Susan Sontag – ‘On Photography’ – The Photographs

Recently I started rereading Susan Sontag’s book of essays Regarding the Pain of Others to the accompaniment of shrieking feral cats, lightning striking tower cranes and biblical downpours (it’s rainy season here). This coincided with the Miami ‘zombie’ attack in which a man’s face was eaten off by a deranged assailant, an event which was used by the media as the cue for one of their semi-regular anti-drugs moral panics and emerged online as a throwaway, trivialised but virulent internet meme (‘Is this the start of the zombie apocalypse?’ etc). A few questions sprung to mind (besides the obvious ‘what would possess a man to find another living human being’s face palatable?’), mostly about the collective reaction. Has the internet as a medium changed us and made us less compassionate and more willing to fictionalise terrible events? Or have we always been creatures enthused by schadenfreude and a need to find gallows humour in the most catastrophic of circumstances? And, if so, what purpose do these serve? What would Sontag have made of it? Or Goya? Or any number of the figures she referenced in her work?

Regarding the Pain of Others led me back to Sontag’s masterpiece On Photography, a work that serves not just as a brilliant philosophical and sociological treatise, an enlightening history of photography but also, between the lines, a strangely prophetic work in terms of where society is heading and how images and their proliferation change us for better or worse. In the battered Penguin paperback edition that I’ve been reading there were no examples of the many photographs which Sontag referred to in the text, photographs that are freely available, though scattered, around the internet. So for my own benefit and hopefully that of others, I’ve put together links to as many of the images (and photographers) as I could find online with the corresponding page references and quotes from her work (copyright restrictions prevent me from posting them directly here). I hope you find it useful and if you haven’t read the book I strongly recommend it as one of those texts that changes the way you see things and not just in terms of photography. If you come across any broken links, kindly let me know via darrananderson1(at)gmail(dot)com

In Plato’s Cave

Page 3
‘In Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963) two sluggish lumpen-peasants are lured into joining the King’s Army by the promise that they will be able to loot, rape, kill, or do whatever else they please to the enemy, and get rich. But the suitcase of booty that Michel-Ange and Ulysse triumphantly bring home, years later, to their wives turns out to contain only picture postcards, hundreds of them, of Monuments, Department Stores, Mammals, Wonders of Nature, Methods of Transport, Works of Art, and other classified treasures from around the globe.’

‘Chris Marker’s film, Si j’avais quatre dromadaires (1966), a brilliantly orchestrated meditation on photographs…’

‘Starting with their use by the Paris police in the murderous roundup of Communards in June 1871, photographs became a useful tool of modern states…’

‘Virtuosi of the noble image like Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, composing mighty, unforgettable photographs… still want, first of all, to show something “out there“…’

‘The immensely gifted members of the Farm Security Administration photographic project of the late 1930s…’

p 7
‘Even for such early masters as David Octavius Hill and Julia Margaret Cameron who used the camera as a means of getting painterly images…’

p 11
‘the pictures of a Vietnamese bonze reaching for the gasoline can, of a Bengali guerrilla in the act of bayoneting a trussed-up collaborator, comes from the awareness of how plausible it has become, in situations where the photographer has the choice between a photograph and a life, to choose the photograph.’

p 12
‘Dziga Vertov’s great film, Man with a Movie Camera (1929), gives the ideal image of the photographer as someone in perpetual movement…’

‘Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) gives the complementary image: the photographer plyed by James Stewart has an intensified relation to one event, through his camera, precisely because he has a broken leg and is confined to a wheelchair…’

p 13
‘In Blowup (1966), Antonioni has the fashion photographer hovering convulsively over Verushka’s body with his camera clicking.’

‘Michael Powell’s extraordinary movie Peeping Tom (1960)… about a psychopath who kills women with a weapon concealed in his camera, while photographing them.’

p 17
‘The photographs Mathew Brady and his colleagues took of the horrors of the battlefields did not make people any less keen to go on with the Civil War. The photographs of ill-clad, skeletal prisoners held at Andersonville inflamed Northern public opinion – against the South.”

