Readings, and Related Inspirations

Everyone’s Talking about Sontag


The articles we read for this week’s coursework, Geimer, Jerving, and Sontag, which I read in this order, bring us nicely out of the heavily theoretically tilted articles of Benjamin, Barthes, and Mitchell, and steer us toward some more practical applications and discussions of photo-related concepts.

Geimer argues that, because of the advent of digital image technologies, which I am imagining as photoshop and like products, the power the photograph once possessed is in decline. We may have reached the end of the photographic age. Because of this, or perhaps in light of this, Geimer sets out to re-discuss the concept of ‘trace’, which Sontag introduces in an article which we did not read. Since Geimer neither knows what we read, nor likely has a care what we read and do not read, he goes ahead and tells us about Sontag’s different perspectives of trace. She describes the trace in three ways: the footprint, the death mask, and the relic, all which offer a slightly different position in terms of what the photograph actually is.

The question here is, Are we capturing reality when we take photographs?

I would like to add to this – What is more powerful? The capturing, or the disseminating, of the image?

To Benjamin and Mitchell, the ability to disseminate the photo is perhaps more powerful. We are somehow shifting our ability to see through space and time. But to Barthes, the capturing of the image with light is ‘magic’. So the question is perhaps better asked: Which has more power, light, or mechanical reproduction?

If we think about a photograph as a footprint, we must apply the idea that “its existence [is] fixed in the form of a mark, and subsequently disappear[s]” (Geimer 10). If this is the case, then we can say that the photos taken in Abu Ghraib left marks behind them. We can also apply this to some kind of temporal mark where the photo ‘steals’, if you will, a piece of time that will remain in the frame – I am thinking of this as an anti-footprint.

At this point in our theory, we could probably all get a good laugh out of me labeling this as “This is not a footprint.”

But I wonder what the Bush administration might have said about the footprint idea. I wonder a lot of stuff about the Bush administration. Don’t get me started.

If I think about the a photograph as a death mask – a few images come to mind:

Agamemnon, first:

The second is a book I read back in Master’s school called Wisconsin Death Trip

which has a bunch of old photos and stories about dead people. The book explains how these rather popular death photos worked (it’s much more than that) and is super creepy. Here’s an inside shot:

In both cases, Agamemnon, and these dead babies, we see that the photograph does indeed preserve the dead. We experience further proof of this whenever we look at old photos of ourselves – teenagers that once world – now dead to us. What would our 16 year old selves think of us now?

The last one is a relic, which I think Geimer illustrates really well with the nail from the cross .

A further, and pedagogically interesting, way to think about the perspectives of trace is to apply these photos to the Jerving piece. I am certainly not going to do all 13 steps on one of the photos I posted above, especially not since I’m about to hit the Vegas strip for a bachelorette party, but it could be interesting. Especially with the dead babies. And I wish Jerving had done it in the article. I would definitely like to see his lesson in action.

One thing I do feel I need to point out before I bounce up the the swanky 2-story sweet the wedding is happening in, is that in all of our articles, we are talking about very young adults and their participation in terms of the photograph (arguably not so much in Geimer). All of them address the fact that young adults are holding a bit of power in their hands in the form of the camera. Would Jerving’s students, after the “13 Ways” activity be less likely to commit Abu Ghraib photographic atrocities, having learned how to look at photos? What does the existance of the Abu Ghraib scandal say about the thought process of these young adults in terms of their own agency in visual production?

One last question I have is: If photographs give us a power we didn’t have pre-1839, is trace a strong enough word for what a photograph is, in comparison to reality?


3 thoughts on “Everyone’s Talking about Sontag

  1. Politically speaking, the power is in dissemination. Audience = Power. As for reality and image capture, I believe the power is in the framing not in the capture. The photographer is the story/reality/truth teller. The more we tease out their role, the more diminished the truth claim. Photography as art, I understand. Photograph as evidence, not so much.

  2. “What is more powerful? The capturing, or the disseminating, of the image?”

    What a great question! I have to agree with Rick; I think the power of an image in a political sense is in the dessimination. This explains why visual culture is so much more of a force today than it was before mass technological reproduction of images.

    However, I also agree with Barthes that there is a certain “magic” about the moment when an image is captured. In the case of the Abu Ghraib photos, the magic isn’t of the handsome prince and fairytale castle type; it comes from the viewer’s knowledge that in seeing the image, (s)he becomes privy to a specific moment in time that reveals a reality (s)he would otherwise not be accutely aware of had (s)he not viewed the photo. Iconic photos are made powerful by their dessimination, but perhaps they are dessiminated because viewers recognize in them that flicker of “magic.”

  3. P.S. I love that you included Agamemnon’s mask! Took me back to my old Classics major days =)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s