Susan Sontag – On Photography

I’m only extracting information and reflecting on ideas from this book that I feel are closely connected to the conversation of analog photography versus digital photography.

Regarding still photographs – ‘the image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry out, accumulate, store’. The image is under constant reduction, becoming increasingly portable and decreasingly material. With digital technology the portability of an image is at its peak, and its status as an object is in question (Johanna Drucker – Digital Ontologies). The photograph now exists without weight, without cost, and without a material body (debatable? can something that takes up ‘immaterial’ space in a material body – the hard drive – be considered immaterial?).

‘The book has been the most influential way of arranging (and usually miniaturizing) photographs, thereby guaranteeing them longevity, if not immortality – photographs are fragile objects easily mislaid or torn – and wider public.’ The internet has taken the place of the book, guaranteeing longevity and facilitating (unwanted or wanted) immortality, exposure and distribution. It also guarantees less control and ‘cheapening’ of the image.

Sontag writes that the McCullin images of emaciated Biafrans in 1970s were less impactful for some compared to images of the Indian famine in the 1950s of Werner Bischof due to the over-familiarity of images of such suffering. With the aid of media inundation, and the proliferation of digital photographs, images of starvation have become commonplace and due to the inability to help – a lessening of conscience instead of a building of one.

Photography housed digitally is twice removed from physical experience – it is closely tied to a world we call virtual reality. That adds element of distrust or detachment in viewing the photograph. The photograph shown above is framed/veiled three times – by the computer screen, by the browser, and by its border and the text around it. Frames are a entity that essentially separates. In a gallery, a frame delineates where the reality ends and where art begins – similarly photography (and the situation it depicts) housed digitally is distanced from the viewer (emotionally and physically).

A browser is an image, the content within the browser is an image, the images in the content within the browser is an image. The ceaseless layers of images that the Internet serves its viewers anaesthetises them from the reality that exists/dies in the taking of a photograph. Also because there are many images on screen constantly fighting for attention, it’s even easier not to address an image that is emotionally taxing.

Perhaps new ways of seeing need to be established – to utilize these frames and the properties of the internet to house images differently.


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