Light and shadow

Print edition : March 16, 2002
On photography, a quarter of a century on.

"HUMANKIND lingers unregenerately in Plato's cave," Susan Sontag's book On Photography begins, "still revelling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth." But reading on through "In Plato's Cave", which is the first of the six essays that make up the book, we see that photographs have replaced what Plato would have called mere appearances. They have, literally, taken the place of the phenomena - the play of the world on and to our eyes - that once veiled the philosopher's Forms from our minds. One cannot tell how strictly Sontag follows Plato here: if she would insist, for instance, that knowing is no kin at all to sensing, however much coming to know anything may require the use of the senses. But most of her readers would have agreed, 25 years or so ago when the book appeared, that photographs can only provide "a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom". They would have agreed that through photographs "industrial societies turn their citizens into image junkies" and granted that photographs are "the most irresistible form of mental pollution".

M.S. VENKATACHALAM

"The camera makes reality atomic," Sontag goes on to say; it denies whatever gets shown any "interconnectedness or continuity" even as it "confers on each moment the character of a mystery". And because "only that which narrates can make us understand," it seems right to claim that "strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph". By the time we read this, Sontag has dwelt on how "the vast photographic catalogue of misery and injustice" has made the horrible seem at once "ordinary, familiar, remote, inevitable". And then it does not surprise us to find that "the limit of photographic knowledge of the world is that, while it can goad conscience, it can, finally, never be ethical or political knowledge."

So, as the photograph displaces other sorts of images, and makes the world we share more and more a photographed one - not least by enabling us to take pictures of anything we might see every day photography becomes, it seems, a social practice that actively hinders ethical and political understanding. And just why Sontag might think so is brought out neatly when she talks of photography supplying us "our pocket relation to the past," in a world where "having an experience" has become "identical with taking a photograph of it" and where, finally, "everything exists to end in a photograph".

That is how "In Plato's Cave" ends - more as an epitaph than as a lament. Getting any vivid sense, now, of the understanding that photography is supposed to have compromised would be difficult; and saying why that is so would be just as difficult. A quarter of a century has gone by since Sontag's indictment of photography, and the subtler modes of thought and feeling lying behind that judgment may have become vestigial.

But we should try; and one way of reaching back would be to look at something like Another Way of Telling, a book by John Berger and Jean Mohr, which tries to use the photograph in ways that would evade Sontag's censure. That book was begun a little before On Photography came out and was published a few years later. It made quite an impression then. At its heart are pictures that try to bring out "how peasants look at themselves". How well Berger and Mohr have done so, and whether what they achieve could count as ethical or political understanding, may finally be questions that are best left unanswered. But it should be worth getting at some of the "assumptions usually made about photography," which they found themselves "having to doubt or reject".

Another Way of Telling has essays by Berger. The first is titled "The ambiguity of the photograph," and we could start there. Photographs seem to depict objects and events at particular moments (or through perceptually unappreciable intervals of time). That can be said of other sorts of pictures as well, of course, but the singularity of the photograph is that the depicting seems to get done even as what is depicted takes place. And this cannot be claimed for earlier and more manual modes of producing images. What is more, the primary part of the photographic process, the 'drawing' by light that happens when film is exposed - that cannot be tampered with (it would seem, at least). These two features of the process prompt one to describe photographs as material traces of actual events or objects - while one would not readily talk of paintings, for instance, as such - and so tempt us to yield them the 'status of fact' that both Berger and Sontag grant them.

But though a photograph may be a trace, the image itself will not always identify the event or the object depicted. Moreover, photographs do seem to lend themselves to very different descriptions of what they depict. This seems to be, at first, the ambiguity of the photograph. But what really distinguishes the photograph - for Berger, and for Sontag too - is that in lending itself to descriptions of events or objects, a photograph seems, through the status of fact which it enjoys, to confirm those descriptions.

That may well have been so a quarter of a century ago; and perhaps our eyes are not much cannier now. We need a phrase summarising this feature of photographs - their seeming to confirm, equally, each of the many descriptions they indifferently lend themselves to. One might term that their narrative promiscuity. But this alone could not defeat ethical or political understanding. There would be larger reasons why Sontag thinks, for instance, that the taking of photographs is at once "a way of certifying" and "a way of refusing" experience. Or why, "like sexual voyeurism, it is a way of tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging whatever is going on to keep happening". But their promiscuity must be the main reason why the photograph's "value as information is of the same order as fiction" mostly - and this just when "our sense of situation is articulated by the camera's interventions" - and so that must be what, to a great extent, does allow the photographic displacement of experience to compromise understanding.

