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].

Miles Aldridge and Francis Hodgson | Photo London Talks 2016

A great example how to interview a photographer!

As part of our training we have live presentations by various practitioners and for various reasons I rarely ask any questions. My decision to reflect on this particular interview is based on two factors. Firstly, Francis Hodgeson managed to keep me engaged throughout, and secondly, this is interview is a great piece of work to analyse critically.

Fig 1. I just want you to love me (Aldridge,2013)

“Miles Aldridge, the distinguished fashion photographer and artist, is interviewed by Francis Hodgson, Professor in the Culture of Photography at the University of Brighton, the photography critic of the Financial Times and the former Head of the photographs department at Sotheby’s. Francis Hodgson is also the Chairman of the Photo London 2016 Curatorial Committee. Miles Aldridge is highly respected for his brilliant fashion work, and in particular for a unique and bold colour sense (Hodgson and Aldridge, 2016) . ”

From the start Francis Hodgson introduces himself and why he is doing the interview. Thus establishing his legitimacy and putting the photographer, Aldridge at rest. He makes a great point around the way photographers from various practices snub each other at Art Fair. After he describes himself and his role as a generalist he merely introduces Aldridge as a specialist making him the key speaker.

Hodgson used Aldridges photograph’s as the basis of the photographs, knowing that Aldridge will be the person that knows the subject the best and feel comfortable and that the selected photographs have been selected as pieces of art. However he had a different strategy. He took the lead. he selected the images he wanted to discuss. This could be interpreted as him being a know it all, but it had a great effect. He could control the discussion, and he made Aldridge seem less of a rock star and celebrity. It directed the audience to view Aldridge’s work. Unfortunately the images displayed was too small.

Hodgson listened to what Aldridge said and he found an important area to discuss, directed his questions to expose that subject. In that way he got Aldridge to explain how he got started, whether he does personal projects, how he manages to get assignments and manage to keep creative control or influence, how he started, his creative process, how he collaborate with the design and support teams, how he interact with other fashion photography pears and his long term relationship with his key customer. In my view it was brilliantly done and led to an informative and educational experience.

Aldridge revealed a number of interesting points. Firstly, that even though he ocasionally does personal projects, he sees all assignments as fulfilling his creative aspirations. “I (Aldridge) really feel is that the commissioned work is the personal work. In as much as that all one’s feelings about the world and oneself, the sort of autobiography of oneself should appear in in the commissioned work. That’s why, in a way, the New York or Vogue Italia asking me to do a picture is they want my sense of the world and the culture at that point,in the picture (Hodgson and Aldridge , 2016) . ” He conceded, he entered the market as the the “grunge” look was in vogue when he and his peers were working on, was in demand at that time. He admits he came into the practice as a “bluffer”. This highlights how in step your work needs to be to initial get assignments and his chosen aesthetic and visual direction aligned with his customers need. It also confirms the process of how Creative directors select their new photographers. “But I quickly realised that if I carried that on I would be completely forgotten about and would just be a kind of a suburb a footnote in the book of grunge photography” which means if you don’t mimic a style you will never achieve greatness.

After that his initial stage his background in illustration frustrated him but enabled him to define his direction over time, and gave him the insight to get him creative influence on every assignment that followed. “I started to draw these pictures and bring them to the photo shoot – almost as a kind of a map of what we were going to do and by having this plan or plots or design about the the image it actually gave me an immense amount of power over everyone else in the studio (Hodgson and Aldridge , 2016) .” see Fig 2. He goes to the design sessions with at least ten ideas on paper, giving his customer and creative staff a starting point and get them to add their ideas. “I was now a photographer who was thinking more like a filmmaker about images and how a set of images could work together rather like a series of images in a movie to tell stories or at least kind of bring you into the idea of story telling. It was this part that intrigued me. It aligned with my investigation into story telling in my practice. I could see how for him this story telling developed from a storyboard until it is realised in the final photograph. Figure 2 also indicate how he uses Polaroid photographs in hi creative process.

Fig 2: Various examples from Miles’s Instagram showing his use of illustration in his planning. From concept, to lab shot using Polaroid to final print (Aldridge, 2019)

Aldridge quickly realised that he needed to build a long term relationship with both his creative and support team. It made all of them comfortable to collaborate through understanding and respect. This respect also extended to his customer and his products which was clearly evident from how he spoke about him. It brings me to the point that the edification and acknowledgement of your peers is extremely important in a competitive market. something all photographers need to adopt at this stage of the photographic game.

When asked how much the current market and his peers influence his work, he denied it saying that he followed his own direction and rarely looked or discussed his the work with others. But he follows with the statement as his peers he was keeping his darkroom secrets to himself. So he does not reveal everything to us.

