I recently revisited ‘On Photography’ (1973), Susan Sontag’s authoritative analysis of the medium. Sontag dissects photojournalism’s history and finds parallels between “art” and the more industrial uses of photography. According to Sontag, photographs create a surreality unique to the medium that transforms reality rather than revealing truth. The International Center of Photography (ICP) opened several exhibitions at the end of January that present historically significant photojournalism alongside contemporary work. In an ode to Susan Sontag, what follows is an investigation of the programming inspired by quotations from her text.
“The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed.” (pg 41)
Murder is My Business, the survey of Weegee’s crime scene photographs from the 1930s and 40s, is a prime example of the moral independence Sontag finds in the modern photographer. Named after his self-curated exhibition at the Photo League in 1941, the exhibition chronicles a corrupt New York City through Weegee’s lens. His quirky images offset the gruesome, heartless overtones of his subject matter. Crime and death were fed to the readers of the Daily Post and other local tabloids like candy; it was a gloomy package masked in the pleasantries of the newly invented flashbulb. Weegee developed a style that capitalized upon the theatricality of the crime scene and the reaction it prompted from gathered crowds or witnesses. Despite his desire to unveil issues affecting the community, his official task, in fact, neutralized the horrors of murderous crimes. By providing such a guilty pleasure, can Weegee be held responsible for desensitizing an audience in desperate need of unity against chaos?
Photographs on display by Grey Villet oppose Weegee’s lack of social accountability. “The Loving Story” is a series documenting Richard and Mildred Loving, a happily married, bi-racial couple, in and around their home in Virginia. Despite their lawful union in Washington D.C. in 1958, they were brought to court in Virginia after returning home on account of the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. Before bringing their case to the Supreme Court in 1966, Villet documented their family unit for LIFE . Villet, an immigrant from South Africa, commiserated with the social injustices that spurred the Civil Rights movement. A majority of the images focus on tender moments, intimate details of marriage that exist across the spectrum of race, gender, and nationality. Villet exposes the larger moral discrepancy of interracial love being unlawful. His own values and the desire to overrun the inequality of the social norm carry the series.
For Sontag, the photographer is an extension of their mechanical accessory. The act of taking a photo and the fixation on composition, light, and ‘moments’ are only distractions from a subject’s reality. To say the act itself eradicates the awareness of a morally complicated situation is naive and heartless. Both Weegee and Villet engross the viewer with moral dilemmas without preaching or demanding moral integrity. Weegee, however, uncovers the dirty laundry of his community while Villet attempts to protect his subjects. Although the photographers may not take responsibility for the subjects morally, their own moral outlook is what determines the subject’s portrayal and thus the overtone of the image.
“Any photograph has multiple meanings…The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: ‘There is the surface. Now think — or rather feel, intuit — what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way.’ Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.” (pg 23)
Amid the historic exhibitions at ICP, Perspectives 2012 is a contemporary exploration of modern communities in nontraditional geographic locations. “Half the Surface of the World” is a series presented by Canadian photographer Greg Girard that documents American military bases scattered around the Pacific. These outposts provide cultural refuge for the transplanted soldiers and their families. A USPS postbox and a sprawling housing development that mimics American suburbia are visual conundrums against the backdrop of modern Yokohama, Japan. A Caucasian family photograph in traditional Japanese costume or an ATM located outside an aircraft carrier are unique to the personnel in these bases. These images present an elephant in the room rather than an explanation or particular story behind the photographs. Sontag notes that a photograph, by nature, “can never transcend its subject” (pg 95). Girard manipulates the collision of cultures as his subject. The viewer departs from his work in a perpetual state of curiosity, wondering what other might eccentricities might exist behind a superficially mundane landscape.
“Part of the built-in interest of photographs, and a major source of their aesthetic value, is precisely the transformations that time works upon them, the way they escape the intentions of their makers.” (pg 140)
Each exhibition mentioned thus far falls prey to Sontag’s loyalty to the transformative powers of time. Girard’s photographs are a testament to the lengths America has gone to to preserve its culture internationally, and Weegee’s photographs took fifty years to liberate from his low-brow publications.
Sontag preaches that photographic beauty “requires the imprint of a human decision” (pg 98). Magnum Contact Sheets, a small exhibition within the Weegee space, presents enlarged and original contact sheets. Cited for its similarity to the artist’s sketchbook, these images are the drawing board for photographers like Elliott Erwitt and Josef Koudelka. The process of elimination is a difficult one in the search for the best reality with a “quality of presence” (pg 138). The photographer’s specific individual vision emerges in the contact sheets where usually only one or three printable images exist. The photograph is in constant flux between truth and surreality, according to Sontag, and thus devalues reality itself (pg 121). An image will inevitably be sacrificed to the waves of time that release it into the ocean of evolving thought and experience. For Sontag, photographs are walking, talking contradictions: forever frozen yet constantly morphing in overtone or status. In the words of the woman herself: “In the real world, something is happening and no one knows what is going to happen. In the image-world, it has happened, and it will forever happen in that way” (pg 168).