Book review: ‘On Photography’ by Susan Sontag

Wonderful insights marred by pretentious language.

On Photography

I first encountered the late Susan Sontag on the much-missed, long-defunct late-night BBC 2 Arts programme The Late Show. Sontag was being interviewed by a clearly besotted Michael Ignatieff. She came across as a fascinating and charming intellectual with plenty of interesting stuff to say. Ever since, as a keen photographer, I’ve always intended to get round to reading her classic book, On Photography.

I was deeply disappointed. Although Sontag clearly had important things to say about my favourite visual art-form—and On Photography contains some genuinely thought-provoking insights—much of the text comes across as needlessly obscurantist. I struggled on manfully for 123 pages until I came to the following final straw:

Photography is the paradigm of an inherently equivocal connection between self and world—its version of the ideology of realism sometimes dictating an effacement of the self in relation to the world, sometimes authorising an aggressive relation to the world which celebrates the self.

At which point, I gave up. The text of On Photography is riddled with passages like this.

This sort of writing infuriates me. If you have important things to say on a subject—and, I repeat, I do think Sontag had important things to say about photography—why not express them in plain, unadorned language that mere mortals can understand? Otherwise, you come across as nothing more than a pseudo-intellectual postmodernist baloney artist.

A wasted opportunity.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Richard Carter

A fat, bearded chap with a Charles Darwin fixation.