Susan Sontag: In Plato’s Cave

Contextualizing Practice.

Notes from Sontag’s essay ‘In Plato’s Cave’ from On Photography (1980) pp.3-12 London, Penguin.

‘inventory started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems.’

‘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.’

What is an ethics of seeing?

‘…the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads – as an anthology of images.’

See Godard’s Les Carabniers (1963). The peasants return from the war with only hundreds postcards. Photographs ‘thicken’ the environment.

‘Photographs are experience captured..’

‘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.’

‘…a photograph loses much less of its essential quality when reproduced in a book than a painting does.’

See Chris Marker’s film Si j’avais quatre dromadaires (1966). A meditation on photographs.

1871 use of photographs as surveillance during the roundup of the Communards.

‘The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture.’

‘While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photgraph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency.’

‘There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.’

‘…the point of taking photographs was a vast departure from the aims of painters. From its start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible number of subjects. Painting never had so imperial a scope.’

‘It was only with its industrialization that photography came into its own as art. As industrialization provided social uses for the operations of the photographer, so the reaction against these uses reinforced the self-consciousness of photography-as-art.’

The ritual function of photography.

Also the rites of Facebook, Twitter etc.

The mobile phone has become part of the modern pop or rock concert.

The wedding photograph as much a part of the ceremony as the main ceremony.

To take photos of children is to show parental care.

Bearing witness to connectedness. Rites of family life.

Photographs ‘help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure’. TOURISM

But can’t the photogenic add to experience? Photography as a strategy to enrich experience? Memories and memory triggers.

‘Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.’

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

‘Our very sense of situation is now articulated by the camera’s interventions.’

‘After the event has ended, the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would never otherwise have enjoyed.’

‘The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene.’

See Dziga Vertov’s film Man with a Movie Camera (1929).

See Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Photographer played by James Stewart.

See Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960).

2 thoughts on “Susan Sontag: In Plato’s Cave

  1. Pingback: Response to Susan Sontag’s ‘Plato’s Cave’ | Interactive Arts Enquiry

  2. An interesting collection of quotes and notes from Sontags important text, which deals with photography’s unique indexical nature, it’s social function in our collective memory, and it’s status as historical text.
    How do you relate all this to your own practice of photography? Does this piece of writing change your views, or inspire you to experiment in any way with your wider practice?

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