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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Choppy monograph - interesting ideas, December 11, 2007
This review is from: On Photography (Paperback)
Sontag's On Photography was published in 1977. It includes six named sections which each tackle a slightly different subject. The sections were published independently as magazine articles years before the monograph was assembled--and this is plainly evident (which is my main 'complaint' about the text). The book does not feel or read like a book. It reads like a collection of six disparate essays that have been lightly edited for packaging as a book. The sections work OK as essays, but they fail somewhat as a monograph. For example, Sontag makes numerous assertions about photography which are stated as fact but not supported by any documentary evidence. While this is acceptable in an essay, in a monograph of this sort one would expect more academic rigor. Finally, each essay was clearly intended as an atomic piece and their collection in the book results in a large amount of re-hash of basic ideas at the start of every new section, as well as a very choppy flow between sections.

The book is dated (which is entirely understandable--but true none-the-less). Sontag makes a single fleeting reference to digital photography as a quirky alternate method of capturing images. The text's discussion on the pervasive nature of cameras assumes the pinnacle of technology to be the Kodak Brownie. While this was arguably once true, photography has been so changed by digital capture and truly pervasive cameras (think cell phones, etc.) that many of the ideas of the text are only partially developed by today's standards. Additionally, Sontag's insistence that photography is the accidental but obvious champion of the Surrealist takeover of the arts is also dated. Sontag's insistence on using 'big' words and complicated sentences to describe simple things is also somewhat irritating; the tone is unmistakably that of 1970s/1980s critical academia.

Having said that, the book occupies a fairly unique niche in the history of thinking about photography. As other reviews have noted, the subject material is (ahem) well focused on the topic and delivers interesting insight into various aspects of photography. It is unfortunate that Sontag did not more-fully edit the source materials into a cohesive text and at least attempt to look forward to a time when technological changes in process and artistic developments in taste could perhaps be different than the norms of the late 1970s.
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Initial post: Mar 7, 2010 8:04:14 PM PST
C. Williams says:
Put simply, Susan Sontag's On Photography is a brilliant book. I'd especially recommend it for those who want to think deeply about how photography works, and what kind of truth it tells. The argument progresses as a series of themed reflections, in the form of independent essays. Sontag covers history, technology, aesthetics, movements and tendencies using memorably lucid, insightful, and thought provoking language. What I particularly loved about this book is that Sontag is interested not just in the literal, mechanical qualities of photography, but its morality, and metaphysical endeavor. She is as much concerned with meanings as she is with outcomes. Both the craft and technical accomplishments and the politics and ethics of photography fascinate her. For example, Sontag points to the seduction and the violence, implicit, in `shooting' both `scenes' and `people', and to the camera's capacity to exploit and exalt, to act as a vehicle of truth, or tool of propaganda . For anyone who wants a philosophical book on photography's place in culture and history, this is the book! For anyone who also wants to think about the power, privilege, and poetry of using a camera, this is especially the book! And finally, for all who like good writing, and incisive thinking, this book with it's lyricism, rigor, and authentic engagement, will be found to be an abundantly rich text, that you will turn back to, and find new things in, time and time again.
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