Week 4 Recommended Reading; ‘On Photography’ Susan Sontag

“What renders a photograph surreal is its irrefutable pathos as a message from the past, and the concreteness of its intimations about social class” – Susan Sontag
“Press the button, we do the rest.” – Kodak

I personally found Susan Sontag’s interpretation regrading American photography extremely intriguing and eye opening.
Within the text she explores the context of Surrealism photography comparing the Surrealist artists. She mentions a few of my favourite photographers within this context including Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy & John Heartfield.

From left Whoever Reads Bourgeois Newspapers Becomes Blind and Deaf: Away with These Stultifying Bandages! Photomontage by Heartfield, 1930. Photogram No. 1 – The Mirror by László Moholy-Nagy. And a photo by Man Ray. 

“What could be more surreal than an object that virtually reproduces itself?” She states.
I am fascinated by her idea that photos don’t “seem to portray the intentions of an artist, they are a loose connection between photographer and subject.” This is what separates surrealist photography from other surrealist art, the photographers intentions are not always portrayed within the image.

Sontag explores the concept of how surrealism merged with social adventurism, capturing scenes of violence & social misery and therefore exposing a hidden reality. She describes the uprising of flaneurs & ‘tourists’ as they transform the city into a ‘landscape of voluptous extremes’ through ‘picturesque’ photographs.

For example the candid shots from Paul Martin & Arnold Genthe, Atgets twilight paris & Weegee’s Naked City as seen below:

From left: Candid shots from Paul Martin, Arnold Genthe, Atgets ‘Twilight Paris’ & Weegee’s ‘Naked City.’

Sontag describes the two types of photographers of this period as scientists & moralists. Scientists creating an inventory of the world & moralists portraying the harsh environment of society. For example August Sauder’s ‘archetype photos’ of Germany are scientific, they document a broad range of society within an environment. “It is not my intention to either criticise or describe these people” August stated. Compared to Diane Arbus’s ‘circus’ series which depicts the subjects as morally unaccepted into society. I agree with Sontag’s concept here, Diane’s photographs are more subjective then Sauder’s German portraits although they are still incredibly similar and fascinating.

August Sauder’s ‘archetype photos’ of Germany.

Diane Arbus’s ‘Cirus’ Photographs.

Sontag explores the photographic project created from this sudden ‘adventism’ called the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The FSA’s purpose was to expose to the middle class what it was really like to be poor and that the poor were dignified. This organisation was hopeful and cast hardships & unethical situations into the public eye, such as child labour on cotton fields.

Induced by this rush of documentation the tourists began to unknowingly “alter” truth. Americans were impatient and desired photographs of the Native Indians, turning the past into a consumable object. Tourists like Adam Clark Vroman often intruded Indian privacy, forcing them to pose and re-enact ceremonies therefore portraying a false documentation of Indian culture. Sontag describes these photographs as a “cheap method of disseminating a loathing for history”, they are artefacts, found objects & an inventory for morality.

  Images from Adam Clark Vroman 

“Photographs turn the past into an object of tender regard, scrambling moral distinctions and disarming historical judgements..” Santog describes photographs as a reminder of death which is true. When you look at photographs from the past whether it be photographs of your ancestors or history documentations, we are reminded that death is inevitable. We reminisce.
Santog mentions Roman Vishniac’s photographs of the ghettos of Poland as a reminder that all these people were set to perish.

Images by Roman Vishniac Poland 1938

Overall Santog states that the conventional studio style photograph is more effective. I agree. Out of all these historic photographs the more intriguing images are those in which the subject has stood in an environment expressionless leaving the photograph entirely up to the audience to interpret. Sauder’s is renowned for these type of photographs.

The lure of photographs continues to astound myself & it seems Santog aswell. This text summarises the link between surrealist photography, the documentation of history and quotations, with a world of examples. I highly recommend this knowledgeable read, as it has opened my mind to the world of photography.

“No activity is better equipped to exercise the surrealist way of looking than photography, and eventually we look at all photographs surrealistically. ” – Susan Santog.



Ref: https://autodo.info/pages/m/man-ray-photography-surrealism/


Author: tjphoto

UON Design Student & Photographer Newcastle, AU

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: