, the photographer has to gain their confidence, has had to becomes “friends” with them. (38)

The whole point of photographing people is that you are not intervening in their lives, only visiting them. (41-42)

Arbus’s interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration of being safe. (43)

It is obviously too easy to say that American is just a freak show, a wasteland—the cut-rate pessimism typical of the reduction of the real to the surreal. But the American partiality to myths of redemption and damnation remains one of the most energizing, most seductive aspects of our national culture. (48)


Unlike the fine-art objects of pre-democratic eras, photographs don’t seem deeply beholden to the intentions of an artist. Rather, they owe their existence to a loose cooperation (quasi-magical, quasi-accidental) between photographer and subject. (53)

In the fairy tale of photography the magic box insures veracity and banishes error, compensates for inexperience and rewards innocence. (53)

As an aesthetics that yearns to be a politics, Surrealism opts for the underdog, for the rights of the disestablished or unofficial reality. (54)

Photography has always been fascinated by social heights and lower depths. Documentarists (as distinct from courtiers with cameras) prefer the latter. For more than a century, photographers have been hovering about the oppressed, in attendance at scenes of violence—with a spectacularly good conscience. Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them. (55)

Gazing on other people’s reality with curiosity, with detachment, with professionalism, the ubiquitous photographer operates as if that activity transcends class interests, as if it’s perspective is universal. (55)

Essentially, the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually their own. (57)

Poverty is no more surreal than wealth; a body clad in filthy rags is not more surreal than a principessa dressed for a ball of a pristine nude. (58)

The camera cannot help but reveal faces as social masks. Each person photographed was a sign of a certain trade, class, or profession. All his subjects are representative, equally representative, of a given social reality—their own. (59)

Professionals and the rich tend to be photographed indoors, without props. They speak for themselves. Laborers and derelicts are usually photographed in a setting (often outdoors) which locates them, which speaks for them—as if they could not be assumed to have the kinds of separate identities normally achieved in the middle and upper classes. (61)

But even at its most moralistic, documentary photography was also imperious in another sense. Both Thomson’s detached traveler’s report and the impassioned muckraking of Riis or Hine reflect the urge to appropriate an alien reality. And no reality is exempt from appropriation. (63)

Faced with the awesome spread and alienness of a newly settled continent, people wielded cameras as a way of taking possessions of the places they visited. Kodak put signs at the entrances of many towns listed what to photograph. Signs marked the places in national parks where visitors should stand with their cameras. (65)[Photographs] trade simultaneously on the prestige of art and the magic of the real. They are clouds of fantasy and pellets of information. (69)

Photography is the inventory of mortality. (70)

Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people. (70)

As the fascination that photographs exercise is a reminder of death, it is also an invitation to sentimentality. Photographs turn the past into an object of tender regard, scrambling moral distinctions and disarming historical judgements by the generalized pathos of looking at time past. (71)

A photograph could also be described as a quotation, which makes a book of photographs like a book of quotations. And an increasingly common way of presenting photographs in book form is to match photographs themselves with quotes. (71)

Photographs—and quotations—seem, because they are taken to be pieces of reality, more authentic than extended literally narratives. (74)

The past itself, as historical change continues to accelerate, has become the most surreal of subjects—making it possible…to see a new beauty in what is vanishing. From the start, photographers not only set themselves the task of recording a disappearing world but were so employed by those hastening its disappearance. (76)

The history of photography discloses a long tradition of ambivalence about its capacity for partnership: the taking of sides is felt to undermine its perennial assumption that all subjects have validity and interest. (77)

Bleak factory buildings and billboard-cluttered avenues look as beautiful, through the camera’s eye, as churches and pastoral landscapes. (78)

A painting is commissioned or bought; a photograph is found…or easily taken oneself. (79)

Reality is summed up in an array of casual fragments—an endlessly alluring, poignantly reductive way of dealing with the world. (80)

The photographer’s insistence that everything is real also implies that the real is not enough. (80)

Photography inevitably entails a certain patronizing of reality. From being “out there,” the world comes to be “inside” photographs. (80)

Whereas the reading time of a book is up to the reader, the viewing time of a film is set by the filmmaker and the images are perceived only as fast or slowly as the editing permits. Thus, a still, which allows one to linger over a single moment as long as one likes, contradicts the very form of film, as a set of photographed world stands in the same, essentially inaccurate relation to the real world as stills do in movies. Life is not about significant details, illuminated a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are. (81)


So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful. (85)

The history of photography could be recapitulated as the struggle between two different imperatives: beautification, which comes from the fine arts, and truth-telling, which is measured not only by a notion of value-free truth, a legacy from the sciences, but by a moralized ideal of truth-telling, adapt from nineteenth-century literary models and from the (then) new profession of independent journalism. (86)

As people quickly discovered that nobody takes the same picture of the same thing, the supposition that cameras furnish an impersonal, objective image yielded to the fact that photographs are evidence not only of what’s there but of what an individual sees, not just a record but an evaluation of the world. (88)

Insofar as photography does peel away the dry wrappers of habitual seeing, it creates another habit of seeing: both intense and cool, solicitous and detached; charmed by the insignificant detail, addicted to incongruity. (99)

The camera can be lenient; it is also expert at being cruel. But its cruelty only produces another kind of beauty, according to the surrealist preferences which rule photographic taste. (104)

The traditional function of portrait painting, to embellish or idealize the subject, remains the aim of everyday and of commercial photography, but it has had a much more limited career in photography considered as an art. Generally speaking, the honors have gone to Cordelias. (105)

The photographs that W. Eugene Smith took in the late 1960’s in the Japanese fishing village of Minamata, most of whose inhabitants are crippled and slowly dying of mercury poisoning move us because they document a suffering which arouses our indignation—and distance us because they are superb photographs of Agony, conforming to surrealist standards of beauty. (105)

Socially concerned photographers assume that their work can convey some kind of stable meaning, can reveal the truth. But partly because their photograph is, always, an object in a context, this meaning is bound to drain away; that is, the context that shapes whatever immediate—in particular, political—uses the photograph may have is inevitably succeeded by contexts in which such uses are weakened and become progressively less relevant. (106)

In fact, words do speak louder than pictures. Captions do tend to override the evidence of our eyes; but no caption can permanently restrict or secure a picture’s meaning. (108)

Even an entirely accurate caption is only one interpretation, necessarily a limiting one, of the photograph to which it is attached. (109)

Photographs can and do distress. But the aestheticizing tendency of photography is such that the medium which conveys distress ends up neutralizing it. (109)

Photographs are often invoked as an aid to understanding and tolerance. In humanist jargon, the highest vocation of photography is to explain man to man. (111)

if photographs are message, the message is both transparent and mysterious. “A photograph us a secret about a secret,” as Arbus observed. “The more it tells you the less you know.” (111)


Photography is advanced form of knowing without knowing: a way of outwitting the world, instead of making a frontal attack on it. (116)

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