On Photography

There seem to be two types of photography book; one explains the nuts and bolts of picture taking, the mechanics of the craft; the second goes more into photography as an art. My technical background gives me a definite leaning towards the former; their style of “this is what you do, why you do it and how it is done” is much more accessible to me. I have tried several of the “photography as art” type books with varying degrees of accomplishment. Susan Sontag’s collection of essays published as “On Photography” is a member of the second group and the one I have had most success with.

Susan Sontag is not a photographer. If she were writing a how-to book, this might be relevant but not in a book like this. Neither is she a photography critic. She is a writer with an interest in photography that has led her to research the subject extensively and the depth of her knowledge and the level of her understanding is apparent on every page. Then her writing ability takes over to produce a book that is both erudite and readable.

Not being a photography critic is occasionally apparent when she does not differentiate between opinion and fact, or even personal opinion and considered peer group opinion. Being personal opinion, I found myself having a different opinion but had to remind myself that her personal opinion is based on more extensive research and has been read more times than mine and is considered more worthy. And having a different opinion opened my mind and forced me to challenge my way of thinking.

Other parts are predicated on esoteric background knowledge and not having that background made it difficult to understand the point. An example lies within the second essay, “America, Seen though Photographs, Darkly”. References to Walt Whitman had me scurrying to Google to see the relevance.

Then there are little snippets that give hope to struggling students. On page 132 we read “…there are pictures taken by anonymous amateurs which are just as interesting, as complex formally, as representative of photography’s characteristic powers as a Stieglitz or an Evans.”

I found it interesting, against a context of finding one’s own personal voice, that she did not consider individual photographers to be particularly individualistic. She compares them with composers and uses Stravinsky as an example where a particular style runs through all his works that enables compositions separated by many years to be instantly identifiable. She asserts that this is not the case with photographers.

The final “essay” is an anthology of quotations; some humourous, some profound, some puzzling but all carefully chosen to have something worth saying:

• I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed. – Garry Winogrand
• I photograph what I do not wish to paint and I paint what I cannot photograph – Man Ray
• If I could tell the story in words, I would not need to lug a camera – Lewis Hine

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