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On Photography Paperback – August 25, 2001


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Hold Still by Sally Mann
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Acclaimed photographer Sally Mann sorted through boxes of family papers and old pictures to find "deceit and scandal, alcohol, domestic abuse, car crashes, bogeymen, clandestine affairs, dearly loved and disputed family land ... racial complications, vast sums of money made and lost, the return of the prodigal son, and maybe even bloody murder." Learn more | See similar books
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Editorial Reviews

Review

A brilliant analysis of the profound changes photographic images have made in our way of looking at the world and at ourselves over the last 140 years. (Washington Post Book World)

Every page of On Photography raises important and exciting questions about its subject and raises them in the best way. (The New York Times Book Review)

A book of great importance and originality . . . All future discussion or analysis of the role of photography in the affluent mass-media societies are now bound to begin with her book. (John Berger)

Not many photographs are worth a thousand of [Susan Sontag's] words. (Robert Hughes, Time)

After Sontag, photography must be written about not only as a force in the arts, but as one that is increasingly powerful in the nature and destiny of our global society. (Newsweek)

On Photography is to my mind the most original and illuminating study of the subject. (Calvin Trillin, The New Yorker)

From the Publisher

Winner of the National Book Critics' Circle Award for Criticism (1977), this is "a brilliant analysis of the profound changes photographic images have made in our way of looking of the world and ourselves over the lost 140 years."-Washington Post BOOK WORLD --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; 1st edition (August 25, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312420099
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312420093
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (87 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #19,718 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Susan Sontag was born in Manhattan in 1933 and studied at the universities of Chicago, Harvard and Oxford. She is the author of four novels, a collection of stories, several plays, and six books of essays, among them Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. Her books are translated into thirty-two languages. In 2001 she was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for the body of her work, and in 2003 she received the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. She died in December 2004.

Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

159 of 188 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 28, 2001
Format: Paperback
Photography, probably more than any other medium, is emblematic of the nature of modern Western society. Photographs are concerned chiefly with appearances, they are deceptively nuanced but essentially narrow, yet somehow they find great breadth in their mechanization and ubiquity. And, like our society, they tend towards an ultimate reduction of the dimensionality of time. Through photographs the past blends into the present, flattening into an omni-present "now" in which history loses its philosophical weight as it increases in familiarity. In a sense photographs are the ultimate invention of a humanist-capitalist society: they provide the commodification of memory itself! And like the society which originated them, they provide equal portions of help and harm, of truth and of fiction; they have undeniable value, but they also result in a certain loss of innocence, and of deeper values.
The six essays in this book (all of which were originally published in the New York Times Review of Books) provide a critical evaluation of these themes. Ms. Sontag is concerned with what she sees as the cheapening of experience that the proliferation of photographs in our society has caused. She argues that photography has enshrined a superficiality of experience and contributed to the overvaluation of appearances to a point where image has (subconsciously) replaced reality as reality. In many ways this shift in our modes of cultural perception is shattering; it is also completely inevitable and irreversible. As an example: who after seeing Ansel Adams's stunning photographs of Yosemite could help feeling slightly underwhelmed when experiencing the real thing?
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84 of 98 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Emerson on May 14, 2003
Format: Paperback
I am not a big fan of artistic criticism: I often find it pretentious and prolix. Sontag's essays can be described by these adjectives, at least on first reading. I suspected that critics are inherently like this (until I read Nancy Newhall), but I reread "On Photography" recently and have changed my opinion slightly: critics can be pretentious, but that is the nature of the task.
Sontag's essays are complex and thought provoking, eliciting a flow of ideas that one needs to think about deeply: what is a photograph and how does it convey its message? How much truth does a photograph contain, if any? The answer to that last question is much more difficult with the advent of digital photography and the wonderous (or evil, depending on your viewpoint) manipulations that can be done in the digital darkroom.
An issue that isn't discussed in great depth is the relationship between candid snapshots on one end of the spectrum, and fine art photography on the other; Photography as a medium for artistic expression vs. a medium for recording reality (or unreality or surreality).
The book is not trivially understood: references to philosophy and art history abound, and a dictionary of philosophy and art is almost a requisite. You should also expect to read this a couple of times to get the full impact: do not make your judgement based on a first reading.
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39 of 44 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 24, 1998
Format: Paperback
This is the ONE book I always tell my students to read, not because they will be better photographers but, because they will be better equipped to see and understand how photographic images have influenced our culture and our self- images.
This is now more important than ever in the age of digital photography and images which are crafted to manipulate our feelings and decisions to consume, vote, love and even whether we like ourselves.
It establishes a consciousness about the subject which is incisive and memorable. It is a brilliant work and a great contribution.
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261 of 329 people found the following review helpful By Emily on April 9, 2006
Format: Paperback
I opened this book very neutrally--I had never heard anything about Susan Sontag except her name, in a preface to an Annie Leibovitz book. I still can't believe some of the things I read. Sontag mentions in the foreword that she has an "obsession" with photography. I would argue that she has an obsession with resenting photography.

She begins by comparing a camera to a gun and the act of taking a picture to rape. To a certain point, I can understand this--being photographed is a very self-conscious experience. But somehow, I think rape victims would laugh at this comparision. Self-consciousness is not exactly rape. Also, she seems to believe that all photography is taken completely without the consent of the subject(s); they are innocent victims being raped by guns. The last time I checked, most of the photographers she mentions (Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Edward Weston, Julia Margaret Cameron) took pictures only with express permission, and many (Eugene Atget, Ansel Adams, etc.) did not take pictures of people at all. Almost all good pictures, with the exception of Henri Cartier-Bresson type photography, requires tacit consent between photographer and subject.

Sontag's resentment seems to come mostly from the resentment generated by photography's replacement of writing in description. Specifically, she says that whereas photograpy "steals" the pain of others, writing uses only one's own pain. This is funny, since I remember reading about how Jane Austen's neighbors complained because their lives were being stolen for her books. Ever since the art of storytelling began writers and storytellers have been "stealing" other people's lives, their pain, etc. Fitzgerald used Zelda's insanity just as David Bailey photographed Marie Helvin.
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