Sontag argues that a photograph is a ‘material vestige of its subject in a way that no painting can be’ (p81). Discuss. Since its origins between 1840 and 1850, photography has been considered to be able to reflect reality in a different way and supposed a big breakdown from the painting tradition. For Sontag, photography appeared because of the necessity of wanting to cover as many themes and genres as possibilities of photographs do exist; which means, infinite possibilities of genres.
It could be considered one of the best inventions in history but at the same time, photography appeared limited by a bigger handicap: the mix between science and technique; not everybody could afford to take photographs on those first years (1840-1850); it was a hobby only for scientifics or for people of the highest class of society. During the Civil War years in the United States and some years later, photography turned into fashion; people usually took a photo when they visited someone and give it to the host as a way of showing gratitude.
People then started to use these photos as collectibles and its use was even more extended if it could be but still, between the richer populations. Soon people started to realize a photograph could better represent reality, in a way that paintings despite their brushstrokes could not get. Therefore, with this example we can understand why it is usually said ‘photography furnish evidence’, it helps to prove where one has been or who you know.
In actual times, photographs could be seen as personal achievements; we use photography to show our family that where we had been was real, they can see yourself in the picture and realize that you were in a certain place. Also, we use photography in specific moments in time for example, to show our co-workers our own story “These are my parents”, “This is my boyfriend”, “Those are my friends” etc. After the first industrialization of photography at the end of the 19th century amateur photographers started to appear and with them, photography turned into a social habit like it is owadays. There is no meeting or social event in which there is no camera immortalizing the moment. Photography has the identity of something eternal, not like paintings that are simple impressions of reality. This way we could easily say that photography is the way a human being has to maintain a memory as fresh and vivid as when the photo was taken. Photography was also linked to another invent of modern society: the tourism. Some people can find some peace in taking photographs of exotic places.
This way we can understand photographs as they are: they represent an appearance, reality and everything regarding to it. They represent reality just like it was or it is. We saw that on the one hand we have photography and all its contents: reliability when speaking about reflecting reality, capable of capturing specific moments in time, etc. but on the other hand we have paintings. When they first appeared we could say it was at the start of the story, when not even language was invented. Since then, paintings had been the way of representing memories or knowledge, and now it let us explore our own history.
But instead Sontag says that ‘Through image-making and image-duplicating machines we can acquire something as information (rather than experience)’ (On Photography, p. 154), which means paintings were useful when photograph was not invented but still nowadays a painting would be rather useless when talking about reflecting reality and reliability. Moreover, in the 21th century some people ask themselves: were paintings as reliable as photography is now? And opinions as points of view are really numerous and variable.
Susan Sontag for example in her book ‘On Photography’ tells us that a photograph is something eternal and indestructible: ‘a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; […] while a painting, even one that meets photographic standards of resemblance, is never more than the stating of an interpretation, a photograph is never less than the registering of an emanation (light waves reflected by objects) – a material vestige of its subject as no painting can be’ (“On Photography” 153-154) and I agree because a photograph really captures reality as we perceive it with our own eyes, while a painting is only an interpretation of that reality. Definitely a painting could never be as detailed and vivid as our eyes let us see the world or as a camera let us captivate that moment. Because of the contrasts, purity of the colors, the focus, the light and consequently its reliability, photography has turned into an essential part of everyone’s life.
Contrary to another forms of expression as writing or plastic arts –painting or drawing- in photography there is no place for personal interpretations of reality. You can choose the frame, what to photograph or focus in a certain thing and someone could say is a personal interpretation of reality because you choose what to get in that photograph, but it is not. What the light sensor detects and is reflected in the photosensitive material was actually there with that color, that size, that specific haircut or look in his or her eyes. With photographs you can ever go further and capture a certain look in the eyes, those eyes of characters that reflect a certain thought or intention in their minds.
But if you think about a painting it is nothing else that an interpretation of all that ‘is’, that exists in reality as we see it. In paintings the interpretation that the artist does of what we consider reality can be as variable as impressions or points of view. When painting a landscape not every artist is going to use the same green tone for shadows in trees or for the leaves blowing in the wind, therefore it is pure interpretation. Maybe it was this double sense of reality in photography –it reflects reality and at the same time a photograph is a little selection of that reality- what made the controversial debate about if it was considered art or not and why artists and drawers did not accept well its first appearance.
They argued that a photographer only presses the button, activates a mechanism and at the same time he or she is only selecting or giving away his or her own point of view, what he or she wanted to take a picture of. The photographer is only showing us a part of the ‘reality’ so that is why it could be considered an interpretation too. As an artist decides to cover one character in a painting or a form in it, the photographer creates the image and chooses what to photograph. All this debate leaded into different opinions that were made about photography, but the most important one is which follows: we could not imagine (or it would be very difficult to imagine) a world completely free of photographic images. Photography in our times has grown so fast that it is used basically in everything that surrounds us.
Some of its numerous uses are: decoration, special occasions, education (for example while studying in a laboratory with so little things not even human eye can see), news and propaganda. And they are everywhere: while walking down the street we can get to see almost 20 different adverts (stimulus) per minute. Advertising nowadays is practically image in a seventy percent and a thirty percent text, which is how publicity generates consumption. This has been used as a way of introducing fashion or new products to society, and also leaded into an incontrollable situation especially among feminine population. The idealistic images shown on advertising had spread the fear of being undesirable between women till extreme limits.
As a matter of fact, there have been reports about young women with disorders in their eating habits because they wanted to look as skinny as the models in adverts. Furthermore, it is not only about the effect it causes but about how it objectifies women in a sexual way. As Naomi Wolf in her book “The Beauty Myth” explains ‘What little girls learn is not the desire for the other, but the desire to be desired’ (“The Beauty Myth” 122). Wolf also states that: ‘[D]uring the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing specialty[…]and thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal… (10)
And this is quite disappointing because photography was created to let us see more far away than what our eyes let us see and actually what photography has turned into is to a completely different thing of its original purpose. But if one looks at it from a different point of view, photography gives us the possibility of contemplate beautiful and tender images but also horrific and misery that sometimes happens. It makes us see the hidden part of reality that we probably would not show. In conclusion, we could say photography is similar to discovering electricity or when planes were invented, it opened the door for infinite possibilities to humanity and, at the same time big and new questions about its own nature. If we go deeply, we could say a photograph is not more than an instant in time, captured, a moment of those thousands of moments we have each day.
As Sontag says, we should not make the mistake of thinking in a more accessible and understandable world just because we have seen images of the other side of the world, just because we have seen how people live and act in the other hemisphere or on the other side of the planet we do not have the right to say “I know who they are and how they act”. Still this was one of the greatest achievements of photography: changing, without intention, the way we see ‘our world’, or what we consider our little universe.
Sontag, S. : (1978) On Photography. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd. Wolf, N. : (1991) The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. New York: William Morrow and Company.