On Reading “On Photography,” Chapter 4

The iconic photo of Che Guevara: Beauty or Truth?

Having read thus far in Susan Sontag’s “On Photography,” I know that the title of Chapter 4 will not be fulfilled: “The Heroism of Vision.” Sontag’s view of photography thus far has been critical and bleak.

Her beginning, as always, is powerful and simply stated: “Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty.” (85)

Modern sensibility so associates photography and beauty that, when we glimpse beauty, we express regret over not having been able to photograph it.

Sontag’s focus on beauty leads her briefly into the retouching of photographs and the “consequences of lying” in film. (86) The history of photography is understood as “the struggle between two imperatives” — beauty and truth-telling. (86) Certainly, the photojournalist is captured here.

Beauty and truth battle briefly on this ground. But Sontag wrote before Photoshop and her prey is larger.

The struggle of beauty and truth in photography leads people then to pursue “the heroism of vision” — “allowing each person to display a certain unique, avid sensibility.” (89). Everyday life apotheosized” becomes the main target of the photographer’s conquest. (90)

Striving for new ways of seeing reality, photography unavoidably influences painting, Sontag says, especially the Impressionists. But the influence can cut both ways, she says, as photography left realism for more abstract work.

Even poetry was infected by the heroic vision of photography, Sontag avers, and points to Robert Coles’ subject and friend, William Carlos Williams, and his mantra, “No truth but in things,” though most often that is expressed, “No ideas but in things.”

Sontag takes up Bauhaus work and finds that the beauty of industrial and scientific photography that so enamored artists for a while has not prevailed. (98) Nature and real-life remain the subjects of most photography.

“Indeed, the most enduring triumph of photography has been its aptitude for discovering beauty in the humble, the inane, the decrepit,” she says. (102) Even intensely wrought photographs, such as W. Eugene Smith’s photo of a dying girl, find beauty in their truth telling, Sontag says. (105)

Photo by W.Eugene Smith

But Sontag will not allow photography its moment of truth telling. She challenges the ability of photographs to endure outside of context. “A photograph changes according to the context in which it is seen,” she says flatly. (106) Meaning is “bound to drain away,” from even the most socially concerned photograph. (106)

Even as famous a photo as Che Guevara’s body laid out on a stretcher in a stable can be given many meanings. (106) Sontag also points to the many meanings given to the photo of Jane Fonda in North Vietnam. (108)

Thus, moralists hope that “words will save the picture.” For example, Walter Benjamin felt that the right caption could “rescue” a photograph. (107) Journalists have acknowledged this from the beginning. And even Walker Evan’s photographs were accompanied by James Agee’s text, Sontag notes. (108)

The photograph always has a “plurality of meanings” and though a caption can attempt to control the meaning, Sontag says, even the most socially or politically charged photo, such as the photo of Che, still becomes “a discovery of beauty.” (109)

And, alas, this is not a good thing. “Cameras miniaturize experience, transform history into spectacle.” (109–110) Whatever moral claims are made for photography, “its main effect is to convert the world into a department story . . . in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption.” (110)

Ultimately in the struggle between beauty and truth, Sontag concludes, “the camera’s ability to transform reality into something beautiful derives from its relative weakness as a means of conveying truth.” (112)

Much to ponder here for the “heroic vision” of a journalist or documentarian.

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