My granddaughter is very cute. I know, because the pictures my son Christian takes of her make her look that way.
Yes, she is cute anyway, but every photograph is an interpretation. An angle, a filter, a frame, a decision—an image always suggests something about how we see the world, and how we want others to see it. We make the images, we collect the images, we select the images and we share the images, even if we have no idea what we are doing.
But when you add the skills my sons Michael and Christian have nurtured, you can manipulate the images and the people who see them. Or not. Michael shoots hundreds of images at a wedding and selects the ones that create the impression of perfection. Or perhaps he selects the ones that capture the essence of the moment.
In her classic essay “In Plato’s Cave,” from her book On Photography, Sontag contemplates the dangers of such illusions. “By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel the world is more available than it is,” she writes.
And I agree with her up to a point. However all communication has at least some persuasive intent, and photographs no less than words are constructions with meaning and influence.
Sontag sees something more sinister. There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera, she argues. Even passivity can be its aggression, an intentional casualness that becomes itself an artifice.
Certainly photographs are powerful, and subject to abuse. Little wonder the Ten Commandments forbid graven images. It’s no small thing to turn images into icons and then into idols. And like an idol, an image can become a substitute for the reality. This is Sontag’s main concern. She writes:
Photographs, which can not explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy….The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism whether cynical or humanist. It will be a knowledge at bargain prices— a semblance of knowledge; a semblance of wisdom.
But all human communication is so limited, and this results from man’s nature, not the medium he uses to express himself. And it can all be manipulative. All you have to do is hand an evil man a camera. Or a dictionary.
This means photography can also be redemptive, revealing light by understanding the shadows. Photography’s virtues and vices are both very human ones.
Sontag’s title of course suggests that we are content with the image and not the reality, like prisoners in Plato’s cave satisfied with shadows. But invisible things are understood by the things that are made. Perhaps that perfect wedding photograph merely points us to that perfect love Christ has for his church, of which marriage in only a picture after all.
Some days an image is as close as we will get to the real thing.