Ownership and responsibility

Susan Sontag, in her famous book ‘On Photography’, describes three forms of acquisition of a photograph, of which I want to discuss two here (the third perhaps another time):

…a photograph is not only like its subject, a homage to the subject.  It is a part of, an extension of that subject; and a potent means of acquiring it, of gaining control over it.

Photography is acquisition in several forms.  In its simplest form, we have in a photograph surrogate possession of a cherished person or thing, a possession which gives photographs some of the character of unique objects.  Through photographs we also have a consumer’s relation to events, both to events which are part of our experience and to those which are not – a distinction between types of experience that such habit-forming consumership blurs. (Penguin edition, 1971, 1974, 1977, pp155-6)

This makes for quite some responsibility.  Of course, the idea that by taking a photograph of someone a little something of them is taken is one that many people are familiar with (Sontag discusses this on p158ff).  Indeed, my understanding is that in (parts of?) medieval Europe, the eyes were thought to function almost as projectors – they sent out an image for the other person to see.  So by looking, you were literally taking something of the person or object you were looking at.

Stephanie looking a little coy

Stephanie looking a little coy

Sontag points to this in a different way.  Of course, a photograph can communicate emotion.  These two images of Stephanie clearly communicate something about her – and however one evaluates the technical aspects of the photographs themselves, it is clear that she is communicating different emotions in each of these images.  We have here two different elements of the same model, or in Sontag’s terms: two different ‘surrogate possession[s] of a cherished person or thing, … possession[s] which … [give] photographs some of the character of unique objects’.  In looking at her, we take something unique and intimate of or from Stephanie, something that she has willingly shared with me, her photographer.

An intimate portrait of Stephanie

An intimate portrait of Stephanie

Her willingness to share that element of herself obviously demands respect and responsibility from me, but also from you, the viewer – whether you like the images or not, your viewing of them involves you partaking of Stephanie’s willingness to (metaphorically) ‘undress’ herself to some extent, to open part of herself up to be viewed (or consumed, as Sontag might say).  And so your ‘surrogate possession of … [this] cherished person’ demands responsible viewing.  Sometimes we say that someone – even if they are wearing clothes – becomes ‘naked’ for the camera, and being offered nakedness is something to be honoured; we might reflect on this most dramatically in contemplating sex, but of course it applies in other contexts too, ones that don’t necessarily involve the removal of clothing but the dismantling of barriers to a person’s inner life.  Perhaps the best example of this is Richard Avedon’s famous portrait of Marilyn Monroe: she is more vulnerable, more undressed – and more beautiful! – in this photograph than in any nude centrefold she ever did (it goes – almost – without saying that nudity doesn’t necessarily represent vulnerability: earlier this summer Avedon’s ‘Nastassia Kinski and the Serpent’ sold at auction – I think Kinski communicates phenomenal serenity, control, and even power in this photograph, despite being completely naked… of course, placing a serpent on a naked woman is far from unproblematic – but I’ll not go into that now!).

Fishing crates, Isle of Mull

Fishing crates, Isle of Mull

Whilst the idea of taking ownership is not necessarily widely acknowledged, I think some sense of responsibility towards photographic subjects often is.  But Sontag picks up on more than this: ‘Through photographs we also have a consumer’s relation to events, both to events which are part of our experience and to those which are not – a distinction between types of experience that such habit-forming consumership blurs.’  Interestingly, I think this applies as much to the making of photographs as to the photographs themselves.  After all, every photographer is also a viewer – a consumer – of other people’s photographs.  I read today that in western societies urban dwellers see approximately 3,000 (yes, three thousand) brand images or advertisements each day – we cannot but be influenced by other photographs!  I took this particular photograph on Mull, on a jetty.  Seeing these crates piled high on the jetty reminded me of other photographs (and even Rothko paintings!) I have seen that play with lines and colours – and that is how I ‘saw’ this image before photographing it.  Essentially, my visualisation of the photograph I was going to take was in part my own experience of being at that spot at that time – but it was also connected to events that were part of others’ experience and which I had consumed.  As Sontag says, there was a link to consumership: the experience of things I had not experienced, if you like.

So if ‘acquisition’ is an integral part of the photographic process, we need to deal with this responsibly.  It seems fairly obvious how to do that with photographs of people, as discussed above.  But what about the second aspect Sontag mentions?  Perhaps I, or even photographers in general, need to be clearer about our debts to the creators of other images.  Yes, our photographs are communicating something unique and different in a person or a landscape – after all, this particular moment in time has never been captured on film before and can never be captured again – but our photographs often also acknowledge the consumerist element of our membership of wider society.  In taking a photograph, therefore, we are also dealing (usually subconsciously) with the thousands of images we see every day and that lend themselves to being re-imag(in)ed in a new setting – as happened with my crates at Fionnphort.  That is also part of the artistic process.

PS On a more frivolous note, I can’t resist sharing this Lego version of the Nastassia Kinski image… quite brilliant!

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