‘Looking at the photographs… Lange took of Nisei… being transported to internment camps… to recognize their subject for what it was— a crime committed by the government against a large group of American citizens.’

p 18
‘a naked South Vietnamese child just sprayed by American napalm’

Felix Greene and Marc Riboud brought back photographs of Hanoi.’

p 19
Don McCullin‘s photographs of emaciated Biafrans’

Werner Bischof‘s photographs of Indian famine victims’

‘photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau

p 23
Jacob Riis‘s images of New York squalor in the 1880s’

‘As Brecht points out, a photograph of the Krupp works reveals virtually nothing about that organization’

America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly

p 27
‘The Great American Cultural Revolution heralded in the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) didn’t break out’

p 28
‘In 1915 Edward Steichen photographed a milk bottle on a tenement fire escape’

p 29
Walker Evans – ‘the last great photographer to work seriously and assuredly in a mood deriving from Whitman’s euphoric humanism’

‘the images reproduced and consecrated in the sumptuous magazine Camera Work

Lewis Hine‘s stunning photographs of immigrants and workers’

p 30
‘the prescient series of ‘secret’ photographs of anonymous New York subway riders that Evans took with a concealed camera’

p 31
‘The last sigh of the Whitmanesque erotic embrace of the nation, but universalized and stripped of all demands, was heard in the ‘Family of Man’ exhibit’

p 32
Arbus‘s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not “one”.’

p 34
‘the babies look disturbed, crazy…’

p 35
‘It may be two girls wearing identical raincoats whom Arbus photographed together in Central Park…’

‘a boy waiting to march in a pro-war parade, wearing his straw boater and his “Bomb Hanoi” button…’

‘the King and Queen of a Senior Citizens Dance…’

‘a thirtyish suburban couple sprawled in their lawn chairs’

‘a widow sitting alone in her cluttered bedroom.’

‘A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY’

p 36
‘The female impersonators in their dressing rooms’

‘the Mexican dwarf in his Manhattan hotel room’

‘the Russian midgets in a living room on 100th Street’

‘the quarreling elderly couple on a park bench’

‘the New Orleans lady bartender at home with a souvenir dog’

‘the boy in Central Park clenching his toy hand grenade’

Brassaï denounced photographers who try to trap their subjects off-guard’

p 37
‘Compare the 1912 photograph by Lartigue of a woman in a plumed hat and veil with Arbus’s ‘Woman with a Veil on Fifth Avenue, NYC, 1968’

p 38
‘Perhaps the scariest scene in Tod Browning’s film Freaks (1932) is the wedding banquet…’

p 43
‘What in the 1930s was treated with anguish – as in Miss Lonely-hearts and The Day of the Locust would in the 1960s be treated in a perfectly deadpan way, or with positive relish…’

‘the thriving Freak Show at Coney Island was outlawed…’

p 44
‘Most of Arbus’s work lies within the Warhol aesthetic’

p 45
‘much of Arbus’s material is the same as that depicted in, say, Warhol’s Chelsea Girls

p 46
Weegee‘s photographs are indeed upsetting’

‘Brassaï, who photographed people like those who interested Arbus – see his La Môme Bijou

‘Lewis Hine’s “Mental Institution, New Jersey, 1924” could be a late Arbus photograph’

Giorgio Morandi, who spent a half century doing still lifes of bottles’

Melancholy Objects

p 51
‘century-old threats of a Surrealist takeover of the modern sensibility’

‘its liberation rhetoric helped to nudge Jackson Pollack and others into a new kind of irreverent abstraction’

p 52
‘the solarized photographs and Rayographs of Man Ray

‘the photograms of László Moholy-Nagy

‘the multiple-exposure studies of Bragaglia

‘the photomontages of John Heartfield and Alexander Rodchenko

p 53
‘The sales pitch for the first Kodak , in 1888, was: “You press the button, we do the rest.”‘

‘an inept dreamy Buster Keaton vainly struggling with his dilapidated apparatus’

p 54
‘the earliest surreal photographs come from the 1850s’

p 55
‘photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle-class flaneur, whose sensibility was so accurately charted by Baudelaire

‘the candid snapshots taken in the 1890s by Paul Martin in London streets’

‘by Arnold Genthe in San Francisco’s Chinatown’

Atget‘s twilight Paris of shabby streets and decaying trades’

‘the dramas of sex and loneliness depicted in Brassaï’s book Paris by Nuit

‘the city as a theatre of disaster in Weegee’s Naked City (1945)’

p 56
How the Other Half Lives to cite the innocently explicit title that Jacob Riis gave to the book of photographs of the New York poor that he brought out in 1890′

Bruce Davidson‘s book of Harlem photographs’

p 57
‘For a wellborn photographer of the late nineteenth century like the bookish Count Giuseppe Primoli, the street life of the underprivileged was at least as interesting as the pastimes of his fellow aristocrats…’

‘the earliest model of the sustained look downward are the thirty-six photographs in Street Life in London (1877-78) taken by the British traveler and photographer John Thomson.’