All of this discussion was done while viewing some of his best work and I must say, I perceived his creativity with awe. He is truly an artist. But if you read further you will see that I have some serious concerns about his work.

Critical reflection on his work ala Susan Sontag.

“Photography is not practised by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defence of anxiety, and a tool of power. (Sontag ,1977 p 17)”.

Aldridge in his discussion used the words power and control relating to how he works. but is their more to that? His use of bold saturated colours reminiscent of Andy Warhol, and his illustrations may obscure his primary motives dressed up as art. He want to control everything. The creative aspect, the lights, the background, the model he uses and even the way they pose. To what purpose may well be asked?

“Still there is something predatory about the act of taking a pictures. (Sontag,1977 p14). He denies that the customer have control, he admits that it is his vision, then why does some of his photographs use woman as sex objects, being abused, an object of amusement or at the worse end, present them as being raped/abused to advertise a watch for a man? See Fig 3 and 4. the man remains anonymous. All this with a sense of detachment. Is he representing the photographer? He describe the photographers and models of his period as sexy.

Fig 3 Watch Add 1 from New news website (New-news 2019)
Fig 4 watch add 2 Fig 3 Watch Add 1 from New news website (New-news 2019)

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves…(Sontag 1977 P14-15)” And he does this with premeditation. Is this the culture he wishes to promote? “Photographs can abet desire in the most direct way.. (Sontag 1977 p 17).” and as this is an open forum I will not continue this sentence. Some may call it art. Susan Sontag clearly doesn’t.

Some of my peers on the course may well agree with her. I still like his creative approach and work as it is intended for the fashion industry, which still uses sex to sell, and promote carnal hedonism and materialistic possessiveness. I can see why Aldridge is successful in his practice.


Hodgson, F. and Aldridge, M. (2016). Miles Aldridge and Francis Hodgson | Photo London Talks 2016. Available at: [Accessed 8 Dec. 2019].

Aldridge, M. (2013). I Only want you to love me. [image] Available at: [Accessed 8 Dec. 2019].

Aldridge, M. (2019). Miles Aldridge (@milesaldridge) • Instagram photos and videos. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Dec. 2019].

New-news (2019). Photographer Profile ~ Miles Aldridge. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019].

In Plato’s Cave: a Critical Essay by Susan Sontag

Critical Analysis of the First Essay in Susan Sontags Book On Photography (Andre Nagel, 2019)


In the first semester, I first encounter with Susan Sontag. To be honest, I must admit that at that time, I found the essay hard to read for many reasons. It challenged my vocabulary, my intellect and finally, my view on photography. This and the recommendation from my first semester tutors “to invest more time into contextual research to help develop a more critically informed practice to your own work and the reading of Sontag, Barthes and other critical theorists, including Berger’s ‘Understanding a Photograph’,” motivated this critical research and reading of Susan’s book.

Who was Susan Sontag and in what context did the write?

(, 2019)

Context is everything. Susan Sontag was an American writer and philosopher who throughout her career engaged in critical debate and commentary about modern society. Her comments in her critical essays on photography were directed to pre-digital photography practitioners. But before we start, we need to note her education and background.

Susan Sontag was born in New York City on January 16, 1933, grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and attended high school in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from the College of the University of Chicago and English literature (M.A., 1954) and philosophy (M.A., 1955) at Harvard University and taught philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard University and Saint Anne’s College, Oxford. (, 2019 and Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019).

What is important in this context is her critical commentary on modern culture and that ” she did nine works of nonfiction, starting with Against Interpretation and including  Illness as Metaphor, Where the Stress Falls,  At the Same Time, and two books that look at the photographic medium critically, On Photography (1977), and Regarding the Pain of Others. In 1982, FSG published A Susan Sontag Reader (, 2019).”

It is also important to note that Sontag was “a human rights activist for more than two decades, Sontag served from 1987 to 1989 as president of the American Center of PEN, the international writers’ organization dedicated to freedom of expression and the advancement of literature, from which platform she led a number of campaigns on behalf of persecuted and imprisoned writers (, 2019).”

(, 2019)

Sontag ” earned the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Photography (1978).

Susan Sontag died in New York City on December 28, 2004.” (, 2019)

Sontag’s comments are about a pre-digital, pre-internet photography world. Once she wrote a book she will not revisit it. However, even if her commentary still applies, Sontag’s bodywork is in need of an update, a challenge I believe Fred Ritchin has taken up in his essays After photography 2008 and Bending the frame (2013). But more about that in future blogs.

My reflection.

In the foreword of the book, Sontag describes her approach, that if disregarded would lead the reader away from her intent.

