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Thoughts on definition and Sontag


When I read Susan Sontag’s On Photography, I struggled with some of the obscure academic language and felt that needing to decipher this distracted from the importance of what Sontag had to say. Thankfully, Ashley la Grange provides a ‘plain English’ version of Sontag’s work, which makes it more accessible and allows reflection on the substance of her work. It has also encouraged me to revisit the original work.

Here I attempt to define a photograph with the objective of providing a framework for my analysis of photographs and photographers. I then draw heavily on La Grange’s re-write of Sontag’s On Photography to consider the implications of the definition.


A photograph is an image extracted from reality at a specific place and time, selected by a photographer, using the technology of camera and lens. The photograph may be manipulated after it is captured in the camera (post-processing). The photograph can be viewed through a variety of media, in many different contexts.

  • A photograph has a basis in reality, which distinguishes it from painting and drawing: it is defined substantially by its subject matter, rather than by the photographer; as it is based in reality and captured by a machine, it is attributed with greater authenticity as a record of reality. As la Grange summarises Sontag, photographs are created by ‘ … a loose cooperation … between the photographer and the subject – mediated … by … a machine …’. However, the photography is not reality itself, which is far more complex than a selected moment in time captured in an image. A photography always hides more of reality than it reveals.
  • As a photography captures a specific place in time it allows us to study that moment and view it again and again. Because it is a still image, it is easier to remember than a moving image as it is not immediately replaced by another moment. Sontag argues that this capacity to review the same image also means that the moral impact of disturbing images is reduced with continual exposure. This must be the case to allow us to cope  with this kind of image without emotional over-load – we become desensitized (true of many experiences not just the viewing of photographs).
  • An important aspect resulting from a photograph capturing a moment in time is that they become a record of our own mortality (Sontag argues that this is one of the most powerful aspects). Similarly they provide a visual trigger for our memories; they can even replace our memories with a photographic representation of a moment. A weakness in this representation is that as photographs are only fragments, their place and their original context gets weaker – but as they seem to be pieces of reality (and seem to carry authority) they can play tricks with our minds.
  • Because the photographer selects the frame for the photo, it becomes not only a record of the subject but of the perspective of the photographer. His view of the world. Sontag ‘points out that photography … , increasingly defines realism as not what is really there, but what the artist really sees’. This can include aesthetic framing of the subject, which can act an antidote to any distress caused by images or war or starvation.
  • The image is created using technology, which can be used in a way that requires no technical skill. Many people take photographs but most do not practice it as an art form. And those that do practice it as an art also depend on the ‘power of the machine’. The mechanical, almost effortless means of capturing the image has other implications: the image can include details that are accidental, not noticed by the photographer until the image is viewed later. ‘In photography, the subject matter has a greater influence on the final image than does the photographer … And it is this subject matter that determines the viewer’s preferences when looking at photograph, not the formal characteristics of the photograph.’ The machine also changed what it was possible to see, what could not be seen with the naked eye, high-speed action frozen as a moment in time.
  • The lens of the camera can create a different perspective to that seen with the eye. Distance can be compressed, distorting perspective as we normally view it. Without an image being manipulated, the camera can distort its slice of reality.
  • Photography has implications for our experience of reality – the interest in the process of making a photography and of proving we were there, or witnessed an event can get in the way of experiencing the reality. I’ve particularly seen this at music concerts, when there are always people who seem to view the whole event through the screen of a mobile phone camera. Sontag feels that photography has become one of the main ways of experiencing something – go to any famous landmark and see the truth of this.
  • As a photograph can be placed in different contexts for a viewer, the time and place of the original taking can be expunged. A photograph can have a weak grip on reality. ‘… things and events are put to new uses, assigned new meanings, which go beyond the distinctions between the beautiful and the ugly, the true and the false, the useful and the useless, good taste and bad’.
  • ‘Sontag feels that the question of photography being a fine art is misleading. Although it can generate art, it is a medium like language with which a range of things can be done’. This is an excellent analogy.

la Grange A (2005). Basic theory for photographers. Oxford, Focal Press, Amazon Kindle Edition.

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