“on Photography” Holds Up in the Digital Era

October 24, 2012

One can hardly delve into the art and science of photography without becoming aware of Susan Sontag, the essayist responsible for the collection of explorations concerning the impact of photography on society entitled “On Photography”. First published in 1973 (and recently released in audio book format), the six essays presented cover topics associated man’s desire to capture images of the world around him for later viewing enjoyment (or other purposes). But she delves far deeper into the psychology behind this drive to put the world into a box, as well as the effect it has had on modern society insomuch as photographs alter the human experience. In short, Sontag raises all kinds of interesting questions about photography and the role it plays in our lives.

Sontag’s thought-provoking and philosophical exploration of the photographic medium may seem outdated to some listeners; and in truth, some of the cultural and political references date the audio book. But the basic concepts and questions presented in her work are all too relevant in the digital era, where one can hardly escape the bombardment of photographic images. Sontag’s main area of concern seems to be that photography has the ability to influence the ways in which we perceive the world, since it revolves around imagery and appearances.

Just think about how often you see billboards or magazine ads depicting female models. They are often unusually slender with well-formed or exotic facial features, and many also have exaggerated figures (small waists and unnaturally large breasts for their tiny frames, for example). In many cases these images have been manipulated in a variety of ways to remove flaws and even alter the shape of the body or enhance desirable attributes. This “ideal” of youth and feminine beauty has influenced both men and women for years. For women, the largely unattainable body type featured in such advertising leads to issues of low self-esteem. And for men, the images could produce unusually high expectations for bodily perfection that the average woman cannot live up to.

Or consider nature photography. Whether or not images are enhanced or changed in some way by the photographer (either during the act of snapping the picture or later in the dark room), they have the ability to change the way we perceive and interact with nature. The prevalence of certain photos may cause viewers to be less impressed with the actual, physical location should they see it in real life. Or they may be disappointed if it doesn’t look exactly as pictured in a favorite photograph. All in all, Sontag seems to be questioning not only the intent of photographers, but also the unanticipated effects of their output on both the medium and on society in general.

And the fact that anyone can now¬†download Gimp, Photoshop, or other editing software in order to manipulate digital photographs only increases the potential for desensitization. How can the real world ever measure up to photos that have been subjected to color filters, touch ups, airbrushing, and all manner of treatments meant to achieve photographic perfection? Luckily, Sontag doesn’t adopt the hubris of an all-knowing professor. Rather she poses her questions, offers examples, and then leaves it for the listener to decide for themselves, which makes for some very compelling food for thought.

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