On Photography: Impressions and Memory

July 6, 2007

I’m only in the first chapter of Susan Sontag’s collection of essays “about the meaning and career of photographs,” and I am feeling that immediate sense of recognition — the quickened pulse and the urgent need to nod my head vigorously as she deftly touches the undercurrents that drive my own photography. The insatiable need to capture images, the desire to collect and catalog — all are neatly pinned down on page two like butterfly specimens beneath a gentle but unremitting light:

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.

And with the same clarity, she continues…

…print seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world, of turning it into a mental object, than photographic images, which now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present. What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. 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.

early family photosFrom time to time, I look back on my own past, at the earliest years where memories become fragments, sparse and dimly lit. I only see glimpses now, suspiciously photographic in quality and often even toned in sepia as are my family’s pictures from the period. Are my recollections merely photographs seeded into my memory by years of browsing the old pictures? Or have my real memories taken on the visual characteristics of photographs, a projection of time-clouded uncertainty into a familiar and comforting frame?



  1. Try “At the Same Time: Essays And Speeches” a collection of Susan Sontag’s essays and speeches. After her 9/11 essay I closed my mind to her writings for a while. I’m glad I opened this book. Her “An Argument About Beauty” deserves slow & careful reading.

  2. Thanks, M. On your suggestion, I read more about that volume. I see now that it will be a very fitting follow-up to On Photography.

    I’m looking forward to reading it.

  3. Hey, I think I need to get hold of this book. Great thoughts – thanks for sharing!

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