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Susan Sontag: In Platos Cave - Essay Example

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Susan Sontag’s famous critique of photography entitled “In Plato’s Cave” starts with an analogy drawn from ancient Greek Philosophy. The point of the metaphor of the cave is that people sit inside the cave and watch shadows being reflected against a wall, and are transfixed by these moving images…
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Susan Sontag: In Platos Cave
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Download file to see previous pages Susan Sontag’s famous critique of photography entitled “In Plato’s Cave” starts with an analogy drawn from ancient Greek Philosophy. The point of the metaphor of the cave is that people sit inside the cave and watch shadows being reflected against a wall, and are transfixed by these moving images. They do not realise that they are only shadows, and the philosopher reflects then on how it is that human beings actually know things. What Susan Sontag wants the reader to think about is how “real” photographs are, in so far as they do reflect many aspects that we recognise from the real world around us, but also in so far as they are only brief shadows, and nothing like the real world that we apprehend with all our physical senses. The chapter traces the history of photography from its beginnings in 1839 to the time of writing which is 1979, and in so doing she draws out the evolving meanings that photographs acquired over that time, and the implication of this art form for the way that modern people see the world. According to Sontag the invention of photography was a very significant event in human history and that is because it has taught us to see the world in an entirely different way than what went before. People had become accustomed to seeing images in drawings and paintings, and in reading stories in books, thanks to centuries in which these arts had been perfected, but the arrival of photography changed all of that in irreversible ways. Photography in the early days was a technical pastime for mostly male French and British aristocrats who had the money and the leisure time to invest in the expensive equipment that it required. Just like art, it required considerable skill and training in these early days. Subjects were chosen carefully and the photographs were then framed in different ways, whether as individual somewhat fragile single sheets, or more widely available in printed books. Sontag explains, however, that as soon as the price of photographs came down to an affordable level for the masses, photography was taken up with great enthusiasm and built into the key institutions of society like birth, marriage, family and graduation. There is an interesting distinction made between seeing photographs in a book, or in a photo album, in a regimented order, probably reduced in size, and fixed within the covers, and seeing photographs separately in a gallery or other free context. The way that the photographer selects the image, chooses the exposure, eliminates sub-standard or unpleasing items is, according to Sontag, a moral decision which has implications for the viewer. The way a viewer looks at photographs, whether flicking through the pages quickly or standing for a long time before an image and studying it carefully also influences the significance of the photograph. Sontag suggests that nothing should be taken as it is, but everything should be seen in the context of this artistic influence, framing, moulding, filtering and presenting the finished photograph. It is not anything like “reality” (which is messy and complex and fluid) because it is one tiny sliver frozen in unnatural stillness. This analysis, and the explanation of photography as a way that twentieth century advanced cultures have of selecting little pieces of nostalgia to paste into some kind of personal or familial chronicle is very convincing. People collect things, and indeed photographs, because they are comforted by possessing them. It is as if this power over the objects makes people feel in control. They think they know something if they have a photograph of it, and the “souvenirs” that people bring back from holidays actually become the memories that people retain. Photographs are like a kind of second hand reality – a tiny piece plucked out by the masses more or less at random and given a significance far beyond the incident or object or person that is portrayed. Sontag raises some rather more controversial points when ...Download file to see next pagesRead More
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