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Mourning the Real through Photography: A Brief Summary of Sontag’s “Melancholy Objects”

“Essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”

–Susan Sontag, On Photography

In “Melancholy Objects”, one of many essays featured in her 1977 collection On PhotographySontag analyzes the photograph as a cultural and historic object to establish distinct ideological and ontological paradigms between American and European photography. Despite these aesthetic and philosophical distinctions across time and cultures, all photography is animated by its surreal quality according to Sontag, who argues that photography is inherently surreal for trying to capture reality in the form of an object (62). As she phrases the intrinsic irony of photographing reality: “Life is not about significant details, illuminated [in] a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are” (64). For Sontag, photography is surreal at its core, and “[w]hat is surreal is the distance imposed, and bridged, by the photograph: the social distance and the distance in time” (44).

Sontag describes this first component, photography’s social distance, as its political component, which manifested at its earliest in the conflict between the bourgeois and the peasant, a trend which she viewed as continuous to the present. “Photography has become the quintessential art of the affluent, wasteful, restless societies,” she explains, “an indispensable tool of the new mass culture that took shape [in America] after the Civil War, and conquered Europe only after World War II, although its values had gained a foothold among the well-off as early as the 1850s” (54). As for the second aspect of the photograph, time has a great deal to do with what Sontag sees as the inherent surrealism of photography. Describing “the earliest surreal photographs [that] come from the 1850s,” Sontag notes that “these photographs, concrete, particular, anecdotal (except that the anecdote has been effaced)–moments of list time, of vanished customs–seem far more surreal to us now than any photograph rendered abstract and poetic by superimposition, under-printing, solarization, and the like” (41). Photography served a means of “uncovering a hidden truth, conserving a vanishing past” (43), and Sontag notes that sometimes the two were one in the same, but that this truth is complicated by the power of the photograph to concretize subjectivity into seemingly objective truth. Photography achieves this power through the force of its authority as a document more readily accessible and immediately credible (and therefore seemingly more real) than prose (58). Paradoxically, and quixotically, the very act of preserving the past in photographs ‘de-creates it’ (60) and establishes a record presented by the subjective viewpoint of the photographer.



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