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Photographic Artist and Photogravure Printmaker Sally Mann in 1974.

Photograph by Sally Mann, Self portrait

In her book of essays On Photography, Susan Sontag speaks of the “insatiability of the photographing eye” in our image-obsessed society, and how it shapes how we see ourselves and the world around us.

While she wrote these essays in the 1970’s before the arrival of the digital camera, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the cell phone selfie, most of her observations ring true. Perhaps even truer than when she was writing, nearly forty years ago.

By Sally Mann

Photography as Social Rite, and an Elegiac Art

Perhaps closest to home for those of us who practice photography as amateurs, capturing images to share with family and friends on social media and elsewhere, are these observations. While offered as a critique of this practice, or at least a peeling back of its happier connotations, they provide food for thought.

[P]hotography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of it self–a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness.

{P]hotographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal.

Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives.

[P]hotographs actively promote nostalgia. Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched by pathos.

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

Garry Winogrand (1928 - 1984)

By Gary Winogrand

Photography as Acquisition, and Voyeuristic

This acquisitive and voyeuristic relationship to the world that incessant photography promotes is one I identify with and struggle against. I believe that these travel-trophies we bring home from our trips have positive as well as the negative consequences, as I wrote about in my last post. But I think we are well-advised to be aware of the addictive dangers of photography to ourselves and others and the world at large.

Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.

To collect photographs is to collect the world.

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.

Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events.

The omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing.

As way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it–by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.

[C]ameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive.

Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.

Vivian Maier (1926-2009)

By Vivian Maier

Photography as a Mystery, a Grammar, and an Ethics of Seeing

This last subject is the one that interests me the most about photography, and about any art form, whether in its making or in the response of the viewer. Yet Sontag spends less time developing this topic, at least so far in my reading. Even so, her observations are acute and intriguing, and invite us to delve deeper.

Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern

A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a fire in a room, photographs . . . are incitements to reverie. The sense of the unattainable that can be evoked by photographs feeds directly into the erotic feelings of those for whom desirability is enhanced by distance.

The camera’s rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses.

[It] confers on each moment the character of a mystery. Any photograph has multiple meaning; indeed, to see something in the form of a photograph is to encounter a potential object of fascination. 

Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.

In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. . . .

There is a peculiar heroism abroad in the world since the invention of cameras: the heroism of vision.

Photographic seeing meant an aptitude for discovering beauty in what everybody sees but neglects as too ordinary. Photographers were supposed to do more than just see the world as it is . . . ; they were to create interest, by new visual decisions.

[Cameras] changed seeing itself, by fostering the idea of seeing for seeing’s sake.

Клуб Foto.ru

By Henri Cartier-Bresson

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