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Revisiting Susan Sontag

An illustrated edition of Susan Sontag’s classic On Photography breathes new life into the essays by a woman who, with unflinching passion, showed the sometimes-decisive influence of photography on our society.

The London-based Folio Society releases a new illustrated collector’s edition of Susan Sontag’s (1933–2004) On Photography, the survival manual of a generation in love with film photography, right next to the three other revered authors: Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, and Gisèle Freund. 

Susan Sontag’s intriguing essays, first published by The New York Review of Books between 1973 and 1977, are rendered more accessible in this beautifully bound volume.

For the first time, On Photography is accompanied by twenty-two images—in addition to the one on the cover, featuring a dreamy woman dressed in fur photographed by Walker Evans, one of the icons of twentieth-century America. 

“It’s a simple, quiet image, and the human figure always draws in the viewer,” notes Mandy Kirkby, the publisher of this engaging book. While these photographs don’t affect the book’s well-crafted prose, their presence is an aid to the imagination, and helps to put a finger on the ever-growing visibility of the medium. 

Mia Fineman, curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who wrote the preface to Susan Sontag’s On Photography, talks to us about the publication.

Nadar with his Wife, Ernestine, in a Balloon. Nadar, c.1865 (Gilman Collection, Museum Purchase, 2005 (2005.100.313). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Shown in Susan Sontag's book
Nadar with his Wife, Ernestine, in a Balloon. Nadar, c.1865 (Gilman Collection, Museum Purchase, 2005 (2005.100.313). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

What does Susan Sontag represent to you and your generation: is she a role model, a political activist, or an intellectual?  

I can’t pretend to speak for my generation; for me personally, Susan Sontag was all of these things: a renowned intellectual, a political activist, a role-model, but also a novelist, a director, and a filmmaker. She has been a hero of mine ever since I first read her work in college.

Is her book On Photography one reference books among many or the reference book? 

I don’t consider On Photography a reference work, since it’s not a book I would consult for factual or historical data. Rather, it is a book with powerful, inspiring writing, that contains personal reflections on photography and its prominent role in modern Western society.

Spectre of Coca-Cola. Clarence John Laughlin, 1962 (The Clarence John Laughlin Archive at The Historic New Orleans Collection). Shown in Susan Sontag's book
Spectre of Coca-Cola. Clarence John Laughlin, 1962 (The Clarence John Laughlin Archive at The Historic New Orleans Collection)

Would you say that this book, in its intention, is close to Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, to whom the translation of On Photography is dedicated? 

Like Barthes’s Camera Lucida, On Photography is one of the founding texts in twentieth-century continental photographic theory, which means that it is a very personal yet philosophical attempt to think about the photographic medium as a whole, rather than analyzing or critiquing individual photographs or photographers. 

In what way does On Photography remain relevant to you, given what photography is today, both as a recognized art form and a popular activity practiced by millions of amateurs with their smartphones? 

Susan Sontag was extraordinarily prescient about the evolution of the medium, in particular in her analysis of photography as a mode of consumption, which has become even more pronounced in the age of social media, as well as in her warnings about compassion fatigue resulting from the endless onslaught of images of war and atrocity. 

Field where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg. Timothy H. O’Sullivan, 1863. (Gilman Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gift, 2005/ The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Shown in Susan Sontag's "On Photography"
Field where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg. Timothy H. O’Sullivan, 1863. (Gilman Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gift, 2005/ The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Is there anything in Susan Sontag’s work that strikes you as dated or anachronistic?

The earliest sections of the book address the idea of “photographic community” (of critics, photographers, academics, etc.) and what Susan Sontag saw as an excessive emphasis on legitimizing the medium as an art form. 

Although not as relevant today, when she wrote these essays in the 1970s, the question “Is photography an art?” was omnipresent. Susan Sontag thought it was a very boring question to ask about an incredibly rich and multifaceted medium.

Do you find it curious, for example, that Susan Sontag made little mention of women photographers, aside from Abbott and Arbus?

Not really. The photographic canon in the 1970s was heavily dominated by men, as were the books and exhibitions on which Sontag based her research, so it’s not surprising that there aren’t more women photographers in her essays.

However, she does discuss the work of Arbus, Abbott, Dorothea Lange, Lisette Model, and Julia Margaret Cameron, and there is an entire essay on Leni Riefenstahl that she wrote for The New York Review of Books, which was not included in the book.

Migrant Mother. Dorothea Lange, 1936. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives). Shown in Susan Sontag's "On Photography"
Migrant Mother. Dorothea Lange, 1936. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives)

This edition of On Photography is the first to include reproductions of photographs. How did you choose the photographs? 

I worked with the Folio Society to choose images that were either directly referenced in the text or similar enough to help illuminate the argument.

How did you imagine and write your preface? Did you have in mind “old” readers of Sontag or rather new audiences? 

I thought about readers who would be discovering the book for the first time, as well as those who were returning to it.

Do you think this edition will be better received in the world of photography? Was it, in some ways, ahead of its time in imagining photography?

This is a small, specialized edition of a classic text published half a century ago. I’m sure the reception will be totally different from what it was at the time of its original publication in 1978.

One last question, related to your work at the Met. You have been with the museum since 1997: what do you think is the most important change that has taken place in the photographic community: is it the confidence of collectors in the medium? the increase in photography sales and festivals? The editorial presence of photographic historians? The growing interest in the nineteenth century? the rise of women photographers?

All of these changes are quite relevant to the photographic community, but in my opinion, the most important change in photography over the past twenty years has been the rise of smartphones and social media.

Frederick Langenheim Looking at Talbotypes. William and Frederick Langenheim, 1849-51. (Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005/The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Shown in Susan Sontag's book
Frederick Langenheim Looking at Talbotypes. William and Frederick Langenheim, 1849-51. (Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005/The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
On Photography, Susan Sontag.
On Photography, Susan Sontag.

Susan Sontag, On Photography, Preface by Mia Fineman. The Folio Society, £85.00, 224 pp. 

For a quick & light (under 4 oz.!) introduction to Susan Sontag, read: Sigrid Nunez, Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag, Riverhead Books, 2014, $17, 128pp. 

For Sontag’s other works, see her collected essays in the 2-volume Library of America edition.

On Photography, Susan Sontag.
On Photography, Susan Sontag.

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