On Photography and Media (Part 3)

Aug 16 2021

Reality itself has started to be understood as a kind of writing, which has to be decoded—even as photographed images were themselves first compared to writing.

—Susan Sontag, “The Herosim of Vision”

As I wind down with observations, I’d like to say that for the most part, On Photography by Susan Sontag is accurate and well-reasoned. I did have some disagreements with her assumptions.

IV. The Herosim of Vision #

In “Heroism of Vision,” Susan Sontag claims that the camera has made us perceive reality differently. She hinted at this concept in her earlier essays, but she digs deeper here. “So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful… The news that the camera could lie made getting photographed much more popular.”

Photography has also been romanticized, given a heroic quality which comes from the explorer archetype. Like how Indiana Jones is an unrealistically adventurous archeologist, so photographic journalists are dutifully bound to record reality in warzones and crime scenes. Photography struggles with two different aims: to beautify (art, modeling, sentiment) and to preserve the truth (journalism, science, and justice). She asks, is the camera a scribe or a poet?

Sontag also discusses the trends of photography, and how early photographers tried to match the conventions of fine painting. As time went on, art and photography influenced each other, such as the Impressionist’s purposeful blurryness has made photographers experiment with blur. Or how scientific photographers zoomed into the abstract, capturing the intense close-ups of intricate fractals. “Photographic seeing, when one examines its claims, turns out to be mainly the practice of a kind of dissociative seeing…” Dissociative seeing is how cameras flatten the subject and causes discrepencies between real vision and photo renders."

In the visual arts, artists choose to exaggerate or include angles of a figure that would be impossible to perceive in real life. A camera can only “trace” reality, but it can crank up existing details in ways a human eye can’t.

Despite all of Sontag’s analysis on photography, in an increasingly visual world, we leave blind people beind. They miss out on the shortcuts and conventions that abled people communicate with.

Shock Value #

Photographers are constantly on the hunt for “shock value.”

But photographic seeing has to be constantly renewed with new shocks, whether of subject matter or technique, so as to produce the impression of violating ordinary vision.

Even though Sontag attributes it to the mundaneness of photographic seeing, it has bled into writing.

When people want to write a book, most novices hope the story will be shocking and fresh, better and more unique than what already exists. The Hero’s Journey is a plot structure heavily emphasized in American storytelling, but it also means that we miss out on more subtle forms of plot. In Asia, stories are taught and formed after the 4-act structure.

Has photography made us hungry for bigger and badder shocks? Have Americans, being a young culture that loves to pioneer technological advancement, simply molded our taste after what the camera feeds us?

Finally, despite how photography aims to capture information, it cannot capture meaning. The meaning of a photograph depends on the context of the era it was taken. As time wears on, the impact of the original meaning fades and warps.

Socially concerned photographers assume that their work can convey some kind of stable meaning, can reveal truth. But partly because the photograph is, always, an object in a context, this meaning is bound to drain away…

V. Photographic Evangels #

Photographers only started worrying about what they knew, and what kind of knowledge in a deeper sense a photograph supplies, after photography was accepted as an art… When photographers now deny that they are making works of art, it is because they think they are doing something better than that.

—Susan Sontag, “Photographic Evangels”

In “Photographic Evangels,” Sontag discusses the role of the photographer and how they fit into society. Photographers must justify their role and their actions, especially given how easy it is to take a photo and how intrusive it is.

In the current age, I don’t think the debate on whether photography is an art or a science is as interesting, as say, whether computer science is an art or a science. For most human activities, a mix of logic, skill, and creativity results in the best work. Sontag says: “…photography is not, to begin with, an art form at all. Like language, it is a medium in which works of art (among other things) are made… It is the prototype of the characteristic direction taken in our time by both the modernist high arts and the commercial arts: the transformation of arts into meta-arts or media.”

Her point is especially convincing. Photography is a way to encode information, partly aided by the computer. We should call photography “machine-assisted vision” (MAV), on par with binoculars and hearing aids.

[Ansel] Adams also urges that we stop saying that we “take” a picture and always say we “make” one.

Mixed Media #

Digital art has made painting more accessible and reproducible. Drawing and photography are used hand in hand. A lot of the disadvantages that Sontag discussed about paintings can be dismissed when you consider digital art.

She also claims that photography is not suited to be labeled in broad, sweeping movements like historians often do regarding art history:

To group photographers in schools or movements seems to be a kind of misunderstanding, based (once again) on the irrepressible but invariably misleading analogy between photography and painting.

I wonder how true this denial is. We have memes that are considered old-fashioned. Would memes be categorized as a development, a movement? Artistic movements are usually identified in hindsight by historians. Just as Sontag was entrenched in the rapid development of photography as an mass artform, we are too entrenched in the present to tell. Identifying trends is more a job for the future.

Near the end, Sontag comments about taste and gatekeeping in the fine arts versus new media:

  • The traditional fine arts rely on the distinction between authentic and fake, between original and copy, between good taste and bad taste;
  • the media blur, if they do not abolish outright, these distinctions.
  • The fine arts assume that certain experiences or subjects have a meaning.
  • The media are essentially contentless (this is the truth behind Marshall McLuhan’s celebrated remark about the message being the medium itself); their characteristic tone is ironic, or dead-pan, or parodistic.
  • It is inevitable that more and more art will be designed to end as photographs.

Now, more and more art is designed to end on harddrives.

VI. The Image-world #

The further back we go in history, as E. H. Gombrich has observed, the less sharp is the distinction between images and real things; in primitive societies, the thing and its image were simply two different, that is, physically distinct, manifestations of the same energy or spirit. Hence, the supposed efficacy of images in propitiating and gaining control over powerful presences. Those powers, those presences were present in them.

