Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington, D.C., 1963.
Photo by Roy DeCarava
“Most of Arbus’s work lies within the Warhol aesthetic, that is, defines itself in relation to the twin poles of boringness and freakishness; but it doesn’t have the Warhol style. Arbus had neither Warhol’s narcissism and genius for publicity nor the self-protective blandness with which he insulates himself from the freaky nor his sentimentality. It is unlikey that Warhol, who comes from a working-class family, ever felt any ambivalence toward success which afflicted the children of the Jewish upper middle classes in the 1960s. To someone raised as a Catholic, like Warhol (and virtually everyone in his gang), a fascination with evil comes much more genuinely than it does to someone from a Jewish background. Compared with Warhol, Arbus seems strikingly vulnerable, innocent–and certainly more pessimistic. Her Dantesque vision of the city (and the suburbs) has no reserves of irony. Although much of Arbus’s material is the same as that depicted in, say, Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966)…For Arbus, both freaks and Middle America were equally exotic: a boy marching in a pro-war parade and a Levittown housewife were as alien as a dwarf or a transvestite; lower-middle-class suburbia was as remote as Times Square, lunatic asylums, and gay bars. Arbus’s work expressed her turn against what was public (as she experienced it), conventional, safe, reassuring–and boring–in favor of what was private, hidden, ugly, dangerous, and fascinating. These contrasts, now, seem almost quaint. What is safe no long monopolizes public imagery. The freakish is no longer a private zone, difficult of access. People who are bizarre, in sexual disgrace, emotionally vacant are seen daily on the newsstands, on TV, in the subways. Hobbesian man roams the streets, quite visible, with glitter in his hair.”
Susan Sontag, “On Photography”
“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.”
Susan Sontag, “On Photography”
“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”
In Susan Sontag’s view, both Plato’s cave images and photographs represent “mere images of the truth” (p. 3). Through the essay “In Plato’s Cave”, Sontag uses the term “truth” (almost) interchangeable with the term “reality” but she disregards defining either of them. As a reader, I was left with the impression that for Sontag “truth” or “reality”, deprived by their conceptual power and philosophical engagement, stand for nothing more than what we can see. In this case, the difference between what we can see with ‘our own eye’ (reality) and what we can see ‘with the camera’ (photograph) is reduced to the physical/mechanical differences between the human eye and the body camera/lens. Except such technicalities, a photograph’s ‘success’ or ‘failure’ in faithfully representing ‘reality’ would be explained through the ability – or intention – of its auteur to capture this reality.
However, Sontag’s comparison between Plato’s cave images and photographed ones acknowledges their distinctive natures and, also, the dissemblance between their specific educational abilities – “being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images” (p. 3) – in its attempt to explore the reasons behind their influences upon viewers. The main reason identified lays in a figure: the hastily continuously growing number of photos, irrefutably overriding the number of Plato’s cave images, is the one diverging “the term of confinement in the cave, our world” (p. 3). The photographic eye, argues Sontag, is characterized by a “very insatiability” (p. 3): “From its start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible number of subjects” (p. 7). Photographing becomes compulsory and addictive.
In Sontag’s interpretation, photographs are empowered by their impressive number to introduce a new ‘visual code’ consisting of a ‘grammar’ and an ‘ethics’ of seeing: they are teaching us both the structural rules of looking at a photo and the guiding ones – “what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe” (p. 3).
Plato’s cave images were as close as the prisoners could see reality, and a philosopher was needed to free himself (or herself), go into the light and discover that such images were just shadows of a praised but unknown reality, and return afterwards to enlighten the others, as well. But, since its beginnings, photography has set a different relation with reality as the physical world, comparing to Plato’s cave images. Although, at least in some of its forms, it has claimed to represent an exact copy of (various aspects) of reality, photography has acknowledged the distinct existence of the physical world, and has not attempted to conceal it.
Sontag’s insistence on photos as material objects, whereas it overlooks their later-gained significance as insubstantial, digital images, put them into a contrast relation with the ethereal shadows of Plato’s cave, as they can be possessed, collected and altered: “Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads – as an anthology of images. To collect photographs is to collect the world” (p. 3). As objects, photos do not only capture reality, but they also construct it, or at least define it: “Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern” (p. 3). In addition to capturing reality, they are part of it – the photo as a material object becomes a piece or an element of the physical world: “Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire” (p. 4). Sontag’s is very suggestive here: photographs are miniaturizing the physical world in order to become part of it as objects – how treacherous is that?
Photographs represent, therefore, a possession of space in the sense of physical, geographical world, that Plato’s cave images could never personificate: “they […] help people to take possession of space in which they feel insecure” (p. 9). Additionally, photographs express a possession of time, too. The simple gesture of taking a photo, from a Polaroid snapshot to an elaborate set up photograph, signifies the carrying out of an act of possession of time, as the camera captures the evolution of its subject(s) in a particular, unique moment of time: “photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal” (p. 9) emphasizes Sontag. Once the photograph is concluded, the moment immortalized by the image is already turned into past. It is this changeable nature of time that photography ultimately challenges: “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt” (p. 15). Distance, temporal or spatial, brings with it a sense of desirability and unattainability: “But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures” (p. 15), says Sontag. “It is a nostalgic time right now, and photographs actively promote nostalgia” (p. 15).
But, as Plato’s cave images, photographs attempt to offer knowledge “[they] now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present” (p. 4). Despite the fact they can provide evidence (“A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture” p. 5), the information photos can bring is not valued outside the control institutions (“But in the situations in which most people use photographs, their value as information is of the same order as fiction” p. 22).
However, photographed images can capture events and create them. In our world, unlike Plato’s cave, the photographing eye has the freedom to deem what it sees as worthy enough to be captured: “It is an Event: something worth seeing – and therefore worth photographing” (p. 11). If viewers were acknowledging the Plato’s cave images in a strictly non-interfering manner, photography, in Sontag’s standpoint, can signifies non-intervention, but also participation (as observation, complicity and encouragement): “Even if incompatible with intervention in a physical sense, using a camera is still a form of participation. Although the camera is an observation station, the act of photographing is more than passive observing […] To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged (at least for as long as it takes to get a “good” picture), to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing – including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune” (p. 12). Still, “[the camera] may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate – all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment” (p. 13). If Plato’s protagonist acknowledges reality in quite an innocent manner, the photographers’ act is a ravaging one: “there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turn people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time” (p. 14-15).
Similar to cave’s image, photography lack the power to create a moral position, but in contrast to the former, it can reinforce one: “and can help build a nascent one” (p. 17). Although photographs capture the real, physical world, and not just reflections of reality, the ‘subject’ of an image is turned into a ‘less real’ one by familiarity: “To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more – and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize. An event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been if one had never seen the photographs […] But after repeated exposure to images it also becomes less real” (p. 20).
When the photographers return to the place of confinement, they don’t bring with them “mere images of the truth.” They bring their own history and prejudices. Sontag admits it: “Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience.” I’d call such ‘imperatives’ ethics and aesthetics standards that come into play each time the photographers are at work, influencing them to see the ‘worthy’ object in a very specific way and to attempt to capture it as such. In this sense, photographers are also interpreters and their work can be seen as an interpretation of the reality: “Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are” (p. 7).
It is their interpretative character that offers more to their viewers comparing with the cave images: “Any photograph has multiple meanings: indeed, to see something in the form of a photograph is to encounter a potential object of fascination. The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: “There is the surface. Now think – or rather feel, intuit – what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way.’ Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy” (p. 23). Thus, each of us can ultimately free himself from the cave and explore the outside space, in a new Platonic allegory. With a camera on our shoulder.
* I have used the volume “On Photography” published in Penguin Books in 1979.