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Photographic Memory

Death is a photograph.

-- Susan Sontag

Cultural critic Susan Sontag had mostly terrible things to say about photography, setting the tone for much of the critical response to the subject in the decades since she wrote On Photography in 1977. The year before her landmark work was published, she was already taking practice swings in an introduction to Peter Hujar’s book of photographs entitled Portraits in Life and Death, which interspersed images of celebrities with pictures of mummified corpses from the catacombs in Palermo. “Photography… converts the whole world into a cemetery,” she wrote. “Photographers, connoisseurs of beauty, are also — wittingly or unwittingly — the recording-angels of death.”

Among the living subjects of Hujar’s work was Sontag herself, looking more glamorous than deceased as she lounged on a bed in a ribbed sweater with a languid look on her face. Notwithstanding her formidable intellectual reputation, she was an undeniable beauty, which Hujar’s portrait did nothing to allay. Yet for Sontag, such reassuring evidence did nothing but fill her with foreboding. Although still only in her early thirties, she apparently regarded herself as a flower that was destined to wither and die.

As it turned out, Sontag was just getting warmed up when she equated photography with death. In On Photography, she was no longer willing to give the perpetrators the benefit of the doubt when she described photographers as the witting or unwitting recording-angels of death. She wrote, “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” And this: “To take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt.” She added, “Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder - a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”

In an 1859 article for the Atlantic Monthly, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. described the new photographic medium as “the mirror with a memory.” Likewise, Sontag saw photographs functioning as memories do, except that photographic memories never fade: “Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image.” She declared, “After the event has ended the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would never otherwise have enjoyed.” Paradoxically, the immortality conferred on the subject of a photograph merely pointed up its actual perishability. She wrote, “All photographs are memento mori that enable participation in another’s mortality.”

Photographs are a mirror, as Holmes noted long ago, reflecting not only the subject of the photograph but also the judgments that the viewer brings to the image. For Sontag, every photograph is a memento mori, a reminder of the subject’s mortality. But when I look at Hujar’s portrait of her, I see only a dark-haired beauty, not a flower that is destined to wither and die, even though we are all destined to die – and, in fact, Sontag is now dead. I make a distinction between the knowledge and attitudes I bring to my viewing of her portrait and the attributes inherent in the image itself. Obviously, every good photograph is meant to evoke certain thoughts and feelings in the viewer, but not every photograph of a living thing is meant to remind the viewer of its eventual demise. If one enters fully into the moment captured in a photograph, there is only the fact of that moment. Photography does indeed confer a kind of immortality on its subjects, as Sontag said, which means that they do not die – at least not within the frame of the photograph itself.

Given Sontag’s antipathy toward photography, there is an obvious irony in the fact that she entered into a 15-year relationship with a commercial photographer, Annie Leibovitz, who is best known for her celebrity covers for Vanity Fair magazine. In fact, the couple met when Leibovitz was assigned to take publicity pictures for Sontag's book, AIDS And Its Metaphors. They remained together for the remainder of Sontag’s life. As the writer was dying of a rare form of blood cancer in 2004, Lebovitz chronicled her final struggle. This was not Sontag’s first bout with cancer, and she was determined to beat it. “She did not want to die,” Leibovitz told a New York Times reporter. They traveled to Seattle for a long-shot bone marrow transplant that was not successful in stopping the cancer. Sontag was undergoing a last-ditch round of chemotherapy when she died. Leibovitz published a final photograph of Sontag’s body laid out on a gurney, her face ravaged by time and suffering, her once-lustrous mane shorn, her bare forearm covered in braises from an IV. Here at last was photography as Sontag understood it, as momento mori. And it was not a pretty picture.

Oliver endell Holmes, Sr., “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” Atlantic Monthly (June 1859)
Janny Scot, “From Annie Leibovitz: Life, and Death, Examined,”
New York Times, (October 6, 2006)

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