Taken on 2nd August, 2009 in La Paz, Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, Mexico. Nikon D90, Exposure 1/1600s at f/3.5, Focal Length 18mm, ISO Speed 400. More details.

I've been slowly getting through Susan Sontag's On Photography for quite a while now.

Yeah, I'm a slow reader, but I've been particularly taking my time with Sontag because I've enjoyed reflecting on how the essays, first published in 1977, can elucidate our interpretation of photographs online, how they apply to the work I do for this blog, and how best to approach future projects.

2006 Oaxaca Uprising on flickr

Photograph by Jorge Santiago. As part of "Memorial De Agravios - Exhibición de una Memoria en Tránsito". Taken during Oaxaca Uprising, Mexico, 2006.

A photograph changes according to the context in which it is seen… on a contact sheet, in a gallery, in a political demonstration, in a police file, in a photographic magazine, in a general news magazine, in a book, on a living-room wall. Each of these situations suggests a different use for the [photograph] but none can secure [its] meaning.

The Heroism of Vision

The web has enabled an even more prolific spread of photographic images and multiplied the range of contexts in which their meaning can be changed. To Sontag's list above we can add: as a thumbnail in a gallery, on a photo-sharing site like pix.ie or flickr, on a news site, on a photo blog, as part of a portfolio, on a political blog, as a twitter background, as a facebook profile image… I could keep going.

Social media has played a particularly strong part in re-evaluating the role of the snapshot, readily equating it with the status previously assigned to photo-journalism. When a plane crash landed in New York's Hudson River in January, Janis Krums, en route to help rescue survivors, snapped a picture on his iPhone and posted it to his twitter account. Within minutes the picture had not only been reposted thousands of times online but was being broadcast worldwide on traditional news media.

There has also been a huge shift in the way that we share our images with friends. Gone are the days of passing grubby thumb-marked 4x6” prints around a coffee table, or the iconic (and dreaded) slide show of the summer holidays. You are much more likely, these days, to glance through your friends' snaps online, without them peering over your shoulder, regaling, or bombarding, you with details and anecdotes (there can be such a thing as too much context it would seem).

Artists have also taken their photographs online, often using the same photo-sharing sites, creating their own portfolios or publishing photo blogs. The interconnectedness of the web would seem perfectly suited to produce what Sontag describes as:

…new meanings that any one picture acquires when juxtaposed—in ideal anthologies, either on museum walls or in books—with the work of other photographers.

Photographic Evangels

The Internet can, potentially, provide many more ideal anthologies and there is still much room for innovation in how we seek to create meaning around photographs.

Tagging, geotagging and other organisational structures help form groups of images relating to events, subjects, styles, places etc. These, often organic, collections in many ways hold up the paradigm of the ideal anthology but the critical unit remains the single image and the pattern for presenting that unit is well established:

UI wireframe of typical interaction with photos online

This pattern has its merits for family pictures and photographs of events shared among friends but in the context of art criticism it generally falls hopelessly short.

The language in which photographs are generally evaluated is extremely meagre. Sometimes it is parasitical on the vocabulary of painting: composition, light, and so forth. More often it consists in the vaguest sort of judgements, as when photographs are praised for being subtle, or interesting, or powerful, or complex, or simple, or—a favourite—deceptively simple.

Photographic Evangels

I suggest three strands of a fresh approach to presenting photographic images online.

  1. Harness the dynamic relationship between context and meaning.
  2. Juxtapose work by different photographers in a structured and meaningful way which creates new meanings for the individual work of each.
  3. Break the overworked design pattern in a way that promotes constructive and creative response.

I am working to create a project along these lines and I hope others are too. Our use of photography has adapted to new technology since Sontag wrote this seminal work in 1977, the evolution will continue, it may not be televised but it most certainly will be online.

5 Comments

Interesting view of the this evolution in the mediums and context where photographs are shown. Definitely interested in participating in this project you are starting. I think it will boost a nice level of viewing and analyzing images much more consciously. Count me in!! ;) By the way, I have to read again 'On Photography'. You've brought up some concepts and ideas I forgotten.

  • avatar
  • Oisin wrote:
  • 19th August, 2009

I've never underlined a book so much Ivan… I've expanded on just a small selection of concepts I found interesting here but there is so much more to it. I'll be hanging onto my copy as we travel south, it seems like a great work to dip back into.

  • avatar
  • Kit Geary wrote:
  • 19th August, 2009

I've felt strongly, for some time, that the proliferation of photography via the internet has diminished our collective ability to critically view an image. A forum like the one you are suggesting could focus (excuse the pun) both the photographer and the viewer on the importance of relationships between photographs, or series of photographs. I look forward to seeing how this idea grows.

Not sure what to say about Sontag’s On Photography. Enjoyed it immensely, but I do feel it’s a bit flimsy in terms of theory – lots of interesting ideas, but insufficiently followed through for the most part I think. Plus I don’t agree with one of her main arguments, which seems to be that photographers, by ‘recording’ rather than ‘acting’ are therefore anti-interventionist and anti-change, thus ultimately serving the interests of the status quo. Lots of food for thought though, and I’m interested enough in the subject itself to find the book essential and compulsive reading despite my reservations. A good follow-on book is Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment - bullshit in places, and (deliberately but unsatisfactorily) organised in haphazard fashion, but hugely enjoyable nonetheless, with lots of original insights.

  • avatar
  • Oisin wrote:
  • 31st August, 2009

Thanks Phil, I'll look out for Geoff Dyer's offering. Sontag packs a lot of personal theories into On Photography and I often felt ill-prepared to judge her reasoning behind many of them, which seemed generally to be based on the work of photographers I'm still unfamiliar with.

I guess what I found most compelling in the book were the parts that prompted me to reflect on my own approach to photography and on ways to push that forward. I'm not sure how universal these theories are but they ring true to my personal experiences.