On Photography by Susan Sontag

“Like a pair of binoculars with no right or wrong end, the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much farther away.”

Sometimes I read art-based books. You’ve seen this a bit on this blog in my Why Miniatures series where I discussed On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection by Susan Stewart, and The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard.

I’d like to, on occasion, share review-like posts on new art books in my life with you. Today: On Photography by Susan Sontag.

My thoughts…

Susan Sontag, a writer from 1959 – 2004 is honest. Her book, On Photography, written in 1973, is a deep, psychological and philosophical take on why photographers do what they do. This text makes the reader greatly consider Sontag’s points and there are many good takeaways. However, Sontag’s overarching generalizations and poorly phrased metaphors are quite off-putting.

From the start of the text, Sontag seems to demonize photography – it is a means of control, it holds us back from experiences, if given the opportunity, we will take a picture rather than intervene in a horrible event.

In my work with miniatures, I often say that I like having control over every detail set before my camera lens. This idea of wanting to control every aspect of the final photo is probably true of most focused photographers. However, I would never say that photographers have sexual fantasies about their subject matter or that a photograph violates it’s subject – both points made by Sontag.

All that said and writing style and generalizations aside, Sontag has some very apt points.

  • For the majority of people, photography is not practiced as art.
  • Photographs are taken as proof of experience, but if we never put the camera down, we often shield ourselves from experience.
  • In some instances, we revel in getting the shot, even if it’s at the expense of the subject. See for example here and here.
  • Photography can be used to “collect the world” or to quell anxiety.
  • Photography has it’s own sense of power.
  • We may always have to defend photography as an art form.

And with that said, as I am a quote collector, here is my collection of snippets from On Photography, presented in order of appearance. I’ve selected what I believe are the best ones from all the ones I wrote down while reading, however if you’d like a list of them all, click the download link at the bottom of the page.

If you’re not into all that, just skip down to the bottom and leave a comment. Have you read On Photography? What are your thoughts?


“To collect photographs is to collect the world.”

“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.”

“…photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.”

“Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.”

“To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.”

“Photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow.”

“To photograph is to confer importance. There is probably no subject that cannot be beautified.”

“Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty.”

“For photographers there is, finally, no difference – no greater aesthetic advantage – between the effort to embellish the world and the counter-effort to rip off the mask.”

“Because each photograph is only a fragment, its moral and emotional weight depends on where it is inserted.”

“…The photographer projects himself into everything he sees, identifying himself with everything in order to know it and to feel it better.” – Minor White

“a great photograph [is] a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about what life in its entirety.” – Ansel Adams

“…it is unlikely that the defense of photography as art will ever completely subside.”

“Although photography generates work that can be called art – it requires subjectivity, it can lie, it gives aesthetic pleasure – photography is not, to begin with, an art form at all. Like language, it is a medium in which works of art…are made.

“Photography, though not an art form in itself, has the peculiar capacity to turn all its subjects into works of art.”

“One can’t possess reality, one can possess (and be possessed by) images…”

“Like a pair of binoculars with no right or wrong end, the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much farther away.”

Download all my collected quotes from this text here.

6 thoughts on “On Photography by Susan Sontag

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  1. Hi Jennifer, I am glad we seem to agree here – I see the same points as you, and I would like to add one: Sontag insists that photography takes a slice out of the constant flow of time and freezes it, and she gives a lot of consideration to the fact that looking at a photograph always means looking back. Hence she sees a strong connection between photography and nostalgia. As Roland Barthes dwells on the same topic in his book Camera Lucida, and I am a bit annoyed: While Barthes’ and Sontag’s positions are not at all wrong, this is a very biased view, one that ignores the fact that photography is also ‘about’ space. German art historian Hans Belting point this out in his Florence and Bagdad, albeit in a few sentences only. His book researches Arabic and European thought on light and gazing, and although it is entirely about the “invention” of perspective, I recommend it to every photographer. It gave me quite an understanding of what we do when we photograph – and it taught me to pay extra attention to perspective. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Have a nice weekend.

    1. I have yet to read Camera Lucida, but it’s been on my list. However, with your comment I’m now much more interested in Florence and Bagdad. I absolutely agree, and am not sure why I didn’t include it, but Sontag is very caught up on photography being a slice of time, a nostalgic art. I wonder, with her relationship with Annie Leibovitz, what Liebovitz, being a photographer, thought of all this. Sure some photography is meant to represent a frozen moment in time, and of course all of it does capture something that was in front of the camera for a moment, but in no way does that mean all images are meant to represent a nostalgic past.

  2. I’ve long respected her works….been a while since I’ve reread her work….I also app her works on war images and looking….thanks for this post! Smiles hedy

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