How photography reflects ethical and political self-understanding - however compromised - seems to be the theme of "America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly," the second essay in Sontag's book. Here she looks at practice before and after the Second World War, and tries to focus differences by setting Diane Arbus beside the example of Walker Evans. We might still be able to see their pictures as Sontag did. It seems right to insist that Arbus can "insinuate anguish, kinkiness or mental illness" in whomever she photographs, whether or not they belong to the social underworld she preferred picturing; and it may have seemed only right 25 years ago to say that "Evans's camera brought out the same formal beauty in the exteriors of Victorian houses in Boston... as in the store buildings on main streets in Alabama towns." But today, one does wonder whether the 'formal beauty' in Evans' pictures is not as much an insinuation as disturbance or deviance is in Arbus'.

G. RAGHAV

Sontag has Evans setting out to make manifest "the community of American desire" - at a time when it was still possible to say with Whitman that "the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem" - while "the implicit intent of Arbus and her peers," she thinks, is to show that "America is the grave of the Occident". It is not clear how photography itself soured Arbus on America; but the suggestion is that it did. Arbus' mature work was done in the 1960s. This fact alone will suggest explanations, especially once we hear that she started her career as a fashion photographer, and when we hear her say that growing up as the child of well-off parents she "never felt adversity". Sontag is at some pains, actually, to bring out why her social milieu would have made Arbus "sophisticated in the familiar modernist way" only; and so turned her into a much simpler artist than Warhol, for example. It would be tedious to rehearse those sorts of explanations, though, and hard to summarise them any better than most readers themselves could. So let me go back to Berger, and see how he tackles the dangers that photography poses.

THE most pernicious assumption generally made about photographs, Berger thinks, is that "what they tell belongs to the same order of truth" - whether they are used as scientific evidence or as a means of communicating human experience. He grants that photographs may supply "unquestionable evidence within the conceptual framework of a scientific investigation". But when they are used "as a means of communication, the nature of lived experience is involved, and then the truth becomes more complex".

As to why such a difference goes unrecognised, Berger is quite definite. That is "not so much an oversight as a proposal," he says, and this proposal serves to maintain "the global system of late capitalism". Berger is sketchy on why that should be so. That "positivism and the camera and sociology all grew up together" seems to matter now (and he thinks that "the positivist utopia" which the 'applied' sociology of Comte was meant to bring about "became, instead, the global system of late capitalism").

Nonetheless the photograph can be made to disclose those more complex truths of human experience which are obscured when the 'evidential' use of photography precludes its properly 'communicative' use - or so Berger thinks. The photographs at the core of Another Way of Telling are meant to communicate some such truth about how peasants look at themselves. These pictures may be found in a section titled "If Each Time..." where they are put together in a seemingly random way: which matters a good deal,as we shall see in a moment. None of them have been reproduced here: the pictures are meant to work en bloc. But were they to be set beside classics of their kind - of the sort that would have appealed to, say, Edward Steichen, when he put together The Family of Man - the pictures might still come at the eye more obliquely.

G. RAGHAV

Why Berger thinks as he does is set out in two essays preceding and following the pictures, titled "The enigma of appearances" and "Stories". His reasons are diffusely developed and hard to summarise. But the main claim is that the photographs in "If Each Time..." communicate their special truth through "an energy of attraction" between the individual pictures, which is "equal, two-way and mutual" and, as such, "closely resembles the stimulus by which one memory triggers another, irrespective of hierarchy, chronology or duration".

Such an energy of attraction is possible because, though photographs "are oracular" and "insinuate more" than they present, photography itself "has no language of its own". The manifold insinuation of a photograph makes, of course, for ambiguity; for what was called narrative promiscuity. But not having a language of their own allows photographs to "quote from appearances" in ways that more manual images cannot, say, and to do so freely: to quote without ordering what they show in ways that hamper how they might, possibly, attract each other equally and mutually. And Berger's claim now is that when photographs do attract each other so, then "they are restored to a living context: to a context of experience" where, astonishingly, "their ambiguity at last becomes true".

The truth so gained must be a singular thing: because Berger had told us earlier that "photographed events are ambiguous except to those whose personal relation to the event is such that their own lives supply the continuity" - the continuity between, presumably, the moment shown and all that did come before and after. But the ambiguity of the photograph is held to "become true", now, because what is shown in "If Each Time..." can be "appropriated by reflection" by everyone generally, and not just by those who happened to participate in the events depicted.

This appropriating is not a matter of saying anything, one should note, with the pictures supplying evidence for whatever may get said. Rather, here reflection seems to consist in seeing these pictures attract each other, as equally and mutually as memories are supposed to trigger each other, "irrespective of hierarchy, chronology and duration". All of this turns into an asset the very 'discontinuity' that the pictures would present to most beholders.

