America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly

At the beginning of photography, an image bespoke importance. Walt Whitman permanently shifted the gaze of photography from an obsession with the beautiful object to an exercise in image making with the ordinary and banal. Sontag still holds that to take an image is to assign importance. But this importance varies in culture and history, from the pursuit of “worthy” subjects to the Andy Warhol stance of “anybody is somebody”. For Sontag Alfred Stieglitz was such a reaffirm-er of life with his wish the redeem the banal and the vulgar as a means of expression. Stieglitz wished to transcend differences between human being and show humanity in the totality of its beauty.

On the subject of Diane Arbus, Sontag has been critical but almost exclusively due to the lack of anesthetization in her work. According to Sontag, Arbus’ treatment of the marginal spheres of society does not invite people the identify with the “freaks” she displays, and in that humanity is no longer “one”. While the Whitman heritage strove for a universalization of the human condition, Arbus fractured this unity into isolated fragments of anxiety. I am not sure whether I agree with this assessment. If indeed taking a photograph is to assign importance, the fact that Arbus took these images of people often deemed as freaks is in itself empowering. The idea that she took these images because she thought these people freaks reveals more about Sontag than Arbus.


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