Course Notes – Susan Sontag, “In Plato’s Cave,” from On Photography (1977)

by Daniel A. Kaufman

Half of my upper-division course in Aesthetics is devoted to criticism, but given the impossibility of doing any justice to the history of the subject in such a short time, I focus on two major critics from the last century: Clement Greenberg and Susan Sontag.  In the case of Greenberg, we read “Avant Garde and Kitsch” (1939), “Modernist Painting” (1960), and “Avant Garde Attitudes” (1968).  For Sontag, the readings include “Notes on Camp” (1964), “Against Interpretation” (1966), and “In Plato’s Cave” (1977), the last of which is the subject of this installment of Course Notes.

The essay is devoted to an analysis and critique of photography and the role it plays in contemporary culture, and it is a testament to Sontag’s prescience that the things she has to say about it are even more apt today than they were in 1977.  Rather than attempt to give any sort of comprehensive summary of the piece, I want instead to focus on a number of key elements that reflect this foresight and which resonate most strongly with my students.

Verisimilitude and Objectivity

That there is a photograph of something is taken as evidence, in a way that a drawing of it, no matter how good, is not.  “A photograph – any photograph,” Sontag writes, “seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects.” (p. 6)  However, this air of objectivity afforded to photographs by virtue of the camera’s unique capacity for visual fidelity is fundamentally misleading.

The subjects one chooses.  The decision to shoot in color or black and white or sepia.  The angle from which the shot is taken.  The overall composition of the things that fall within the frame.  The visual literalness afforded by the technology aside, all of these elements render the photograph an interpretation of its subject matter no less than a drawing or painting.  Add to this advanced darkroom techniques – and today, digital manipulation – and the lines between these different versions of visual media become even more blurred.

Still, that visual literalness creates a false impression of greater truth.  In a way, this is reminiscent of the credibility widely attributed to eyewitness testimony.  We know, in fact, that such testimony is often not very good and is compromised by presupposition, assumption, and bias – in perception and otherwise – just as a photograph is.  Yet, the illusion persists.

A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened…  But, despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority…, the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth.  Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience. (pp. 5 -6)

The Flight from Experience

In “Against Interpretation,” Sontag worries that modern, industrial life, characterized as it is by overstimulation, has diminished our capacity for experience.† In this essay, she suggests that the camera has enabled this loss, while also providing a crutch for those who have suffered it.

The very idea of vacations or tourism presuppose that a certain kind of leisurely experience is no longer integrated into one’s life, but is something for which one has to carve out a specific, discrete space.  It is a legacy of the industrial work-schedule: one works all day, every day – with the exception of a one- or sometimes two-day weekend – and saves up one’s money, so that one can afford to take a short period of time off from work in which to engage in leisurely pursuits.

The point, then, is that in the industrial era, we have unlearned how to have a certain kind of experience that used to be basic to a certain kind human life, in which work was organized and scheduled in a very different sort of way.  That experience has now been confined to a limited, artificial space, one that also has been commodified and in which we are not entirely comfortable.  And it is here that the camera comes into play:

[Photographs] help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure…Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that the fun was had.  (p. 9)

The trouble of course is that as the technology involved in photography became more and more portable, affordable, and easy to use – to the point now where it is utterly ubiquitous – taking pictures becomes an almost manic habit and quickly overwhelms and ultimately replaces experience itself.

A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.  Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.

Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation. (pp. 9-10)

Perversely, photography ultimately transforms one’s leisurely experience into a kind of work, thereby undermining its very point.  But it is a relief to those for whom the industrial work-ethic has become so dominant in their consciousness, so all-encompassing, that leisurely experience, far from being pleasurable, has become a source of anxiety:

Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter.  Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph and move on.  The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic – Germans, Japanese, and Americans.  Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun.  They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures. (p. 10)

Significance and Mundanity

Photographs have the capacity both to increase the perception of a thing’s significance and to render even the most striking thing mundane.

