Critique of Sontag’s “On Photography”

The essence of photography is one that emphasizes reality.  It is, in a sense, a reflection of life or an object through the lens of a camera and printed or dispersed to a wide audience.  In her essay “On Photography,” Susan Sontag explores the relationship between photography and reality, and the art form’s major goals.
What is the purpose of art? Is it supposed to reflect reality, or comment about it? Should the collective cult of photography try to capture the world as it is, or should the world’s collection of photographs document and record what is not available or accessible to the general public.
Sontag references Walt Whitman’s collection of poetry, “Leaves of Grass,” which unlike previous poetry movements, really emphasized the physical world and man’s relationship to nature. It is fitting then, that Sontag relates his wonder and amazement of the physical realm with the construct of photography.  She describes two ways in that photography represents the world: through an examination of the norm, and through studies of the abnormal, the variants.  These two types of examination are used in all kinds of work.  One can identify and describe the mean, the average, or one can identify the outliers, what is unknown to the general public.
In particular, Sontag comments heavily upon the work of Diane Arbus.  Arbus’s work entails the extremes of human condition.  She photographed midgets, freaks, nudists, and giants.  She took pictures of the ugly side of human nature and sought to make it beautiful.  Sontag identifies the evolution of the art form of photography from photos of the beautiful to photos of the real.  Amateurs she argues try to find the beautiful moment in a world that is not always so, whereas an artist captures the world as it is and finds the beauty in it.
In a closing thesis, Sontag seeks to determine the value of the photograph in society. Through its original aims and goals, in finding what is particularly beautiful, she finds fault with its purposes and reality. Yet, when finding and documenting what is particularly ugly and unattractive, Sontag finds a surrealism and an appeal, which seeks to determine the American culture as one of redemption and damnation myths. We, in short, take pleasure in what is foreign and different. Photography allows us to examine these aspects without entering them, or having to get too close.


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