seminar on book reading – my notes and thoughts on each text

Before this weeks session I read, made notes and reflections and general observations from both texts to aid my contribution to the discussion in class.

Elizabeth Chandler – text critique
Chapter 1 – In Plato’s cave – Susan Sontag

When I first read this book I felt slightly bewildered and asked myself why it’s called “On Photography”? Given that little of the text supports a single positive sentiment about photography or even the ability of cameras in general. I thought “Against Photography,” would have been more appropriate since Sontag makes direct reference to the cave and seemingly presents photography as the Downfall of Human Kind. Upon initial reading in first year I was slightly saddened as this wasn’t the book I thought it was especially when you consider its most quoted statement, “To collect photographs is to collect the world.” Page 3. I think, naively I expected an almost romantic vision of photography, perhaps due to my knowledge that she was romantically involved with Annie Liebovitz. When I revisited the book weeks later I found I engaged with it quite differently the second time round but I do think you need to know a little more than Sontag explains to fully understand. I think it is important to acknowledge that Plato wanted to banish artists as to him, the world we live in isn’t really the real world – the real world is a world we cannot have access to, Plato saw the world we live in as one step away from reality. Art was two steps away from reality and was therefore a copy of a copy. For Plato what we needed to do was get closer to reality, not further away from it. Therefore, he needed to banish artists from his ideal society. Understanding this reference made by Sontag helped me to comprehend the ideas a little more as previously the first line of the book confused me “Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still revealing, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth.” Page 3. In a lot of ways, I think it’s fair to suggest that Sontag wanted to turn Plato on his head. Plato would have serious issues with photography due to it creating seemingly accurate images of the world. As Sontag says, “Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it.” Page 3. Sontag toys with ideas that photographs are more real than reality “Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form.” Page 18 It’s all very easy to think about photography as a visual explanation of the world, helping us understand it, but Sontag is interested in destroying this notion. “Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks.” Page 17. Fully understanding our environment requires looking at the world as a process, a procedure involving activity and time. Sontag would seem to suggest that the camera is incapable of capturing the process of life and that in order to comprehend a thing means, “understanding … how it functions. And functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand.” Page 18  This leads to what I think is one significant point, back to Plato again. For Plato ‘the truth’ is what a lifetime must be spent seeking, even if we are sure that we will never find that truth. Plato wants to get us to distance from the real world in order to find the reality beyond what is visible and apparent, photography, too encourages us to turn away from reality, but as a way of seeing the real world that is concealed in everyday vision. Sontag makes an interesting comment on Page 22 “In photography’s early decades, photographs were expected to be idealised images. This is still the aim of most amateur photographers, for whom a beautiful photograph is a photograph of something beautiful, like a woman, a sunset.” Photography has a unique potential to transform the mundane or possibly even the ugly into something ‘beautiful’, in the sense that simply the act of photographing it presents that thing as an interest or fascination. Photographs give everything potential of beauty by putting before us things presented as objects of erotic or voyeuristic pleasure. Sontag’s concepts are so culturally significant and have been so absorbed into what we “already know” about photography that at first glance, I struggled to see how remarkable her contributions were when the book was initially written, and how relevant they remain today. Her book continues to be one of the most influential of its kind and when reading it now, all I can think about is what Sontag would think about current photographic debate such as social sharing of photographs through facebook, flickr, tumblr, instagram ECT. I wonder what she would have to say about iphoneography which is close to gaining legitimacy as its own field with exhibits at major galleries and even a couple of major museums. In hindsight and after revisiting this book on numerous occasions I feel my attitude towards it have altered, Sontag’s piercing critique doesn’t simply delve into doubts regarding the value taking a photograph, instead she presents prediction of some of the irreversible changes that the development of photographic technology has had on the world and the ways in which we experience and engage with it. Sontag carefully critiques whilst managing to avoid attacking and or condemning photography. She reveals the cracks, without attempting to fill them, she makes observations that lead to larger debate.

Elizabeth Chandler – notes, reflection and critique
Chapter 1 – crisis of the real – Grundberg

Through each piece runs a common thread: the notion that photography both reflects and helps shape the contemporary art world, that it changes the way we perceive reality, and that it has had a tremendous impact on the evolution of modern art. Grundberg reassesses the contribution of influential photographers and analyzes the evolving relationship between photography, the art world, and the media.

Grundberg questions as much as he critiques, subverting conventional interpretations of photographic icons such as Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, and Richard Prince. Grundberg never succumbs to worshiping established greats. He seeks to place and understand each artist within the social and cultural context of his time, always weighing how relevant the works of each are to photography today.

When writing about Ansel Adams, for instance, he refutes the commonly made claim that Adams pioneered straight photography. Adams, Grundberg writes, came on the scene too late to pioneer the style in which he worked. Grundberg perceives Adams as one of the last of the Romantic artists, whose way of representing the world through pristine, sharp images of virginal nature has become obsolete when describing today’s world.

The first is entirely devoted to a polemic on the relation of photography and art in a postmodern world. But ever the questioner, he spends a great deal of time exploring what postmodernism actually means. For Grundberg, postmodernism is above all a condition, in which reality, authentic experience, originality, and individual artistic vision have become obsolete. As Grundberg puts it, postmodern art tells us “that things have been used up, that we are at the end of the line, that we are all prisoners of what we see.”

Postmodern photography, then, is less about representation than about representations of representations, about symbols whose meaning can never truly be deciphered. Images don’t reflect who we are and what we know as much as they comment on who we think we are and simultaneously shape how we understand ourselves.

Grundberg’s essays challenge and provoke, often upsetting the conventional understanding of photography’s role and influence.





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