Most writing about new technology sounds painfully outdated within a few years. It’s hard to evoke the thrill of a new device or technique which will soon be commonplace, harder still to capture its effects on the society which anxiously welcomes it.
For these reasons, Susan Sontag’s collection of essays On Photography is only more remarkable after four decades, as the increasing reach and ubiquity of cameras have accelerated the changes she observed in the 1970s.
Sontag captures the seductive and transformative power of the camera: it offers to preserve the sights which would otherwise vanish, but it also tunes ordinary vision to its own logic. Ultimately, cameras teach us to see like photographers. “So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world,” she writes, “that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful. Photography’s gift is also an affliction. “Photographs create the beautiful and—over generations of picture-taking—use it up.”
Just as the maps of the internet age turn every new neighbourhood into a life-size model of Google Street View, the ubiquity of the camera transforms every new landscape, street or sandwich into another photo in the gallery. ‘Photographers … suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it.’
This thought came back to me recently, having finally entered that den of obsessive image collecting, Instagram. Sontag’s words only hit harder when applied to the land of hashtags: “its main effect is to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an article for aesthetic appreciation. Through the camera people become customers or tourists of reality.”
Yet while Sontag might present photography as a kind of beautifying damage, she recognises its unequalled power to preserve moments which would have otherwise been lost, for better or worse. This has only become clearer in an age of citizen journalists capturing the routine injustices which would otherwise have been concealed and denied.
And, in a less serious way, photographs preserve and nourish waning arts. No Man’s own Instagram feed displays Japanese hand-rolled ties, Neapolitan jackets and Puglian shirts, each invested with the kind of skill and idiosyncrasy that is the photographer’s quarry. But if Instagram is liable to make a fetish of the artisanal, it’s also photography that sustains a market for the handmade, the slow, the minor, and the marginal kinds of craft, which would otherwise die under the onslaught of mass production. The village tailor has died out in almost every village, but the travelling tailor persists. There is still a place for menswear post #menswear, but it has to be dispersed across the globe.
The photograph preserves what is beautiful and painful and ordinary by aestheticizing it, keeping a thousand small moments alive, but only by abstracting them out of the everyday, into the galleries of our phones and magazines. It gives pre-industrial practices back to us as post-industrial artisanship. We see more than ever before, but everything looks like our next photograph: this is our modern bargain with the visual.