Susan Sontag On Photography Cliff Notes

Susan Sontag’s “On Photography” is a seminal work that explores the role of photography in shaping our understanding of the world. In this article, we will provide a comprehensive overview of the book, along with seven unique facts related to its content. Additionally, we will address twelve frequently asked questions and provide insightful answers. Finally, we will present five interesting points from professionals in the field of cinema and/or literature, and conclude with some unique final thoughts.

“On Photography” Cliff Notes:

1. “On Photography” was published in 1977 and quickly became a classic in the field. It consists of six essays that delve into various aspects of photography and its impact on society.

2. Sontag argues that photography has transformed our perception of reality, blurring the boundaries between the real and the represented. She suggests that photographs have replaced experience and memory, leading to an era of image saturation.

3. The book also explores the ethical implications of photography, questioning its role in voyeurism and objectification. Sontag argues that through photography, we often reduce subjects to mere objects of our gaze, dehumanizing them in the process.

4. Sontag delves into the concept of “the image world,” suggesting that we are increasingly living in a society where images dominate our lives. She argues that the proliferation of images has led to a loss of meaning and a shallow understanding of the world.

5. The book also explores the relationship between photography and art. Sontag questions whether photography can truly be considered an art form or if it is merely a mechanical reproduction of reality.

6. Throughout “On Photography,” Sontag references the work of various photographers and their impact on the medium. She analyzes the works of influential photographers such as Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Robert Capa, providing valuable insights into their artistic vision.

7. Sontag concludes the book by suggesting that photography can be a powerful tool for social change. She believes that by critically engaging with photographs and understanding their limitations, we can use them to challenge dominant narratives and shape a more just society.

Unique Facts:

1. Sontag’s “On Photography” was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism in 1978, further cementing its status as a groundbreaking work.

2. The book has been translated into multiple languages, allowing its ideas to reach a global audience.

3. Sontag’s background as a cultural critic and essayist informed her unique perspective on photography, bringing a multidisciplinary approach to the subject.

4. “On Photography” continues to be widely studied in universities and colleges around the world, shaping the discourse on photography and its cultural significance.

5. Sontag’s writing style in the book is characterized by its intellectual rigor and thought-provoking arguments, making it accessible to both academic and general audiences.

6. The essays in “On Photography” were initially published separately in The New York Review of Books before being compiled into a single volume.

7. Sontag’s work in “On Photography” not only analyzes the medium’s impact but also serves as a call to action for readers to critically engage with images and their power to shape our understanding of the world.


1. Is “On Photography” solely focused on analyzing the medium of photography?

No, while the book primarily examines photography, it also delves into broader themes such as the nature of representation, the ethics of looking, and the relationship between images and reality.

2. Does Sontag provide any practical advice for aspiring photographers?

While “On Photography” is not a technical guide, Sontag offers insights into the artistic and ethical dimensions of photography that can be valuable for photographers seeking a deeper understanding of their craft.

3. Can “On Photography” be understood by readers without a background in photography?

Yes, Sontag’s writing is accessible to a wide range of readers, regardless of their familiarity with photography. She contextualizes her arguments and provides examples that make the book engaging for both experts and novices.

4. Does Sontag provide a definitive answer to the question of whether photography is an art form?

Sontag does not provide a definitive answer, as she believes the distinction between art and non-art is subjective. However, she offers insights into the relationship between photography and art, encouraging readers to critically engage with the medium.

5. How does “On Photography” address the role of social media in contemporary photography?

While “On Photography” was written before the emergence of social media, many of Sontag’s arguments and observations can be applied to the current landscape of image sharing and its impact on society.

6. Are there any criticisms of “On Photography”?

Some critics argue that Sontag’s analysis is overly pessimistic and fails to acknowledge the positive aspects of photography. However, these critiques do not diminish the book’s overall impact and significance.

7. Has “On Photography” influenced other artists or thinkers?

Yes, Sontag’s work has had a profound influence on subsequent generations of photographers, artists, and cultural theorists, shaping their understanding of the medium and its cultural implications.

8. Does “On Photography” discuss the role of digital photography?

As the book was published in 1977, it predates the widespread use of digital photography. However, many of the concepts and ideas presented by Sontag are still relevant to the digital era.

9. Are there any other notable works by Susan Sontag?

Yes, Sontag wrote several influential books, including “Regarding the Pain of Others,” “Illness as Metaphor,” and “Against Interpretation.”

10. Can “On Photography” be considered a feminist text?

While “On Photography” does touch upon feminist themes, it is not exclusively focused on feminism. Sontag explores a range of topics related to photography and its cultural implications.

11. How does “On Photography” relate to other forms of visual media, such as film or painting?

Sontag occasionally draws comparisons between photography and other visual arts, such as painting. However, the book primarily focuses on photography’s unique qualities and its impact on society.

12. Is “On Photography” still relevant today?

Absolutely. Despite being published over four decades ago, the book’s analysis of the relationship between photography, representation, and reality remains highly relevant in our image-saturated society.

Interesting Points from Professionals:

1. “Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ challenges us to critically question the images we consume and the power dynamics embedded within them, making it essential reading for anyone interested in visual culture.”

2. “The book’s exploration of photography’s ethical implications is particularly relevant today, as we navigate issues of consent, privacy, and the democratization of image-making.”

3. “Sontag’s analysis of photography as a mode of control and surveillance remains prescient in an era where our lives are increasingly captured and monitored by cameras.”

4. “By dissecting the relationship between photography and memory, Sontag highlights the potential consequences of relying on photographs to construct our personal narratives.”

5. “Sontag’s call for a more engaged, critical approach to photography can inspire photographers to create images that challenge dominant narratives and contribute to social change.”

Unique Final Thoughts:

Susan Sontag’s “On Photography” continues to be a thought-provoking and influential work that challenges our understanding of the medium and its impact on society. By delving into the ethical, artistic, and cultural dimensions of photography, Sontag invites readers to critically engage with images and question the power dynamics inherent in their creation and consumption. As we navigate an increasingly visual world, “On Photography” serves as a reminder to approach images with a discerning eye and to recognize the potential for both manipulation and social transformation within the photographic medium.

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