“Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”
An invocation by Susan Sontag, quoted in a review in the New York Times of a show at the Metropolitan in New York: On Sontag: Essayist as Metaphor and Muse. Intended, I gather, to capture a flavor of her influence on the culture of her time, the show is "a small, grave, beautiful photography show", the medium that benefited most strongly from her attention.
I found her acclaimed book On Photography early in the summer at my favorite Seattle bookstore, Magus, and got a recommendation for her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others, in the bargain (which is why its my favorite bookstore). These books, written more than 30 years apart, are dense with the history and trajectory of photography, its impact and meaning. On Photography, in particular, is a dizzying deconstruction of the medium that changed the way people see, and think about seeing, through a lens. A slim volume that demands careful reading, most every page challenges any comfortable, easy sense of why we take pictures, or want to collect them and look at them.
One of the appealing arguments about photography is that it arouses our moral outrage in the face of brutality. The argument remains part of the mythology of why America left Vietnam (finally). Seeing the bloodshed, the executions, a naked, napalmed child running along a road aroused our indignation sufficiently to cripple support for the war. Sontag dismisses this notion, and in fact, in both of these books argues that the effect of such images is to numb our senses rather than arouse us to action.
I often found myself arguing with her... NO! Its not that way!... and yet also feeling overwhelmed by her encyclopedic knowledge of the topic, and a bit defensive of my own facile assumptions about why I use a camera. I can't say I think of her everytime I take up my camera, but I think of her a lot.
Sontag makes the point in Regarding the Pain of Others:
Photography is the only major art in which professional training and years of experience do not confer an insuperable advantage over the untrained and inexperienced--this for many reasons, among them the large role that chance (or luck) plays in the taking of pictures, and the bias toward the spontaneous, the rough, the imperfect.
This is perhaps a central part of the appeal of photography for me... the prospect of getting lucky. The quote at the top is the other important factor -- "Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager."
Seattle Sunrise, taken eagerly, August 19, 2006