The promiscuity of the photograph seems a mainly social fact now: the result, first, of photographs circulating between beholders who are almost never personally related to the events they depict and, second, of photographs being generally supposed to provide evidence for descriptions of how participants in photographed events are so related. The danger seems clear: taken as evidence photographs can confirm descriptions which distort how participants themselves understood photographed events. But Berger's 'appropriating by reflection' turns the photograph's manifold insinuation to account - finessing, as it were, its promiscuity - by producing through that insinuation a finally visual truth.

The large reason why truth might be thought to result here is that "seeing and organic are both dependent on light" and "appearances are the face of this mutuality". That will seem a mystic suggestion. But the suasion of Berger's prose does tempt one to yield. Yet it would be very hard to say why this very general 'mutuality' should enable photographs - even when they quote from appearances freely - to attract each other in the right ways. One thing that does seem crucial to photographs doing so at all, is their not having 'a language of their own'. And it might be worth setting down Berger's argument for that (if only because it is so often repeated). If photography has no language of its own - while drawing, say, does - that is supposedly because a photograph is "produced instantaneously", whereas "the countless judgments and decisions which constitute a drawing are systematic: every drawing, in order to recreate appearances, has recourse to a language."

The argument will not bear scrutiny. Berger is echoing Roland Barthes, and the confusion both suffer is a categorial one. The notion of image - of something grasped a certain way - is run together with the notion of material trace - of something coming about in quite another way - and that is somewhat like not distinguishing between voluntary action and bodily movement. (Someone who could not would only be confused by being asked, for instance, to distinguish winking from blinking.)

That may not damage Berger's larger claim, though. Not having a language of their own seems to amount, precisely, to photographs being able to quote from appearances freely: and the marketing of the photograph may have ensured that. The general availability of portable cameras, and of the means of getting negatives developed and pictures printed, together constitute a ready supply for which there is a natural demand - or so it seems - when cameras and film, and the processes of developing and printing, are all standardised. We might call this the polaroid factor. That seems to make the actual production and dissemination of photographs very hard to socially supervise - despite the standardising, perhaps because photographs do quote from appearances - in just the way the production and dissemination of texts are supervised (through how readers and writers actually acquire a language). And the absence of supervision may well be what lets photographs quote from appearances freely.

"Sunhere Sapne"-PUSHPAMALA N.

The polaroid factor then, not the instant formation of the material traces that photographs are, might be why photographs seem to have no language of their own. Now one may wonder if the kinds of attraction between photographs that free quotation allows does, in fact, make for any sort of truth. But even if Berger is willing to take 'equal' and 'mutual' attraction however he gets it, much is needed to secure the claim that the photograph's ambiguity becomes true when photographs so attract each other. It may prove difficult, for example, to sustain the analogy between such attraction and how memories trigger each other. But such as have been aired, anyhow, would be Berger's reasons for contending that the photograph need not, pace Sontag, only pollute the mind.

"TO view reality as an endless set of situations which mirror each other", Sontag remarks, "is to anticipate the characteristic form of perception stimulated by photographic images". We read this in "The Image World," the essay that concludes On Photography. The polaroid factor helps make such a form of perception the common one, apparently, and in doing so promotes at once an 'aesthetic' and an 'instrumental' attitude toward the world. There is "nothing that should not be seen" now, and "nothing that should not be recorded".

Earlier Sontag had maintained that "through photographs we have a consumer's relation to events: both to events which are part of our experience and to those which are not". The habitual consumption of photographs is said to "blur the distinction" between the world experienced directly, as it were, and the world experienced through photographs. When that happens - and when "anything in the world is material for the camera" - then photographs can "define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for the masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers)".

Sontag is not likely to have granted, 25 years ago, that the American 'masses' could understand reality as spectacle: rather than only mistake spectacle for reality (behaving everywhere much as they would in Disney World, or in 'historical preserves' like Colonial Williamsburg). But no one could have foreseen 'reality' television then; and the readiness of people to 'live' under the camera's eye on shows like Big Brother. Their willingness to go on, apparently, with what they are doing when they do not know how much of what they do will be recorded or seen - that would have been unthinkable then. It is baffling even now. But the elision so effected, of the distinction between the fictive and the actual, does seem to be a symptom. 'Being oneself' and 'acting a part' - or 'performing an identity'; to put things fashionably - are all practically the same on reality shows. And that does suggest an understanding of social reality as spectacle, consensually enjoyed as such by the immediate descendants of both Sontag's masses and rulers.

Just before telling us how photographs define reality, Sontag had remarked that "the only question is whether the function of the image world created by cameras could be other than what it is". Now, social reality may or may not be generally understood as spectacle in America for instance, or in the 'developed' world at large. But why we come to suspect so suggests, by itself, that 'the function of the image world' cannot be construed anymore as Sontag once did. (One should note here that On Photography concentrates on America and Europe. The image world produced by photography in India would have been another thing 25 years ago - even for anglophone Indians - and it still may be so in important ways. But getting at that would need another essay.)

