Susan Sontag`s Photographic Experience

What is the purpose of photography? Is it to enhance our life experiences –
to add color and knowledge, and to open up our minds to new ideas? Or is
photography slowly trying to replace them? The following paper will seek to
explain the quote by Susan Sontag on the photographic experience through the
analysis of one of Richard Billingham’s untitled works from 1994.
In her book, On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag states, “ultimately, having
an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in
a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in
photographed form. The most logical of nineteenth-century aesthetes, Mallarmé,
said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today, everything
exists to end in a photograph.” More often than not, photographers have been
interested in capturing the real world in a way that painters and sculptors could not.
Journalistic or documentary photography, in many ways, is a precursor to the
statement made by Sontag. In an effort to publicize and notify a larger audience
about an event, a photograph was taken to transport the viewer in time and space in
order to share or convey a particular experience. Photographs such as those taken
for the FSA are examples of how important recording the human struggle, or way of
life, is to society.
As the twentieth-century pushed forward, and more affordable means of
photography became available to the general public, the importance placed on
preservation only increased. With the advent of the nuclear family, photo albums
and scrapbooks became the norm, recording every step of life: from birth, to
graduation, to marriage, and so on. Artists such as Emmet Gowin, Sally Mann, Tina
Barney, and Nicholas Nixon are prime examples of a desire to record these
experiences – family picnics, children at play, household tensions, and the process of
aging. Their works, though, are thoughtfully composed within the picture frame,
with a strong attention to lighting and detail, making their mundane family
snapshots into something more – something beautiful.
Fast forward to the twenty first-century, the introduction of small digital
cameras and camera phones, the popularization and availability of the internet, and
programs such as “Picmonkey,” “Instagram,” “Snapchat,” and “Vine.” One can
browse through photo albums on Facebook and witness not only one or two basic
images taken at a party or festivity, but a hundred or two hundred repetitive, blurry,
and incessant snapshots of the entire night. These photographs beg the following
questions: what was the photographer’s party experience? Was he or she fully
involved in personal interactions, or was everything seen through the lens of a
camera or the screen of an iPhone? It is this question, precisely, that Susan Sontag is
talking about in her book. Has photography become the experience? Douglas Crimp
explains it perfectly when he says, “while it once seemed that pictures had the
function in interpreting reality, it now seems that they have usurped it.”
Richard Billingham’s untitled work, sometimes identified as Liz and Ray
Bleeding, further brings Sontag’s quote to life. Similar to the artists mentioned
above, Billingham chooses to focus his photography on personal subjects – his
family, specifically his lower class, British parents. Unlike the other artists, though,
he uses budget cameras and inexpensively develops his images. His composition is
seemingly not thought out with much care, as there is no central focus to which the
viewer’s eyes fixate – figures are haphazardly cropped out of the image, and the
colors and patterns clash drastically. It is very much like the images I mentioned
above that one might find while surfing through a Facebook album. The disturbing
and unflattering nature is similar to the unbecoming pictures that friends send to
each other via Snapchat.
Mary Warner Marien, author of Photography: A Cultural History, likens his
photography to reality television and the intrusive nature of contemporary media
outlets. Billingham exposes his dysfunctional family to the world, and by doing so,
claims an importance of his familial experience. The fights that his parents get into
are no longer personal occurrences, but public, immortalized events. This mundane
and reoccurring interaction between an alcoholic husband and a boisterous wife is
made into something more through the capturing of Billingham’s photograph.
It would be neglectful to ignore the fact that Billingham may have had a
larger purpose in the photographing of his family. The many images in his series
speak to the dedication of his parents, their relationship, and their struggle through
poverty. Marien also compares these works to early examples of documentary and
social photography, which were exposing harsh conditions of the lower classes
during the turn of the century. There is a main difference between Billingham and
Riis that must be highlighted – Riis was exposing how “the other half lived” while
Billingham is exposing his own life and experience, which is what Sontag is
particularly focusing on in her quote. By taking these photographs, he is replacing a
first hand familial experience with one between himself and the camera.
Susan Sontag’s quote about the way the individual interacts with
photography – the process (photographing) and the outcome (the photograph) – is
very relevant to the contemporary experience. She brings up an interesting point
that is an important one to ponder as society continues down the path of media
Susan Sontag and the Photographic Experience
Marina Bardash Nebro
Art History 258
Professor Suchma
December 14, 2013