what would susan sontag make of flickr? 07.21.2006, 1:50 AM
posted by bob stein
This post takes a bit of a set-up. Six times over the past twelve years (including the last four) I've had the lucky opportunity to spend a bit of the summer on the northeast coast of Sardinia. The place is filled with contradictions. The landscape is arid, almost desert-like, yet it merges effortlessly with the sea. The gentle wind, lapping waters and sublime beauty disguise a harsh reality--the rocks on land and sea are sharp and unforgiving of error. The stone on the land is red granite but THE rock, the 2 mile long, nearly one-mile high island that dominates the seascape is uncharacteristically made of limestone. There is no electricity except in the kitchen and workshop. We live in concrete-floor huts down by the water. We are always aware of nature here -- both its beauty and its danger. For reasons too complicated to go into now, I am also acutely aware of differences of class and race here. The overall effect of these contradictions is that I am extremely conscious of where I am and how lucky I am to be here.
The other day I read John Berger's 1978 essay, "The Uses of Photography," in which he reflects upon the ideas in Susan Sontag's seminal book, On Photography.
Berger quotes Sontag:
A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetize the injuries of class, race and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit the natural resource, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera's twin capacities, to subjectivise reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by a change in images.
Then he raises the question of whether there is a new way to conceive of the social purpose and practice of photography:
Her theory of the current use of photographs leads one to ask whether photography might serve a different function. Is there an alternative photographic practice? The question should not be answered naively. Today no alternative professional practice (if one thinks of the profession of photographer) is possible. The system can accommodate any photograph. Yet it may be possible to begin to use photographs according to a practice addressed to an alternative future.
. . . . For the photographer this means thinking of her or himself not so much as a reporter to the rest of the world but, rather, as a recorder for those involved in the events photographed [emphasis added]. The distinction is crucial.
The passage in bold above hit me like a ton of bricks. The midday meal here is the important one. The guests and staff eat together on a shaded platform looking out at the island described above (think Ayres Rock rising out of the water rather than planted in the desert). The recipes are local; the ingredients almost all grown on the property or caught in the sea at our doorstep. The result is about as perfect as a meal can be -- completely in synch with time and place. I've made it a habit each day to photograph the food as it is laid out buffet style. I do this for myself but also for "foodie" friends back home. After reading Berger's note above I realized how wrong-headed this "reportage" has been. My photographs of beautifully prepared food do not include any hint of the effort required to grow and prepare it, the sublime surroundings in which both staff and guests eat together, or the feelings of well-being that the experience engenders in us all. [I know that last sounds self-justifying or at the least absurdly naíve, but for now you'll have to accept my sense that even the most well worked out social hierarchies, can under certain conditions and at certain moments turn into their opposite.]
Berger goes on to suggest that key to a new photographic practice is the construction of context:
The alternative use of photographs which already exist leads us back once more to the phenomenon and faculty of memory. The aim must be to construct a context for a photograph, to construct it with words, to construct it with other photographs, to construct it by its place in an ongoing text of photographs and images.
Photographs, at least those which intend to "report" preserve an instant in an ocean of time and therefore Berger contend they require context to give them meaning.
Which in turn brings me to the question of this post which I very much hope some of you will chime in on -- what would Susan Sontag have made of Flickr? Originally, it seems, Flickr was conceived simply as a personal repository of images. In that sense it provides no antidote to the current practice of photography. However, as it begins to grow into a social network, where individuals begin to provide context and meaning to images, is it possible that Flickr could be a step to a new practice of photography. If so, what sorts of functionality need to be developed for Flickr and other related tools?
Michael Patrick Brewster on July 23, 2006 3:12 PM:
I have been using flickr in order to collect images of Rodin sculptures, mostly Burghers of Calais, but a lot of closeups of heads, hands and other details as well. I keep thinking that I am aggregating one of the most comprehensive collections of Burghers photos, certainly one which is free to create and use, which may well make this a unique collection.
If the photographers are taking pictures as 'reportage' then I am collecting these reports. This covers the tourist photos, mementos of a trip to Paris, for example. But since these are also photos of art, many of the photographers are not reporting, but creating art. In this case I am curating a collection of images which exists in only a virtual exhibit. None of the photographers today have the ability to photograph Rodin at work, so the 'recording' idea is necessarily obviated, and even the contextual recording is essentially mininmal in the art photos.
However, I am writing a novel in which the narrator is a photographer. He is, in the story, visiting the Rodin Museum and photographing his girlfriend on the grounds (along with other photos). I have never been to Paris, so I am relying on a certain kind of contextual photograph (as well as maps and materials from the Museum's website) to help me set the scene. I have been using flickr like this for about a year, since I first started using the site heavily (based on the ability to search tags).
What happens in the convergence of photography as recording, memory, reportage and (in the case of flickr) folksonomy? Does Sontag's theory, which tastes a bit Debordian to me, have to be the only possibility? Is there some other way to define this convergence besides a subjective vs. objective duality? Interesting ideas which certainly have a lot of relevance to the future of the book as well as photography.
Matt on August 3, 2006 2:28 PM:
It's an interesting question about flickr. One wonders if Sontag would have liked it very much, as predisposed to capitalism's adaptability and triumphalism as it is. But there is little doubt our way of seeing, and relating images is changing, not least of all with the building of context and substance (albeit of a new sort, neither pure surface pleasure nor ponderous depth) that occurs almost inevitably.
Flickr seems to me a very consumer-driven enterprise, in a practical (and profitable, primarily expansionist) form. And as opposed, say, to a site with a more overt conscience, like Found Photos. On the latter a more powerful silence seems to be at work (recalling that this, too-silence-is an important theme for both Sontag and Berger).
Anyway, an earlier post of mine on this essay, is here.