Write a minimum of 300 words responding to Susan Sontag's essay on photography "In Plato's Cave."
"In Plato's Cave" comes from Sontag's landmark book, On Photography. The book was extremely controversial when it came out in 1977 and has remained the subject a vigorous debate ever since. In fact, Sontag herself later repudiated some of her more extreme claims in her 2003 book, Regarding the Pain of Others. As you can see by these quotes, there were many who were baffled, offended, unimpressed, and annoyed by her book, it's lack of "hard research," its "cafe intellectual style," and it's extreme conclusions. Here is a sampling of reactions (I'll highlight some of the more memorable slams!):
From William H. Gass, "A Different Kind of Art," New York Times Book Review, Dec. 18, 1977:
"No simple summary of the views contained in Susan Sontag's brief but brilliant work on photography is possible, first because there are too many, and second because the book is a thoughtful meditation, not a treatise, and its ideas are group more nearly like a gang of keys upon a ring than a run of onions on a string" (p.7).
From Michael Lesy, "An Unacknowledged Autobiography," Afferimate 5, no. 7 (January 1978):
"This is not a book of primary research, but rather a series of inventive, witty, and perversely whimsical suppositions and intuitions, based on second-hand reports, brought by a messenger from the outside world" (p. 5).
From Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Against Photography," New Yor Times, November 17, 1977.
"To the extent that an art fails, the civilization that produced it fails. So for her [Sontag] the failure of photography as an art form amounts not just to the failure of a technical experiment; it reflects what is wrong with industrial society."
"Argue with Sontag if you will. But know that she has made a powerful and complex case against photography" (p. 37).
From Alfred Kazin, "Sontag is Not a Camera," Esquire, February 1978.
"[Susan] Sontag is so much a theorist and what Europeans call a cafe intellectual - lots of opinions about everything - that her book adds up to a series of epigrams about the widest possible significance of photography in our photo-crowded world" (p. 50).
"Sontag is a prisoner of literary chic. Social reality seems to her a symbol in the mind of some gifted artist, writer, photographer. On Photography comes out of literature, not the naked world that is still there for you and me to look at as we damn please" (p. 51).
From Cornell Capa, letter to the field, March 11, 1978:
"As a photographer and director of the International Center of Photography, I wish to thank Susan Sontag for having reawakened the thinking process in On Photography, of who we are, what we are and what is the value of what we do."
"The essays bound into the same volume were obviously written spanning a period of several years and they remain separate pieces, some contradicting those written at an earlier time. However, the whole volume shakes from anger and frustration. It tries to wake us up to the fact that 150 years after photography's discovery, we still do not know the power and the failure of what we have."
"It is instructive and exciting to note the ripples of the earthquake that Sontag's book cause ... To date, photographers have either ignored the book, denied having read it, or are furious about personal implications that they resent."
From Michael Starenko, "On On Photography," New Art Examiner Vol. 5, no. 7 (april 1978):
"To put it much too crudely, the unrelenting polemic; the great number of apparently contradictory intellectual shifts; the obvious departures from common sense logic - the form - this then is the 'message' of On Photography. Any photography critic (or any critic, for that matter) could attempt to explain the contradictions of a photography-world which contains such elements as photographed pornography, wedding rituals, Harry Callahan, Les Krims, or Popular Photography. While reading On Photography we experience these contradictions immediately, vividly, and without external mediation" (p. 12).
From Colin l. Westerbeck Jr., "On Sontag," Artforum Vol. 16, no. 8 (April 1978):
"Susan Sontag's On Photography might have been called Off Photography, for 'offing,' in the '60s sense of committing murder, is what the book really intends to do" (p. 56).
"What lies behind the book is finally something she takes more personally than a subject for criticism ought to be taken something about photography that she does not contemplate with disinterest, something irrational in herself" (p. 60).
From Douglas Davis, "Kicking the Image Habit," Newsweek, December 5, 1977:
"'On Photography'" overstates its case because the book is really about a world polluted, as Sontag sees it, by images, cars, poisoned air, poisoned water - the detritus of an industrialism gone mad, destroying man's old links to nature and himself. 'So many things in modern life conspire to dis-associate us from ourselves,' she says. 'I'm not against images. I just want to open this case out.' That she has done so is the great virtue of this passionate, flawed book. The sins she perceives in photography lie elsewhere, in the entire culture, in the moving image that is film and television, as well as in the still image. But even as she denounces it, she raises photography to a new level of seriousness. After Sontag, photography must be written about not only as a force in the arts, but as one that is increasingly powerful in the nature and destiny of our global society" (p. 100).
From Robert Hughes, "A Tourist in Other People's Reality," Time, December 26, 1977.
"It is hard to imagine any photographer's agreeing point for point with Sontag's polemic. But it is a brilliant, irritating performance, and it opens window after window on one of the great faits accomplis of our culture. Not many photographers are worth a thousand of her words" (p. 66).
Choice, September 19, 1978.
"In the course of pointing out the essentially surrealistic nature of photography, Sontag raises a number of questions, both moral and aesthetic, that will remain controversial. Though there are no illustrations, no sustained discussions of particular photographers or their work (with the exception of Diane Arbus), no critical paradigms, this volume raises issues important to photographers and students of photography. Recommended to all levels of libraries" (p. 854).