“In Plato’s Cave” by Susan Sontag from On Photography, 1977

Green Turtle, Albino,

[Green turtle, albino. By David Monniaux]

“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.”

On Photography, Susan Sontag’s exhaustive critique of photography, which excoriated photographers even as it elevated the art form, opens (in the 1977 book form of the collected essays) with the chapter “In Plato’s Cave.” Arranged and edited in this manner this chapter is meant to serve as the introduction to Sontag’s collection of ideas on the sociological implications of the medium of photography.
So much has been written by and about Sontag with respect to the construction and importance of these essays, and so much biographical detail about Sontag has come to light since her death a few years ago, that is it difficult to consider “In Plato’s Cave” unto itself, separate from that information, let alone separate from the other essays in the collection.
Basically, Sontag takes humankind to task, as did Plato, for sitting around accepting whatever images that happen to dance past as a perfect mirror (or projection) of reality and judges photographers equally harshly for approaching their subjects with acquisitiveness and predation. Sontag investigates the simile of the cave but more deeply the metaphor of the mirror.
I was interested to learn that Sontag had also written extensively about Persona, the 1966 Ingmar Bergman film, probably around the same time she began the series of essays that are collected in On Photography. Persona can also be construed as being about mirroring, and also about a kind of (seemingly) passive transmission and reception of knowledge, as well as a complicated examination about the relationship between the beholder and the beheld. Persona is open to interpretation as a horror movie rather than a psychological study, one in which a very modern sort of vampire sucks the being from a similar but not identical human.
I sort of think of On Photography in this way. The Greeks, after all (and probably including Plato), didn’t have a problem with copies and weren’t concerned with the original, in the sense that artists discuss the “aura” of the original. Nor was Plato concerned with the abjection of the person or thing being copied (in fact he gives the people holding the shadow-casting objects a higher physical place and degree of agenc). One of Sontag’s goals, beyond the moral judgments of photography, was to set herself up in comparison to Walter Benjamin. Like Elisabet in Persona, there is not much, at first that Benjamin can do about this being the mute party in the dialogue in which he is frequently mentioned.
Yet despite Sontag’s undeniable scholarly prowess, willingness to introduce (then) unfamiliar concepts of postmodernism, and access to substantial editorial resources, it is Benjamin who ultimately dominates the picture. Granted, Benjamin’s penchant for aphorisms makes him easily quoted, yet while his prose can be as dense as Sontag’s, his writing (conducted under more extreme and less leisurely circumstances) has a natural, nearly mathematical precision which makes his prose pleasing even when it is not comprehensible.
Sontag consumes Benjamin in the way photographers are accused of consuming subjects, and his (and Plato’s) intended meanings are perhaps manipulated as well. Benjamin did have great, sentimental, really, belief in the power of the original (which in another mirror/negative was not actually far out of line with what the Nazis he tried to escaped also believed) but was not entirely closed to the possibilities offered by the technologies of “mechanical reproduction.”
“In Plato’s Cave” does not nod to this faint approval. Photography is regarded as something akin to an infectious germ (a subject which would preoccupy Sontag in the years to come) the public at large is too dumb and inept to comprehend and control and the experts wield to detrimental effect. Sontag’s position is nonetheless intellectually legitimate (and validated by her participation in other forms of self-expression) but there is something in her contentions that make me think that she, too, is playing at being a projection.

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