Friday, September 22, 2006

On Susan Sontag...On Photography...Again

A collection of quotes and thoughts upon randomly picking up On Photography one evening while killing time…

On being a freak
"The subjects of Arbus's photographs are all members of the same family, inhabitants of a single village," Sontag writes. "Only, as it happens, the idiot village is America. Instead of showing identity between things which are different (Whitman's democratic vista), everybody is shown to look the same."

But in Arbus's sameness, we're really all freaks. Isn't that her message? I suppose it's easy to look at Arbus's photos and think of how separate her subjects are from us. That's a shallow gaze, though. To look into freaks' eyes and see a normal, everyday person--hey, just like me--is the revelation.

The flaneur
“The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flaneur finds the world ‘picturesque.’”

This is the joy I always felt when I walked the city with a camera dangling from my neck. Everything was beautiful, sexual, available to my view. I was nothing but a random collector of the odd, the discarded, the scribbles on lonely walls.

“Essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually one’s own.”

Inevitably, especially with the passage of time, when we look at photos or take photos, we traipse through the different worlds of our different selves, looking and wondering, yes, like a tourist. What could I have been thinking? How oddly I dressed back then? Was it difficult to live back then? These are the questions I ask of the wax dummies of historical figures when I tour their homes. My life is suddenly a version of a reality show produced in another era.

Or, I take a photo of a person, and their life is a short vacation, a snapshot, escape.

The present
“…photography offers instant romanticism about the present.”

I suppose it depends on the subject. So much of the present is impossible to romanticize, simply because it exists now. Photos of Bill Clinton might be quite mysterious, worthy of pauses and ponderings, but only twenty or thirty years from now. Now we gaze with such intensity at the photos of Kennedy, or even Nixon. Their lives possess an aura again, no matter how overexposed they might be.

No, I think photography attempts to romanticize the present, but most of the time it fails.

“Photography is the inventory of mortality. …Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.”

Photographs have replaced the stories of our ancestors. It’s enough to see their faces. We don’t really need to know their stories, the details of their lives. It’s enough to see them, as if they’re living, to look into their eyes, to see a person. We are there with them, yet not.

“In a world that is well on its way to becoming one vast quarry, the collector becomes someone engaged in a pious work of salvage.”

This is perhaps where the romanticism of the present comes in. Collecting the present, especially those numinous things that speak of mystery, of other worlds, is the joy, the motivation of any photographer, whether he or she is collecting faces or fauna or flora. To capture the aura of what seems to be original and true and perhaps everlasting—and to desire not to reproduce it too often, to blemish it in any way—defines the impulse toward art, I think.

It is the religion of the salvage collector. Photography becomes a beautiful way to pick up the world’s trash—to see a new beauty in what is vanishing as Walter Benjamin put it.

“The photographer—and the consumer of photographs—follows in the footsteps of the ragpicker,” as Sontag says.

She quotes Baudelaire: “Everything that the big city threw away, everything it lost, everything it despised, everything it crushed underfoot, he catalogues and collects. . . . He sorts things out and makes a wise choice; he collects, like a miser guarding a treasure, the refuse which whill assume the shape of useful or gratifying objects between the jaws of the goddess of Industry.”

Changing the world?
“Marx reproached philosophy for only trying to understand the world rather than trying to change it. Photographers, operating within the terms of the Surrealist sensibility, suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose we collect it.”

The choice is almost whether to prevent the apocalypse or to try to understand it or to remove oneself one step further and simply watch it.

I’ve thought about how to prevent the apocalypse, but I’m one who either tries to understand it or is resigned, content to watch the world self-destruct. I’d hate to value one choice over another, as Marx might. I think each role is important, even that of us passive ones. It seems that we might see something that others don’t. And if they ask us what we’ve seen, it might just help them.

“We learn to see ourselves photographically: to regard oneself as attractive is, precisely, to judge that one would look good in a photograph. Photographs create the beautiful and—over generations of picture-taking—use it up.”

This statement is true and not true. It’s the crux of our aesthetic position in our media saturated world. Perhaps it’s actually aging, our inherent habituation, which causes photographs to lose their power. A James Dean photo won’t look as cool with each decade’s viewing, yet he’s still a pretty cool guy. The next generation will think so as well.

A sunset in real life might be the corny sunset of a photo, but what happens when these two worlds collide—and, as is sometimes the case, the real sunset is enhanced by the romanticism of the photographed sunset, and life becomes augmented, almost doubled?

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