With a glance back at the essays in On Photography (1977), the eminent intellectual, critic, and writer cobbles together a defense of war photography—with a result that’s as much maunder as miracle.
The slightly superior, ever-unflappable tone will be familiar here to Sontag readers, as will be the wonderful aperçus that come along in a kind of pearls-on-a-string parade—“All memory is individual, unreproducible—it dies with each person,” for example, or “To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture,” or “Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.” Familiar, too, is the Sontagian pleasure of watching a mind roam through fields of history and reading—as the thinker touches down one moment in Plato, at another in Leonardo or Edmund Burke, all the while keeping up knowledgeably detailed references to politics and conflict from the Crimean war up to Somalia and Bosnia. And yet, for all its author’s capabilities, the essay remains only imperfectly satisfying. From Matthew Brady to now, photos of death and war have raised the question of whether prurience or sympathy is raised in the viewer of such images, degradation and moral numbing on the one hand or any kind of useful understanding on the other. Sontag reviews and explores this old question, and her answer, though without doubt the right one—“Let the atrocious images haunt us”—leads her to unexpected banalities (“There is simply too much injustice in the world”) and an unfocused ending that all but randomly touches on great matters—whether the mass media create passivity, for example—and just as inexplicably glances away from them (“But it’s probably not true that people are responding less”), leaving the greatest question—whether there is any “way to guarantee contemplative . . . space for anything now”—nudged at only lightly, and left to slumber on.
Moments of brilliance and wonder amid the generally disappointing.