When one isolates something and freezes it in time, one suggests that it is something special, worth keeping, and deserving repeated views.  Thus, the photo magnifies the significance of something in a way that moving pictures do not, as Sontag observes:

Television is a stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor.  Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.  Photographs like the one that made the front page of most newspapers in the world in 1972 – a naked South Vietnamese child just sprayed by American napalm, running down a highway toward the camera, her arms open, screaming with pain – probably did more to increase the public revulsion against the war than a hundred hours of televised barbarities. (p. 18)

And yet, photographs also have the capacity to effect a kind of emotional numbness to the significance of things, which is a consequence of repeated viewing.  That which was striking in its significance when viewed once, elicits a jaded response when viewed for the hundredth time.  “Images transfix.  Images anesthetize,” Sontag writes.  “An event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been of one had never seen the photographs… But after repeated exposure to images it also becomes less real.” (p. 20) One then often finds oneself in a kind of escalatory situation: the original image having lost its capacity to stimulate or to shock, the next image must depict something even more extreme in order to elicit the original effect.  This is most apparent with pornography (as Sontag notes),  where this kind of escalation has proceeded apace since the early days of the industry, to the point where contemporary porn is almost unfathomably graphic and extreme in the sex acts it depicts, but one also sees it in the horror genre, where there has been a similar arms race between producers and audiences, arriving at a form of visual brutality that  is un-ironically and quite accurately described as “torture porn.”  And with the capacity now to stream both pornographic and violent images virtually anywhere, anytime, the level of jadedness we are likely to reach – not to mention the consequences of doing so – is terrifying to contemplate.

Photography as Elegy

Finally, Sontag sees photography as also playing an elegiac role in our lives, noting two very significant ways in which we use it.

The first is as a way of reminding us of extended family networks to which we used to belong, but which in the industrial era have been carved into discrete “nuclear” families that may live far apart and even in entirely different countries, as the different parts of my extended family do.

As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of a much larger family aggregate, photography came along to memorialize, to restate symbolically, the imperiled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life.  Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives.  A family’s photograph album is generally about the extended family – and often, is all that remains of it. (pp. 8-9)

We use photographs to document that which is passing or which has passed, and the arrival on the cultural scene of the camera occurred just as industrialization was pushing much of both our natural and social world into the past.

All photographs are memento mori … Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

Cameras began duplicating the world at that moment when the human landscape started to undergo a vertiginous rate of change: while an untold number of forms of biological and social life are being destroyed in a brief span of time, a device is available to record what is disappearing…Like the dead relatives and friends preserved in the family album…, so the photographs of neighborhoods now torn down, rural places disfigured and made barren, supply our pocket relation to the past. (pp. 15-16)


† I discussed “Against Interpretation” here at the Electric Agora, back in 2015.





4 responses to “Course Notes – Susan Sontag, “In Plato’s Cave,” from On Photography (1977)”

  1. In my youth (late teenage), I acquired a camera. And I took lots of photographs. But, after two or three years, I found that it was just better to enjoy life and not spoil it by having to think about taking pictures.

  2. A pleasure to read, very perceptive and insightful.

  3. davidlduffy

    I think Sontag doesn’t pick up as much as she could in this chapter on the idea that photography is the democratic fine art that doesn’t require years of training, as well as the fact that only the rich could afford accurate visual records of their marriages, children, surroundings etc prior to industrialization. That 19th century growth of the market for photography is driven by strong human desires that were always there. She seems to take up the ’60s ideas (eg in the movies she cites, photography as the male and colonialist/colonializing gaze) of photography as alienating, as opposed to the earlier enthusiasm for it as revelation of the world previously unseen by me the viewer or any human (National Geographic, anyone?). Even pointing out that good photography requires skill is implied as deception rather than the difficulty of showing all the truth. She always writes so well though.

  4. There’s the old story about Duchamp dragging a discarded urinal into a gallery and signing his name to it. More important, for the contemporary issue, is the story of Andy Warhol, who, approached by an elderly matron and offered a couple hundred grand for a portrait, took her to a bus-station photo-boot, sat her down while it flashed four pictures of her, then signed his name to the bottom of the strip. .

    It is not clear at all that untreated or unfiltered photography (that is, photography worked over by either the photographer (Man Ray) or by another (such as a collagist) – ever fully developed a true aesthetic. After all, great journalistic photography also achieves art, yet we still first think of them as journalism.