On Photography

Susan Sontag

Introduced by Mia Fineman

The first-ever illustrated edition of Susan Sontag’s groundbreaking work, On Photography, is newly introduced by Metropolitan Museum of Art curator of photography Mia Fineman and includes 21 beautifully reproduced archive photographs.

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‘A brilliant analysis of the profound changes photographic images have had on our way of looking at the world.’
  1. Washington Post

Susan Sontag was one of the most dazzling and influential commentators on the art and culture of her time. Published in 1977 and still astonishingly prescient, her groundbreaking study, On Photography, was one of the first books to ask forceful questions about this modern art form: its power to shock, idealise, act as a memorial, as propaganda, to be used as evidence, and to misrepresent – Sontag was amongst the earliest to write about the photograph’s ability to deceive. Sontag explores these moral and aesthetic issues with reference to the work of the great photographers – Steichen, Atget, Lange, Brassai, Arbus and many others – and outlines a thought-provoking history of the medium. This first-ever illustrated edition includes key photographs from prestigious photographic archives, all beautifully reproduced, selected with Mia Fineman, curator of photography at the Met.

Bound in blocked cloth with a black & white photographic label

Set in Walbaum as display with Akzidenz Grotesk as display

224 pages

21 colour and black & white photographs

Silver page tops

Plain slipcase

9½˝ x 6¾˝

Sontag illuminates her text with references to many photographers pivotal in the history of photography, as well as some of the most memorable and iconic images of the 20th century. Working closely with Mia Fineman, we have collated 21 of these images, primarily from The Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA, two of the most prestigious photographic archives in the world. All beautifully reproduced, the photographs have been positioned throughout the text. As Fineman writes in her newly commissioned introduction to the edition, these images: ‘are intended to enhance and amplify Sontag’s text, to provide a visual anchor for the mind’s eye, and hopefully, to summon a bit of the medium’s magic’.

To collect photographs is to collect the world.
  1. Susan Sontag

Sontag loved photography, but she thought it encompassed ‘everything that’s brilliant and ingenious and poetic and pleasureful … and also everything that is destructive and polluting and manipulative in society’. She took this one aspect of everyday culture and instead of letting it pass unnoticed, she asked new and powerful questions about it: she was one of the first to highlight photography's power to manipulate and deceive, for example. Many of her concerns are even more relevant today: our addiction to the image, the taking of a photo as a substitute for experience, the distortion of reality, voyeurism and the ethics of reportage. Original and thought-provoking, packed with brilliance and insight, On Photography is as exciting and pertinent a read as it was 40 years ago.

Susan Sontag (1933–2004) was one of the most influential and incisive American thinkers and writers of the late 20th-century. She was born in New York and studied at the University of Chicago and elsewhere, notably the Sorbonne in Paris, and she retained lifelong connections with French intellectual life. Based in New York from 1959, she spent several years teaching philosophy before abandoning her academic career and becoming a full-time writer. In books such as Against Interpretation and Illness as Metaphor, and through her political activism, she reshaped our understanding of major social and cultural issues – from the Vietnam War to the AIDS epidemic, as well – famously – as the importance of ‘camp’ and the interplay between high and low art. Alongside her essays and non-fiction books Sontag wrote fiction, notably including a well-received historical novel, The Volcano Lover. Her many accolades include the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society and the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature.

Mia Fineman is curator in the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where she has worked since 1999. Her exhibitions on photographic history have included major shows such as Apollo’s Muse (on photography and the moon), and Faking It (on manipulated photography before the digital era), as well as On Photography, a tribute to Susan Sontag’s landmark book. Fineman’s publications include essays and introductions for books such as The New Woman Behind the Camera (National Gallery of Art, 2020) and Snapshots of Dangerous Women (2015). She was educated at Yale University, graduating with a PhD on German modernist photography in 2001.


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