Brooknotes–Shari 1/23

 Citation:   Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. Print.

Keywords: Photograph, Culture, Society, Politics, Evidence

Summary:  Susan Sontag’s 1977 book contains a collection of six essays about photographs, which reveal information regarding our history as well as our culture and society. The first essay is titled, “In Plato’s Cave”, is a reference to Plato’s philosophy of truth/knowledge. The chapter exposes the nature of images and their relation to reality and presents a record of cultural and social beliefs about photography.  It also describes the typical photography uses throughout history.  Plato in The Republic wrote and described  human knowledge as an allegory of a cave in which prisoners are chained facing a wall and shadows of real objects are cast. The prisoners in the cave witness these shadows and perceive them as real. Sontag claims that what the viewer sees in the image correlates with their attitude to reality.  She begins her book with a brief summary of the history of photography and mentions the value of it as we keep the world in photos and then contrasts it with movies.

The first cameras were made in France and England in 1840s to capture larger images and were operated just by inventors or professional photographers. Today; however, there is at least two cameras in each household particularly in families with children to record their precious moments. Sontag notes that even though photographs are a valuable part of each book since they are evidence but they are the image of an image.  She adds that photographs are more reliable compared to paintings which are the painter’s interpretation of the reality. Sontag describes the images and the photographers’ relationships as a “chronic voyeuristic relation”.

Close to the end of this chapter, Sontag states that photography is not recording the events but recording just those events that photographers choose.  She uses the Korean War and the pictures that were captured to emphasize on the ideology of the society that those pictures were taken for.  She also notes that after repeatedly seeing the same images, even the emotional photos no longer had the same emotional effect as it had been seen for the first time by the same viewers. She refers to photography as pieces of information in the time that people are getting more interested in pictures than words. Sontag said this world ruled by photographic images as means of information. A photograph has multiple meanings; to see something in the form of a photograph is to encounter a potential object of fascination.

At the end of this chapter, she restates “Plato’s Cave image” and says that people think that through photography real images of the world can be captured but in reality it’s the opposite of that. “The limit of photographic knowledge of the world is that, while it can goad conscience, it can, finally never be ethical or political knowledge” (18).  Human beings interpret evidence and images by our personal ideologies and what we see in images are not mere images of the truth—knowledge.


  1. “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power” (2).
  2. “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time” (10).
  3. “Photographs are as much as an interpretation of the world as a paintings and drawings are” (4).
  4. “Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible, invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy” (17).


  1. What is she trying to say when she said: “a Photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer; taking is an event in itself?”
  2. Why does she think photographs are more memorable than movies?
  3. What does she mean by “ …in the situation in which most people use photographs, their value as information is of the same order as fiction.”(16)?

Works cited:

  1. Photography is a tool for dealing with things everybody knows about but isn’t attending to. My photographs are intended to represent something you don’t see.                                                                –Emmet Gowin
  1. I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.

–Garry Winogrand

  1. Photography is a system of visual editing. At bottom, it is a matter of surrounding with a frame a portion of one’s cone of vision, while standing in the right place at the right time. Like chess,or writing, it is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities, but in the case of photography the number of possibilities is not finite but infinite.

–John Szarkowski