A Tribute to Susan Sontag
dates: Until September 4, 2006
Exhibition location: Howard Gilman
Gallery, second floor
A major force in New York intellectual life for more than 40 years,
the novelist, essayist, and critic Susan
Sontag (1933-2004) was renowned for
her brilliant and impassioned writing
on photography. Since June 6 until
September 4, 2006, The Metropolitan
Museum of Art has been presenting an exhibition
of some 40 photographs that celebrate
Sontag's contribution to the history of
the medium featuring works from the Metropolitan's
collection by a wide range of artists,
including Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward
Steichen, Eugène Atget, Walker
Evans, Edward Weston, Robert Frank, Andy
Warhol, and Peter Hujar.
Sontag's groundbreaking essays on photography
were first published in the New York Review
of Books and later collected in the award-winning
book On Photography (1977). She revisited
the subject in her last book, Regarding
the Pain of Others (2003), reflecting
on the complex ethical questions raised
by photographs of war and disaster.
Nearly all of the wall texts presented in the exhibition are drawn
from Sontag's vividly aphoristic prose.
In some cases, the photographs relate
directly to focused discussions of individual
works, such as Robert Capa's Falling Soldier
(1946), an icon of photojournalism taken
during the Spanish Civil War. Also included
are selected works by photographers Sontag
wrote about at length, including Diane
Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, E. J. Bellocq,
and Annie Leibovitz.
In other cases, small grouping of photographs provide visual complements
to Sontag's broader insights and ideas
about the medium. For example, a passage
from On Photography commenting on the
medium's inherent surrealism is accompanied
by a haunting photograph of mannequins
in a Paris store window by Atget; Eli
Lotar's Slaughterhouses at La Vilette
(1929); and a puzzle-like, 1960s street
scene by Lee Friedlander.
Asked in 1975 why she decided to write about photography, Sontag
said: "Because I've had the experience
of being obsessed by photographs. And
because virtually all the important aesthetic,
moral, and political problems-the question
of 'modernity' itself and of 'modernist'
taste-are played out in photography's
relatively brief history."
Because she came to her subject not as a photo-historian, but rather
as a critic, an observer of culture, and
a wide-ranging intellectual, Sontag's
views were not – are not - universally
accepted within photography circles, but
the prompted a type of examination and
discussion of the medium that was without
Susan Sontag was the author of four novels, several plays, a volume
of short stories, and dozens of critical essays on subjects as diverse as
photography, illness, avant-garde theater, the aesthetics of fascism, and the
camp sensibility. She died of leukemia
in December 2004.
On Photography: A Tribute to Susan Sontag is organized by Mia Fineman,
Senior Research Associate in the Department
of Photographs. Graphic design by Norie
Morimoto, lighting by Clint Ross Collier
and Rich Lichte.
The exhibition has featured on the Museum's Web site at www.metmuseum.org.