On Photography Background

On Photography Background

On Photography - a collection of essays by Susan Sontag - explores what the title suggests: a take on the importance, history and nature of the medium of photography. Each essay - of which there are five - was originally circulated periodically in the New York Review of Books between 1973-1977. After encouragement by the paper's editors, Sontag decided to collate the essays which was published in 1977.

In her preface, Sontag clarifies that it "all began with one essay": the following book bounces of the springboard of an idea that began with a simple consideration as to what place photography holds in the artistic world. The author herself was bubbling with the necessary knowledge to take on such a task, having done graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard University followed by Oxford (St Anne's College). Her philosophical background feeds into the writing; indeed her first essay is titled 'In Plato's Cave'.

And yet while taking the format of an essay, Sontag's style in the book is known for its failure to conform to academic standards: its referencing consists of a number of notes but a complete absence of a bibliography. The work must then be seen as piece of literature in its own right - a cutting series of essays that voice the thoughts of a passionate artist.

As such, many contemporary academic reviews were suspicious of Sontag's work. For example Michael Lesy pointed out the multiple self contradictions apparent within her argument, particularly between essays. And yet as more recent appraisals of On Photography have pointed out - the purpose of the book isn't to be completely scholarly. Sontag's work must be treated as literary in its own right, and knowledge can be gleamed from its astute personal observations and asides much like an essay by Woolf or Orwell.

Other reviews, particularly those of the popular press, were far more favorable. And since its publication the work has become a bit of a phenomenon in the field of photography, as Calvin Triller from the New Yorker writes "On Photography is to my mind the most original and illuminating study of the subject". In terms of accolades, Sontag received the National Book Circle Critics Award in 1977 and ever since has remained a staple of photographic discussion - an ode to a complex and still-relevant medium of art.

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