Wednesday, February 6, 2013

№ 108. Reflections On Photography

"Essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own." — Susan Sontag 

"Simply stated, photography is taking pictures. But more than that, it involves the eye and the soul of the photographer using a mechanical tool to record both a physical reality and an inner reality. As a religious photographer, I try to reveal to the subject I photograph an inner dignity of which the subject may not be aware.

In my more flippant moments, I have been heard to say that the only difference I see between the good secular and the good religious photographer is in the amount they are paid for their work. The ability to visualize and produce a good photograph is a gift perfected through years of patient toil and practice. So, as one who practices photography rather than one who reads or writes about it, I ventured into Susan Sontag's essays cautiously - ready to ask questions and to challenge her statements. Initially I found myself reacting strongly against her assertions and conclusions.

Since these essays are not written in the language of trade magazines or the instructions packed with chemicals or equipment (my normal photographic reading materials), it took some time to familiarize myself with her style. This series of six essays and a collection of quotations is not a book for the beginner wanting to venture into the world of photography. Rather, it is an attempt at a sweeping critique of everything photographic. Her interests range widely from detailed analyses of individual photographers to why people fear having their photographs taken; from historical development in photographic equipment to why people take pictures of any and everything: tourist to scientist, artist to technician, surveillance photography to medical examinations. The debate about whether photography is an art or a tool weaves its way in and out of the various essays.

In addressing herself to such an array of topics in the field, Ms. Sontag speaks out of a wide cultural, literary, historical and philosophical background and expects the reader to have familiarity if not knowledge in all of these areas.

Her treatment of individual photographers, including references to specific photographs, also requires a detailed familiarity with these photographers and their works. (Understandably she does not reproduce any photographs in this book as illustrations of what she says or of the photographer's works; her treatment of the uniqueness of the actual original print is adequate justification for such an omission.)

Included as the final chapter of this book is a collection of quotations, statements, reprints of advertisements, lines from novels, manuscripts and thesauruses all having to do with photography. Clever and thought provoking, the diversity of these quotations certainly illustrate the difficulty of pulling together such a vast field as "photography." Some quotations are footnoted while others are not. It would have been much more helpful had Ms. Sontag given the references to all of them since their context would obviously help in the interpretation and understanding of some of them.

Although one will not agree with all of her conclusions or premises (primarily because she does not spend enough time establishing most of them) her statements are engaging, thought provoking and evoke comment or criticism from the reader. I'm glad I read it, and would suggest it to someone else who enjoys discussing photographers and their styles and purposes. — Mike Harter, SJ" (Center for Media Literacy)

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