THE pictures in Another Way of Telling were meant to breach, as it were, Sontag's image world. She would not be disposed to grant that they could, given what we had her say to begin with: nothing Berger says would make her think again, and she would have been no kinder to Another Way Of Telling, very like, than she was to the similar attempts she looks at in that essay. Berger's "equal, two-way and mutual" energy of attraction only lets "images consume reality" more efficiently than they otherwise would, she might even insist: perhaps because "any collection of photographs" can only be "an exercise in Surrealist montage". One finds this in "Melancholy Objects", the essay following "America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly", where Sontag fills out her startling claim that "the mainstream of photographic activity" makes "a Surrealist manipulation or theatricalisation of the real unnecessary, if not actually redundant".

There was one thing Berger and Sontag both made much of, though: and that is the status of fact that photographs seem to possess through being material traces of objects or events (which is what, recall, makes them narratively promiscuous). If photographs did "turn reality into a shadow", as Sontag says, that is apparently because they are "material realities in their own right, richly informative deposits left in the wake of whatever emitted them." But one may ask if the photograph should be taken to work so anymore: with the personal computer and the Internet coming into general use.

The Web gives its users easy access to images of all sorts. Programs like Photoshop allow users to generate, out of these, images that may approximate photographs in all sorts of ways. More generally, the digital computer enables images to approach or exceed a photographic limit in many different visual directions, and do so to any desired degree; and the Internet allows its users to exchange such images freely. So one may wonder if the still photograph will be taken, sooner or later, to index a stage in some process of generating visual interpretanda, rather than record a moment or an aspect of some actual event or object: no matter what the provenance of the image seems to be in particular cases. One has to leave open the question of how consciously beholders of photographs will come to take them as stages rather than records of moments: that may come to be a species of behaviour, a reflex that conditions whatever one goes on to do with the image.

When visual interpretanda come to be read entirely within the image world, one might hazard saying now, the fact of the photograph will have no special status with beholders. Just what it might be for the consensual understanding of images to go on 'entirely within the image world' would be hard to say. But things would be so when, for instance, whatever an image could disclose about its putative referents can be gathered from what surrounds it in the image world itself. Whatever other purchase beholders might have on what an image seems to show, that is to say - in any actual world behind or beside the image world - those sorts of purchase would no more modify how they take in the image: or would not anymore, once beholders have come of age, at least.

Putting things in this manner seems extreme. But a steady diet of reality shows and soap operas - 'infotainment' and news, in equal portions; 'documentaries' on the making of a movie along with the movie itself, showing stars both act and "be themselves'; and so on - all that just might produce beholders whose response to photography, both still and moving, could properly be described as we just have. One does wonder if such beholders, should they come to see themselves so, will be content to go on consuming photography as they have come to: my guess is that they generally will.

Our "sense of situation" is even more "articulated by the camera's interventions", if that is possible, than it was when Sontag wrote On Photography. But talking of intervention will not capture, anymore, how the camera sets the image world over the actual world: or fits into the image world, one should rather say, the world one actually sees. Whatever direct experience it once only displaced photography now seems able to ingest: by 'colourising' what the camera had already reduced to a shadow, as it were, and making the seen world thereby seem merely one more face of the image world. (One can only talk obliquely at this point; but it is too much to hope, I suppose, that our experience of colourised black-and-white films will usably point what has just been said.)

Sontag sometimes reads as if she were writing in another age entirely; as when, in "Melancholy Objects", she says that "the photographed world stands in the same, essentially inaccurate relation to the real world as stills do to movies". What follows shows that only still photography is being indicted. Sontag was able to do so just as she did because the distinction between still and moving images was simple then. The image world of On Photography was built with either still or moving pictures; quoting, as Berger would put it, from either moments or passages of appearance. But the computer now yields us images whose quality of movement varies continually - and along many vectors one might say - between perfect arrest on the one hand, and natural motion on the other; the pace of depiction matches the pace of events. The action sequences in the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are spectacular samples of such variance from natural motion. The bits of fighting on bamboo especially must be described as alluding to what one might see: rather than as quoting from whatever may have been seen.

But if our image world is quite another place than Sontag's then was, then On Photography lets us measure the distance between them. The book illuminates ours by penetrating what it emerged from. Infotainment and reality television seem possible only after "photography's realism creates a confusion about the real" which is as much "morally analgesic" as it is "sensorially stimulating". And should it not sting, anymore, to be told that the 'humanity' disclosed by the photograph is merely "a quality things have in common when viewed as photographs", coming to see how that stung once may give us some sense, however fleeting, of the ethical and political understanding photography might in fact have compromised. Sontag wrote when America did look like the grave of the Occident; and no one foresaw Leviathan resurrecting there. But the world the creature walks abroad in - wearing all our faces for heraldry - that does seem a world which photography made a shadow first and lit again with its colours.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor