Susan Sontag

Topics: Photography, Camera, Photograph Pages: 20 (7141 words) Published: May 4, 2013
‘To live is to be photographed’ (Sontag, 2004).
Does photography have a special role in the mediation of our lives, and how, according to Sontag, is this role changing?

Attempting to comprehend the role of photography in the mediation of our lives would have to account, apart from historical evidence, an understanding of the importance and the necessity of the photograph in every day life. In a society that is constantly bombarded by images from different mediums, photography has transformed the audience, its perception, but most importantly its expectation of visual media. Sontag claims in her customary polemic that ‘To live is to be photographed’, a notion quite relevant to the modern era. The camera normally associated with the curious tourist, often evocative of the mastery of technique by the professional photographer, has nowadays become the appendage of the average person capturing, and by extension, shaping a personal narrative. Society is largely documented through photography since its very inception, while the media acting as intermediaries help to spread and communicate our visual information and thus exchange our experiences, ideas and knowledge of our environment and the world. In this essay we will discuss the changing role of photography in our lives by examining the aspects of representationalism, the status of photography as a keynote to historic and personal account and how photography has transcended physical boundaries through technological innovation and infiltrated our visual fields imprinting our memories with images.

The origins of photography can be traced back to the invention of the camera obscura, an optical device used by artists in the 16th century, even though knowledge of the principle goes back to antiquity. Photography evolved into the form we are familiar with, during the first decades of the nineteenth century, when Nièpce, Daguerre and Fox Talbot tried to recreate a physical image using chemical reactions. Their experiments established the practice of photography that would record, shape and radically alter the history of humanity for the next 160 years. Photography was considered revolutionary, due to its precise capture of details and information than the pre-existing visual mediums, such as painting and sculpting. Photography has not been always the simple press of a button. The world's oldest existing photograph was taken in 1827 and it took eight hours to expose, followed by laborious processing and the use of potentially harmful chemicals. Sir John Herschel coined the term “Photography” in 1839, the year when the photography techniques and process became public.[1]

Image 1 : The first photograph. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's View from the Window at Le Gras. March, 1952 (source :

Any attempt to perceive the role of photography in modern culture should go beyond the mere idea of producing photographic images. The mediation of photography in our lives encompasses the circulation of photographic imaging in various media and its infiltration of the social structure with astounding potential. It is naive to disregard photography as a powerful tool of both information and universal communication, when we live in a world showered by images, while totally exposed to the rain of messages they communicate. The perception of photography within societies has also varied. As the British photographer and critic Victor Burgin writes “When photography first emerged into the context of nineteenth-century aesthetics, it was initially taken to be an automatic record of reality; then it was contested that it was the expression of an individual; then it was considered to be ‘a record of a reality refracted through a sensibility’.”[2] The photographs of the nineteenth-century mostly consisted of posed portraits...
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