While Sontag does not cite any research here, there is a theory in psychology called the Bicameral brain.

The theory is that in the past, human consciousness did not have the concept of an individual as defined as it is today. There were “two parts” to cognition: a commander and an obeyer; one that speaks and one that listens. Early humans hallucinated often and felt compelled to act. Essentially, the hallucinations and instrusive thoughts (the extreme of which classifies schizophrenia as a mental illness) is a remnant of our past mode of thought. Hence, primitive humans felt that a separate force—a mystical entity—drove their decisions.

The rise of literacy helped to define consciousness and merge the double minds, and only then, people finally considered themselves as an autonomous individual, and personal responsibility was solidified as individualism.

While the bicameral brain theory is highly debated, there is actually research that shows the theory has merit. In GCP Grey’s You Are Two video, he explains what happens when epilepsy patients have their corpus callosum cut. Some reported that their brains disagreed with each other. For example, one hand would pick up a candy bar, and the other would pick a granola bar. The corpus callsum is the bundle of nerves that connects the two hemispheres so they can communicate with each other. The studies found one brain hemisphere is responsible for speaking, and the other hemisphere is mute, but listens and understands prompts. Once these nerves are cut, “this act of cutting exposes two minds in one head, and the talking mind doesn’t know there’s someone else in the house.” The silent hemisphere can still see, hear, and understand. The speaking hemisphere makes up reasons that may or may not be internally consistent.

Sontag expands on the image-world, saying that it taps into a deeply ingrained primitive system, where reality and imagination are equal representations. People have a primitive endearment to magic. Photogaphy is magical, because just as reality has infinite configurations and infinite entry points, we have infinite ways to interpret and manipulate it.

Privacy disintegrated #

Unfortunately, the middle of this essay is filled with humorously outdated generalizations about Chinese society, but the real irony is that it sounds like a pot calling the kettle black.

Photography for us is a double-edged instrument for producing clichés (the French word that means both trite expression and photographic negative) and for serving up “fresh” views. For the Chinese authorities, there are only clichés—which they consider not to be clichés but “correct” views.

She says that the Chinese consider taking a photo a staged procedure, and all actors must be prepared properly. Americans like to sneak up on people for a more organic and realistic photograph, and apparently Americans are tolerant of that.

Clearly, not all are. Most schools have a photography opt-out form, where parents to deny permission to a school from using media that involves their child. Hence, Sontag’s cultural assumptions are mostly rubbish.

As photography became more pervasive, the concept of privacy eroded. I don’t think China is perfectly innocent. They track their citizens (like all countries do) and actively silence dissent. But countries and organizations dedicated to preserving the right of privacy, a right to stay anonymous online, are deeply appealing to me. And honestly, I don’t like people shoving their smartphones into my face because they think “normality” is endearing enough to be photographed. It isn’t.

Craft and consumption #

Sontag says that with photos, they can be altered and combined to create any sort of message. “We make of photography a means by which, precisely, anything can be said, any purpose served. What in reality is discrete, images join. In the form of a photograph the explosion of an A-bomb can be used to advertise a safe.” The r/photoshopbattles subreddit is a mega example proving her point. Hilariously incongruous images can be spliced together.

Sontag says that photography serves the aims of capitalism and oppression. She makes her own bread and circuses claim: “A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex.”

Mass media accelerated consumerism, but the apathy of the masses is a grievance that has been around since Ancient Rome.

omnia, nunc se continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat, panem et circenses
(everyone now contains themelves, and eagerly desires two things only: bread and circuses).

—Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81

In “Melancholy Objects” Sontag pointed out that photos fuel activism. We can use photography to disseminate the truth. Example: article that reports how donated clothing goes to the landfills of other countries. The camera is one way to capture the world. The communities we engage with and the photos we choose to see will shape our goals and expectations.

Who owns ideas? #

The powers of photography have in effect de-Platonized our understanding of reality, making it less and less plausible to reflect upon our experience according to the distinction between images and things, between copies and originals.

When we consider the mass portability and transferability of digital data, the 0’s and 1’s, is it a wonder that ownership of photos and text becomes as tenuous as the ownership of air?

Projects like Libgen and Scihub, which provide a way to distribute books freely, are accused of serving as piracy hubs and infringing on copyright. I think that any sort of digital media is at the point where copies and originals don’t exist anymore.

Even with non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and advances in digital rights management (DRM) to protect the genuinity of data, I think this model of “intellectual property” will die. Of course, it’s meant to protect the little man from having his idea stolen by big fish, but you know what? Even little fish steal each other’s ideas.

Market success is based on luck and timing, and who can actually implement an idea that works well enough. People who improve upon a technology, make it cheaper to manufacture and distribute, are providing a service that is invaluable. Same with any story or trope that gets popular, a flood of imitations come rushing in to ride the hype. You cannot expect a good idea to stay expensive and profitable for long, just like how we are glad that computers and smartphones become cheaper and reasonably priced.

Another example of people copying each other is with social media itself. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok all implemented “stories,” video snippets that users can share and pin to their profile. We can argue that they all copied Snapchat, but the feature is here to stay. Now, we expect to be able to share and watch videos in the blink of an eye. Instagram’s Evolution by Ben Thompson provides a hindsightful explanation of Instagram’s role as a social media platform, and how it had to adapt to competitors.

Conclusion #

On Photography is a great read stylistically, and Sontag’s language is relatively easy to understand compared to other thinkers. As we learn to be more Internet savvy, Sontag also has insights into human nature which we should research more.