On Photography  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

On Photography is a 1977 collection of essays by Susan Sontag. There are no illustrations.



In the book, Sontag expresses her views on the corrosive role of photography in affluent mass-media capitalist societies, and refutes the idea that photography is just a sort of note taking. Sontag uses Depression-era documentary photography commissioned by the Farm Security Administration as an example of the "predatory" nature of photographers, and claims that the FSA employees - most of whom were established photographers - "would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film --the precise expression on the subject's face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry." However, the intact FSA archives at the Library of Congress contain 160,000 negatives from which 77,000 finished original prints were made for the press - an FSA 'shot to print' ratio not of "dozens" but of just over 2:1.

Acclaim and awards

On publication in 1977, the book received a huge amount of press publicity, and was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism in the same year. The work was also seized on by U.S. academics in order to justify the study of photography, there being a general unawareness at that time of the work already done on photography by European thinkers such as Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes.Template:Fact


Critics have noted that Sontag was not herself a photographer, and that the book is subjective, literary and polemical rather than being the result of a reasoned methodology. Nor does it arise from her sustained analysis of the work of any particular photographer or photographers, which is absent. Even before publication, Dru Shipman had published a point-by-point rebuttal of essays that would later be included in On Photography. Many of the reviews from the world of art photography that followed On Photography's publication were skeptical and often hostile, such as those of Colin L. Westerbeck and Michael Lesey.

Over the last 20 years, many of Sontag's key arguments have been questioned or overturned, and several contradictions between the different essays in the book have been pointed out.

Since 1982, no significant book anthologies of photography criticism have contained essays by Sontag. A literature search in 1998 by David Jacobs found that: "By the early '90s, specific references to On Photography have all but disappeared from the critical and scholarly literature."

In 2004 Sontag herself published a partial refutation of the opinions she espoused in On Photography.


Earlier versions of these essays appeared in The New York Review of Books:

  • Volume 20, No. 16 (October 18, 1973)
  • Volume 20, No. 18 (November 15, 1973)
  • Volume 21, No.6 (April 18, 1974)
  • Volume 21, No. 19 (November 28, 1974)
  • Volume 23, No. 21 & 22 (January 20, 1977)
  • Volume 24, No. 11 (June 23, 1977)

External links

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "On Photography" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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