Sontag on Seeing America through Photographs

This is the first of two parts reflecting on Susan Sontag’s essay “America Seen Through Photographs, Darkly (Sontag, 2019, pp. 27-33).

Walt Whitman (Britanica,2019)

Originally this essay was called “Freak Show” which gives away Sontag’s primary purpose (Tagg, 2003). To discuss the work of Dianne Arbus following the Retrospective exhibition and presented and discussed in “Diane Arbus” a monograph by Aperture where Diane discusses her own work. Sontag knew her personally and was on occasion photographed by her. Sontag uses her own literary knowledge of Walt Whitman, and two other exhibitions and related documentation: Walker Evan’s photographs and the associated introduction John Szarkowski produced by MOMA; and  Eduard Steichen’s “Family of Man” exhibition, to introduce what she believes set the scene for Diana Arbus’s work. She applies a method of critical analysis using her philosophical and literary expertise to inform her understanding of the work.

Sontag introduces Walt Whitman (1819-1892) an American Poet as the initiator of the idea that “We need to see beyond the difference between beauty and ugliness, importance and triviality.” At least from an American perspective. But before we can talk about his influence, we need to evaluate what influenced him. “I contain multitudes,” announces the speaker in Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (section 51), and any attempt to provide even a basic catalogue of the principal influences upon the poet only confirms his famous boast (Worley, 2019). But his main influences was Philosophy and Religion. All philosophies and religions as known to him in his time. It alludes to his embracing of everything.

Sontag  linked the Walker Evans to Walt Whitman to what she called “The epigraph for a book of Walker Evan’s photographs published by the museum of arts as a passage from Whitman that sounds the theme of American Photographies main quest:

I do not doubt but the majesty & beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the world…I do not doubt there is far more in trivialities, insects, vulgar persons, slaves, dwarfs, weeds, rejected refuse, than I have supposed….’ (Sontag, 2019, p. 29)”

‘Walt Whitman, Inciting the Bird of Freedom to Soar’, 1904. Illustration from The Poets Corner, by Max Beerbohm, (London, 1904). (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images) (Beerbohm,1904)

Whitman called for Americans to become lyrical about everything. “Nobody would fret about beauty and ugliness, who was accepting a sufficiently large embrace of the real, of the inclusiveness and vitality of the of the actual American experience (Sontag, 2019, p. 27)”. Evans reflected this about his photography in a lecture at Yale University in 1964: “What I believe is really good in the so-called documentary approach to photography is the addition of lyricism….[this quality] is usually produced unconsciously and even unintentionally and accidentally by the cameraman (Hackett, 2009).” Thus confirming Sontag’s link between the two artists.

Getting back to Whitman. Whitman was an American Romantic and realist and humanist, even if it was a contradiction. “Whitman’s attempt to represent the fullness of life, the totality of experience, not only benefited from but actually required the incorporation of many disparate voices into his work (Worley, 2019).” Heavily influenced himself by Hegel. “The chief intellectual contribution made by Hegel’s philosophy was the deferred, almost religious expectation of an eventual reconciliation of diverse aspects of the experience. This deferral allowed Whitman to reconcile his conception of national unity underlying the multiple and increasingly conflicting elements of national life as the century progressed. Through the Hegelian model of development, Whitman could retain the hopeful democratic vision of his prewar writings simply by placing his confident celebratory perspective into a utopian future (Worley, 2019). In the mid-nineteen century, significant debates around the writing of history and how cultures need to be documented. A struggle between Rationalism, Empiricism and Romanticism. Whitman rejected no viewpoint in the same way that western culture adopted them with their contradictions. And the camera, along with writing, became a tool to record that new demand. The core of the practice of documentary work. Whitman’s predicted or may have attempted a self-induced American cultural revolution that did not happen. He may have had an idea of creating a new Hegelian antithesis in the hope to initiate a modern romantic, humanist America.  Apart from a great effort by photographers, reality did not overtake the discernment of art. It was the eve of worldwide imperialism, world war’s, and propaganda. Since then, not even the postmodern internet succeeded in overcoming this erosion of truth as proven by the war in Iraq and the current presidential debate. And with the advent of the malleable digital print, the gap is widening. But there is a moment in history that at least one art form aspired to do the de-mystifying of the arts.

Attempting to record the Americans of their time within an American Romanticism/Realism context and becoming lyrical about the important and unimportant, the beautiful and ugly, allows Sontag to reference work of Walker Evans, Lewis Hines, Dorothea Lange and Eduard Steichen even though their adoption of Whitman’s vision varied between them.

