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On Photography Paperback – August 25, 2001

3.8 out of 5 stars 121 customer reviews

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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 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (121 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #20,103 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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This is a quote from the book that I would consider its thesis statement:

'Theories that diseases are caused by mental states and can be cured by will power are always an index of how much is not understood about a disease.

Moreover, there is a peculiarly modern predilection for psychological explanations of disease...Psychologizing seems to provide control...over which people have no control. Psychological understanding undermines the 'reality' of a disease.'

Sontag traces, historically, the ways different diseases and the people who contracted them have been viewed. She spends time discussing tuberculars--waif-like, pale, romantic--and cancer patients--repressed, the 'cancer personality,' shame--then goes on to debunk these notions by stating that once the cause, cure, innoculation is found, the 'myth' or popular psychology of the disease no longer holds.

In this edition, in the final chapter about AIDS and its metaphors Sontag writes that she'd written the first part of the book (all but the AIDS chapter) while a cancer patient and in response to reactions she saw in fellow patients. She saw guilt and shame; and she saw these as impediments to people's treatments. For she knew she had an illness and she set about to cure it medically, in the best possible way, while others passively accepted the 'metaphor' handed to them and, thus, did less to help themselves best. She felt frustrated or saddened by their psychologizing and self-blame and wished to write to others that their physical illness is a physical illness and the best route to recovery is to think only of how to find the best medical treatment.
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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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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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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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