‘Before turning to the poor of his own country, he had already been to see the heathen, a sojourn which resulted in his four-volume Illustrations of China and Its People (1873-74).

Bill Brandt

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Richard Avedon

p 58
‘the thing Lewis Carroll had for little girls’

‘the photographs he [Cecil Beaton] took of Edith Sitwell’

p 59
‘an example of photography-as-science is the project August Sander began in 1911…’

Georg Grosz‘s drawings… summed up the spirit and variety of types in Weimar Germany through caricature’

‘Compare his [Sander’s] 1930 photograph “Circus People”

‘Arbus’s studies of circus people

‘the portraits of demimonde characters by Lisette Model

p 60
‘Like Eadweard Muybridge, whose photographic studies in the 1880s managed to dispel misconceptions about what everybody had always seen…’

‘Sander, who stayed in Germany throughout the Nazi period, switched to landscape photography

p 61
Robert Frank’s The Americans

p 62
Adam Clark Vroman… photographed Indians in Arizona and New Mexico between 1895 and 1904′

p 67
Clarence John Laughlin, a self-avowed exponent of “extreme romanticism”

‘a Laughlin photograph from 1962, “Spectre of Coca-Cola”

Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York

p 68
Kurt Schwitters

Bruce Conner

Ed Kienholz

p 69
‘architects like Robert Venturi learn from Las Vegas…’

Reyner Banham lauds Los Angeles’s “instant architecture and instant townscape” for its gift of freedom, of a good life impossible amid the beauties and squalors of the European city’

‘At the very beginning of photography, the late 1830s, William H. Fox Talbot noted the camera’s special aptitude for recording “the injuries of time”.’

p 70
‘One’s reaction to the photographs Roman Vishniac took in 1938 of daily life in the ghettos of Poland are overwhelmingly affected by the knowledge of how soon all these people were to perish.’

‘Some working-class Berliners in Robert Siodmak’s film Menschen am Sonntag (1929) are having their pictures taken at the end of a Sunday outing.’

‘And one of the most disquieting films ever made, Chris Marker’s La jetée (1963), is the tale of a man who forsees his own death, narrated entirely with still photographs.’

p 72
Bob Adelman‘s Down Home (1972), a portrait of a rural Alabama county…’

‘Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (1973), which also constructs… a portrait of a rural county… but the time is the past…’

p 73
John Cage

p 74
‘”All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques,” Anderson says in the prologue to Winesburg, Ohio (1919)…’

p 75
‘Thus, Walter Benjamin – whose Surrealist sensibility is the most profound of anyone’s on record – was a passionate collector of quotations.’

p 76
‘Viollet-le-Duc commissioned a series of daguerrotypes of Notre Dame before beginning his restoration of the cathedral.’

p 79
‘Leonardo’s Last Supper… looks terrible.’

p 80
‘those magic boxes that Joseph Cornell filled with incongruous small objects…’

The Heroism of Vision

p 85
‘The name under which Fox Talbot patented the photograph in 1841 was the calotype: from kalos , beautiful.’

p 87
The House of the Seven Gables

p 88
The Pencil of Nature

p 89
Maxime Du Camp… centred his picture-taking activity on attractions like the Colossus of Abu Simbel and the Temple of Baalbek, not the daily life of fellahin.’

p 90
‘Alfred Stieglitz proudly reports that he had stood three hours during a blizzard… “awaiting the proper moment” to take his celebrated picture, “Fifth Avenue, Winter.”

p 91
‘In 1915 Paul Strand took a photograph which he titled “Abstract Patterns Made by Bowls”

László Moholy-Nagy

Albert Renger-Patzsch

Edward Weston

Minor White

p 92


‘The subject of Weston’s ‘Cabbage Leaf’, taken in 1931, looks like a fall of gathered cloth; a title is needed to identify it.’

p 93
‘What looks like a bare coronet – the famous photograph taken by Harold Edgerton in 1936 – becomes far more interesting when we find out it is a splash of milk.’

p 94
Francis Bacon

p 95
Photo-Realism which is not content with merely imitating photographs but aims to show that painting can achieve an even greater illusion of verisimilitude…’

p 98
‘It was the beauty of forms in industrial and scientific photography that dazzled Bauhaus designers…’