Walker Evans (Locke, 1937)

While infer Walt Whitman’s influence on the Steichens Family of man Exibition and the inclusion photographs from the Amerivan Photographers above it indicates to me that this movement was a worldwide phenomenon and the egalitarion ideal at the centre of this exhibition. Not unlike my current project into Ubunthu and its influence in South Africa. Coming from a Apatheid background I share Whitmans dream and the concept of Steichens “family of man”. Not just for South Africa, but for an international view. It may be as unattainable as for America but should be presented as a constant Antitheses to Nationalist cultures. I reminded of John Lenon’s Imagine.

South Africa shares a bit with the American experience in being a colony and a young nation founded by reformers, liberalism ideals and an attempt at a western egalitarian society.  We have seen many attempts at to creating a visionary culture, at first from a European cultural liberal perspective, then from a Modernist and Romantic perspective and currently from an African Perspective – Ubuntu. Doing a similar analysis of the South African photographers and their work may be a worthwhile endeavour. The South African War was as well photographically documented as the American Civil war. And the Slavery question issue hit us at approximately the same time.  David Goldblatt, whether knowingly or unknowingly associated well with Whitman and the photography of Evans specifically “People on the Plots”, “The Afrikaners” and “On the mines”. His view is expressed as follows: “Somethings, in reality, takes me. It arouses, irritates, beguiles. I want to approach, explore, see it with all the intensity and clarity that I can. Not to purchase, colonise or appropriate, but to experience its isness and distil this in a photograph (Goldblatt, 2018, p. Last).

And then came Dianne Arbus… The Darkly part of the heading! I intend to reflect on her work in the next post. Our version was/is Roger Ballen  A Canadian photographer and land surveyor whose early work in South Africa was influenced by Walker Evans and his later work by Dianne Arbus.

My Personal Reflection

It is interesting to see an article on an America, seen through photographs, without a single image. Mainly because it is about socio-political documentary work. Sontag assumes that the reader has seen and assimilated them.

For the earlier part of my photography career, which numbers a few decades, I worked as a semi-professional photographer. In my personal work, I tended to look for beautiful and idealised things to photograph. Sontag’s statement “This is still the aim of many amateur photographers (Sontag, 2019, p. 28)” holds true for me. It only in the past decade, that I felt a discontent growing in me. I started to be irritated by my wedding photography clients comments about how they wanted to be seen in their photographs. They were becoming less concerned about reality and more on how they wish to present themselves, becoming generic and accumulated in a culture of sameness.

As a photographer, I felt that what they wanted from me, contradicted two parts of the inner me. Firstly, to be a competent documentary photographer, I felt the need to be able to document everything worthy of such an effort, and secondly, as a romantic artist. I found a growing need to look at the isness of things, without judgement, seeking to record the experience, to explore real understanding through observation, and to reflect this back at my audience. Not only nature and man at its most beautiful, but even if the subject is ugly and unimportant. Not quite what the client expected. However, I still felt an aversion to photographing the brash, the violence, the ugly, the injustice, embarrassing moments, or conflict or challenging looks between family members. In short… things that did not resonate with my idealistic world. I also considered too many things as unimportant in the immediate context, especially photographs of my own family, which became the “Essential Photographs not taken”. Missed documentary opportunities! I take control and point my camera at subjects that resonate with me. And therein lies my weakness. This article calls me to look at the world differently. As a fashion photographer, Diane Arbus must have experienced the same discontent. She went for the throat of her subjects… Saul Leiter, not mentioned in this article as he was still unknown, in turn, pursued a more idealistic view seeking to show the world that ordinarily is more beautiful than how his subjects view themselves. And in a way, I am now stuck in these two places.

This essay helps me to understand this strain between what resonates with me and that which causes disharmony. While both Arbus and Leiter fled the fashion world to find a resolution in their personal work, documentary photographers such as  Susan Meseilas and Dawid Goldblatt uncovered and pursued their own dissonance with their subjects to create some of their best documentary work.


Goldblatt, D., 2018. Structures of Dominion and Democracy. 1st ed. Gottingen: Steidl.

Hackett, R., 2009. From Walker Evans to Roger Ballen. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 30 12 2019].

La Grange, A., 2005. Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. 1st ed. Oxford: Focal Press.

Sontag, S., 2019. On Photography. s.l.: Penguin.

Tagg, J., 2003. Melancholy Realism: Walker Evans’s Resistance to Meaning. Narrative, pp. 3-77.

Worley, S., 2019. Influences on Whitman, Principal”(Criticism) – The Walt Whitman Archive. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 30 12 2019].

Britanica, 2019. Whitman, Walt. [image] Available at: [Accessed 30 Dec. 2019].

Beerbohm, M., 1904. ‘Walt Whitman, Inciting the Bird of Freedom to Soar’, 1904.Artist: Max Beerbohm. [image] Available at: [Accessed 30 Dec. 2019].

Locke, E., 2019. Walker Evans. [image] Available at: [Accessed 30 Dec. 2019].

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