46 pages 1 hour read

Susan Sontag

On Photography

Nonfiction | Essay Collection | Adult | Published in 1977

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Summary and Study Guide


On Photography is a 1977 collection of seven essays by American scholar, activist, and philosopher Susan Sontag. The essays were published in the New York Review of Books from 1973 to 1977 before publication in a single volume. Sontag explores the history of photography and its relationship to reality, the fine arts, and sociopolitical power structures. Individual essays explore these various relationships between photography and the world through a different lens before the culminating exploration of “The Image World”—the network of photographic media that mediates people’s relationship with reality—and a curated collection of photographers’ quotes. Sontag works to prove that photography is, like language, a medium, and that it’s often used to reinforce societal norms and the status quo in an industrial, consumerist society.

The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism in 1977 and has shaped discourse on photography since its publication. It brings together disparate concepts of art and literary criticism, philosophy, and cultural studies to lay the groundwork for discussing photography and its wide-reaching implications in society. The essay collection explores several themes, including Consumerism and Contemporary Life, the relationship between Art and Power Dynamics, and how photography shapes Surveillance and the Nature of Reality.

This guide uses the 2005 RosettaBooks eBook edition. Pagination may vary slightly in other editions.

Content Warning: On Photography contains racially biased depictions of Chinese people, Orientalism, and demeaning language toward marginalized groups and identities.


Sontag begins with “In Plato’s Cave,” which establishes her main premises and the theoretical foundation that runs through all the other essays. She explores photography through a comparison to Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which prisoners experience reality as a series of shadows cast on a wall. Like shadows, photographs overtake and supersede reality. Sontag posits that people compare everything to photographs and structure life as if always viewing the world through a camera lens. Sontag characterizes photography as a form of appropriation in that it allows photographers to take pieces of reality home with them. Cameras are tools of appropriation, exploitation, and intrusion into the lives of people who aren’t like the photographer. Sontag theorizes that this appropriation of reality and the idealization of the image has completely restructured society to prioritize surveillance and control through the use of images such as bureaucratic documents, CCTV, and more.

The second essay, “America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly,” explores American photography’s obsession with kitsch, trash, and banal objects. Sontag relates current trends in photography and art back to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and his desire for people to see every speck of America as beautiful and relevant. Sontag calls this “euphoric humanism” and believes that this populist impulse leads to the appropriation of lives unlike those of the photographer. As an example, Sontag cites Diane Arbus, who made her fame from photographing marginalized people. Sontag believes that Whitman’s vision comes to fruition through photography in ironic ways that the poet couldn’t have foreseen. Sontag asserts that American photography is a form of colonization and tourism in the name of unifying the American experience.

“Melancholy Objects,” the third essay, examines the relationship between photographs as physical objects and the passage of time. Sontag believes that time makes photographs surreal, or hyper-real. She emphasizes that photographs capture a slice of time and keep it frozen, even while the photograph ages. This unique property of photographs allows families to be preserved as they were at one moment, even after family members age and die. Photographs shape people’s perspective on time by literally preserving slices of the past in ways that were impossible before photography. This relation to time leads to the desire to collect and catalogue the world around us, which feeds the American obsession with kitsch, banal objects, and outcasts. This strange relationship to time and impulse to catalogue leads back to Sontag’s idea of colonial tourists—photographers who colonize through the camera by capturing people, objects, and things foreign to their everyday life.

In the fourth essay, “The Heroism of Vision,” Sontag explores photographers’ own ideas about the power and purpose of their gaze as photo takers. Sontag believes that by the 1920s, photographers became “modern hero[es]” through their use of the camera because of society’s reorientation around the image. The valorization of the photographer led to questions of photography’s place in relationship to art. Photography entered into a reciprocal relationship with art, though many photographers disavowed the connection to maintain an aura of superiority to art.

“Photographic Evangels,” the fifth essay, examines the rhetoric that photographers use to insist on photography’s importance to the world and ingrain photography into everyday culture. Photography’s evangelizers approach the use of the camera as a higher-order intellectual activity of cataloguing the world, or as an intuitive and creative act that reveals more about the photographer than the subject. Sontag calls this the split between photography as art and photography as document. She breaks down the binarization of photography’s history, revealing that the two sides—artistic and scientific photography—are inseparable and have jointly reshaped art. Sontag believes that photography is a medium, like language, and not an art form in itself.

In the sixth essay, “The Image World,” the author zooms out to take a final look at photography’s effects on people’s perception of reality and its relationship to imagery. Sontag posits that photography has reoriented people to see the world as disjointed objects and experiences worthy or unworthy of photographing and recording. She argues that “reality” and its derivative, “image,” are concepts that shift and change within each culture over time. In an industrial capitalist society, Sontag believes that images supersede actual experiences of reality. The “Image World” becomes more real than reality, creating a market to sell endless entertainment and distractions from the unjust conditions of capitalist society, while the saturation of surveillance and images in everyday life makes population control easier than it was in eras before photography.

“A Brief Anthology of Quotations,” the final piece in the book, is a montage-style collection of various quotes and snippets on photography that Sontag curated from various figures, ranging from the inventors of photography to advertisements for cameras in the 20th century. Sontag uses these quotations to create an impressionistic portrait that shows how she formed her view of photography. The author took inspiration for this section from Walter Benjamin’s magnum opus The Arcades Project, an unfinished exploration of 19th-century Parisian life—and the effects of photography—that largely relies on montages of quotations.