‘It proved more important to reveal the elegant form of a toilet bowl, the subject of a series of pictures Weston did in Mexico in 1925…’

p 99
André Kertész

p 100
‘for Aaron Siskind… the question is one of creating order.’

p 102
‘the majestic landscapes of Ansel Adams

Andreas Feininger

p 103
‘Weston’s celebrated photograph of one of his fiercely loved sons, “Torso of Neil”…’

‘Jacob Riis’s crude flashlit photographs… seem beautiful because of the force of their subject, grimy shapeless New York slum-dwellers…’

p 104
‘Two portraits that Strand did in 1916 of urban casualties, “Blind Woman” and “Man”…’

‘In the worst years of the German depression Helmar Lerski made a whole compendium of distressing faces…’

p 105
‘the elegant, ruthless portraits Avedon did in 1972 of his dying father.’

p 106
‘The photograph that the Bolivian government transmitted to the world press… of Che Guevara’s body…’

p 107
Mantegna’s “The Dead Christ”

Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Tulp”

p 108
‘Godard and Gorin’s short film A Letter to Jane (1972) amounts to a kind of counter-caption to a photograph…’

p 109
‘the small Jewish boy photographed in 1943 during a round-up in the Warsaw Ghetto, his arms raised, solemn with teror…’

p 111
‘When Cartier-Bresson goes to China, he shows that there are people in China, and that they are Chinese.’

Photographic Evangels

p 116
‘his [Nadar’s] respectful, expressive pictures

Cartier-Bresson has likened himself to a Zen archer…’

p 120
Henry Peach Robinson

p 123
‘Stieglitz’s name for the cloud studies he did in the late 1920s…’

p 124
‘Harold Edgerton’s high-speed photographs of a bullet hitting its target’

Lennart Nilsson‘s endoscopic photographs of the interior of the human body…’

‘the Futurist apotheosis of machines and speed.’

p 125
‘the first, cameraless photographs made in the 1820s by Nicephore Niepce’

p 130
Duchamp‘s theory of “rendez-vous”‘

p 134
‘Todd Walker’s solarized photographs

‘Duane Michals’s narrative-sequence photographs

‘like Eakins with the male nude’

‘or Laughlin with the Old South’

Le Sacre du printemps

Dumbarton Oaks Concerto

Eadweard Muybridge

p 137
‘When Irving Penn, known for his handsome photographs of celebrities and food for fashion magazines and ad agencies, was given a show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1975, it was for a series of close-ups of cigarette butts.’

p 139
‘the quality of presence, which Walter Benjamin considered the defining characteristic of the work of art.’

p 142
‘the poetic constructions of Frederick Sommer…’

Oscar Gustav Rejlander

Robert Demanchy

p 143
‘The plain photographs from the 1870s of abandoned children admitted to… Dr Barnardo‘s Home…’

David Octavius Hill‘s complex portraits of Scottish notables of the 1840s’

Benno Friedman‘s ingenious recent revival of pictorial blurriness.’

p 144
Renger-Patzsch and the New Objectivity

p 147
Christo‘s packaging of the landscape’

p 148
‘the earthworks of Walter De Maria

Robert Smithson

p 149
John Cage


Steve Reich

The Image-World

p 153
Plato’s Cave

The Essence of Christianity

p 157
‘astronomers were photographing the sun and the moon and had managed to obtain a pinhead-size impression of the star Vega.’

p 158
Balzac had a similar “vague dread” of being photographed.’

p 162 Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles

‘On one wall of cell No. 426 in Fresnes Prison in the early 1940s Jean Genet pasted the photographs of twenty criminals he had clipped from newspapers…’

J.G. Ballard‘s Crash (1973) describes a more specialized collecting of photographs in the service of sexual obsession: photographs of car accidents…’

p 163
The Magic Mountain

p 164
Proust and photography

p 165
Melville’s Pierre

p 167
‘In Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading (1938), the prisoner… is shown the “photohoroscope” of a child cast by the sinister M’sieur Pierre…’

p 168
‘Antonioni’s China documentary Chung Kuo made me flinch at the first cut of the scalpel…’

p 169
A Vicious Motive, Despicable Tricks

p 175
‘In the form of a photograph the explosion of an A-bomb can be used to advertise a safe.

“The Movement to Emulate Lei Feng”

p 176
‘When he [Nadar] performed “the Daguerreian operation” on Paris from a balloon in 1855 he immediately grasped the future benefit of photography to warmakers.’

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