Her progress and struggle with this text are best described in this foreword: “It all started with one essay – about some of the problems, aesthetics and moral, posed by the omnipresence of photographed images, but the more I thought about what photographs are, the more complex and suggestive they became. So one generated another, and that one (to my bemusement) another, and so on- a progress of essays, about their meaning and career of photographs- until I’d gone far enough so that the argument sketched in the first essay, documented and digressed from in the succeeding essays, could be recapitulated and extended in a more theoretical way; and could stop (Sontag, 2019, intro).”

At first, reading the first essay In Plato’s cave, I disliked the way she wrote, not giving me a structure to work with, feeling surprised and frustrated. Then it dawned on me. She was not teaching but presenting her critical reflections, a liberal ramble, a process in understanding her own thoughts. A path we should all walk and a key part of the MA programme. She freed herself from approval, used every part of her intellect and education to deliver an unprecedented philosophical discourse on Photography. She was not a photographer and did not claim to be one, but she pondered on what the truth is that create the reflections on the photographic wall of the cave, the photograph. She seeks to elaborate on the possible intent or truth of what a photographers purpose was when creating the reflection. The unseen reality behind the viewer. Plato had a passive view of the truth-seeking not to judge but to accept the truth without judgement. Sontag is hypercritical, almost sceptical as she related her thoughts with her experience with news photographers, documentary photographers and the ordinary citizen photographers she knew. She saw people taking photographs seeking to ” record social rites, a defence against anxiety and a tool of power (Sontag 2019, p 7)”. I can only speculate whether she was a mere sceptic or her theological studies made her believe in the depravity of mankind, or both.

The first part of the essay seems generic with short philosophical and logical tenants of some uncovered truths, sometimes a tongue in cheek treatment that infuriates most photographers, present company included. Eventually, as she progresses towards the end of the first essay the detail indicates an active resentment and disappointment in photography and photographers, probably due to her experience with war and poverty and the related passivity of the viewers. In this section, her discourses become longer and have more depth. Something she needed to pursue in the second book in this series: Regarding the pain of others. This depth of her resentment or disappointment is best described in the following quote: “When I looked at those photographs, something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten: something went dead; something is still crying (Sontag, 2019, p 21).”

For the sake of brevity, let me rather list those tenants that I felt touched me and will affect my discourse on photography forever.

“Picture taking is an event in itself – to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore what is going on (Sontag, 2019, p 11) ” “often explicitly, encourage whatever is going on and keep on going on (Sontag, 2019, p 12).” And even stronger: “The camera does not rape or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and if at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate. All activities… which may be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment (Sontag, 1978, p 13) .” An ethical indictment to all aspiring photographers. However, it does spell out an ethical dilemma that each photographer needs to face. Especially documentary and Photo-journalistic photographers.

“To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or things), mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to times relentless melt (Sontag, 2019, p 16). ” As I age and experience the loss of loved ones, I cringe at how many photographs were never taken of both places and people, that now only live vaguely in my memory and will disappear forever after my death.

“Images that mobilise conscience are always linked to a given historical situation. The more general they are, the less likely they are to be effective. Sontag, 2019 p 17”. I find this tenant to be a truth to be used. In a post-apartheid South Africa, injustice and disparity have become invisible in the generality of the problem in the world. People just don’t want to know anymore. it’s still serious…and getting worse. but it is a worldwide phenomenon. To get attention to it may require finding ways to define it in a more unique way.

“Photographs are more memorable than moving images because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow… Each photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again (Sontag, 2019, p 18).” A photographer once said that we need to learn to enjoy every click. I believe we should print those photographs and relive that experience. Yervant, and Australian master wedding photographer says that you can only call yourself a photographer if you print your work. The print is still a unique artefact to be prized. I wonder what Gary Winogrand would have said about this. He was more concerned about taking photographs than printing them. For him, the learning was complete when the photograph was taken. He left behind a legacy of undeveloped film.

“In the last decade, “concerned” photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it (Sontag, 2019, p 22) “. This reminds me of the recent photograph of the Sirian boy, Alan Kurdi, on the beach in Turkey. His story literally opened doors, but any more pictures of many others have closed the ears of many that fear the impact of helping those in need.

Aesthetic distance seems to be built into the very experience of looking at photographs, if not right away, then certainly with the passage of time. Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art (Sontag, 2019, p 22).” So don’t throw any photograph away!

I have come to believe that an insightful reading of Sontag’s works will improve my discourse in photography and her insights and approach develop me to understand myself as a photographer, my subjects and my photographs and to articulate this understanding. I still think she invites us to critically think about photography and come up with our views, even if we disagree with her views. I have taken up that challenge and will be recording my journey in future blogs.


Sontag, S. (2019). On photography. London: Penguin Books, pp.1-26. (2019). Susan Sontag. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Nov. 2019].

Encyclopedia Britannica. (2019). Susan Sontag | American writer. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Nov. 2019].