Photography transforms reality into a tautology.
No wonder I have to look away from the internet sometimes.
EDIT: I should mention that this paragraph is from Chapter 4 entitled The Heroism of Vision, p. 111 of Susan Sontag’s On Photography. At this particular point, Sontag is discussing the idea of using the photograph as a tool for the humanist, “to explain man to man.” She is disputing this.
Her answer to this is: “But photographs do not explain; they acknowledge. Robert Frank was only being honest when he declared that ‘to produce an authentic contemporary document, the visual impact should be such as will nullify explanation.’ If photographs are messages, the message is both transparent and mysterious. ‘A photograph is a secret about a secret,’ as Arbus observed. ‘The more it tells you the less you know.’ Despite the illusion of giving understanding, what seeing through photographs really invites is an acquisitive relation to the world that nourishes aesthetic awareness and promotes emotional detachment.”
I am having an interesting discussion with my friends on Facebook about this post. If you haven’t read the whole book, indeed this quote taken out of context could seem like a derogatory remark about photography. How to mention it without giving that impression, aside from presenting the entire book of essays? Not sure…
To me this quote struck home because there is a certain idea, particularly in the field of documentary photography, that somehow it depicts a concrete reality. However, without text, and even with it, it is an aspect of “reality” that is being presented (any student of historiography will be skeptical about the “science” of history). NOT the whole reality, in other words. This idea that documentary photography is different from other art forms (or maybe it’s not “art” but “science?”) in that it captures reality and in this perhaps is indeed heroic. However, each time you focus a camera, you are capturing an aspect of what is in front of you. Removed from the whole situation, and without words, what indeed does it mean? Is it “reality?” Is it then truly separated from other kinds of art, which are filtered through the eyes of the artist, you know, like drawing (!) - and I mean, completely separated? When you see a security camera video, what are you seeing? Is that complete evidence of what is going on in that situation, or, is it a portion of it? And divorced from the actual moment, what does it become after the fact?
Whether or not you agree with Sontag’s theories about photography, it’s something to ponder.
To emphasize more questioning, I highly recommend Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up,” which touches on this very subject, if not explores it outright - and yes, that’s an interpretation of this film, at any rate.