Memento Mori

Negotiating the distance between extremes of feeling and intellect

"All photographs are memento mori," Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography(1977), her groundbreaking collection of essays. So one could hardly imagine a more fitting memorial to the writer, who died two years ago, than this show of photographs organized around her reflections. In that book, Sontag pinpointed the moment when she lost something akin to her critical virginity, at age 12, while looking at "photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau which I came across by chance in a bookstore in Santa Monica in July 1945. Nothing I have seen—in photographs or in real life—ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously . . . I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying."

Much of her work negotiated the distance between extremes of feeling and intellect. Many were offended by an article she published just after 9-11, noting the "courage" of the hijackers who crashed into the World Trade Center; but as we seesawed in those weeks between grief and numbness, who could forget her (radical) exhortation: to think. Sontag touched upon 9-11 again in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others(2003), a brilliant extended meditation on the uses and abuses of photographs of war and disaster. No mere political diatribe, it ranges widely across history, from the Victorian photographer Roger Fenton's staged tableaux of British soldiers in the Crimean War to the horrors on display in this morning's newspaper, uncovering in the process the double standard that underpins our relationship, in the developed West, to images of suffering.

Shows about critics are a tricky business. There's a tendency for the writer's words, reproduced in wall texts or captions, to eclipse the pictures, narrowing their meaning to a single interpretation. With one notable exception—Robert Capa's The Falling Soldier (1936), an icon of Republican heroism in the Spanish Civil War whose veracity has recently been challenged—curator Mia Fineman wisely leaves out specific photographs Sontag dwelt upon at length, preferring instead allusive juxtapositions of word and image.

Susan Sontag photographed by Peter Hujar in 1975
Peter Hujar/Alfred Stieglitz Society Gift, 2006
Susan Sontag photographed by Peter Hujar in 1975

Sontag's aphoristic style, heir to Walter Benjamin's epigrammatic insights, works particularly well in this context. (She was heir to Benjamin as well in her preoccupations with surrealism, the politics of the image, and the 19th-century as the cradle of modernity, while Roland Barthes was like her sentimental Parisian cousin in their shared obsession with photography's whiff of mortality.)

So her reflections on the surrealism that "lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise" accompany a picture by Buñuel's cinematographer Eli Lotar, whose Slaughterhouses at La Villette shows severed rows of cattle hooves, lined up in the calm light of dawn like shoes at a Japanese bathhouse. "Seen through photographs, people become icons of themselves," Sontag wrote. Well, none more so than the beautiful 32-year-old author herself, who reclines in Peter Hujar's 1975 portrait and projects an aura of serene self-confidence and domination. (At the Met, she's the last in a delightful line of sacred monsters, from Napoleon Sarony's silk-stocking-clad Oscar Wilde to photo-booth self-portraits by Andy Warhol.) And her thoughts on fascist pageantry find an echo in Leni Riefenstahl's showstopping aerial shot of endless lines of insect-sized, seemingly identical German athletes doing push-ups at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

One might quibble with Sontag's assessments of specific artists; her harshness, for example, toward Diane Arbus, whose posthumous 1972 retrospective at MOMA occasioned one of the writer's more spectacular failures of empathy. But the power of her impassioned amateur's stance remains an inspiration. "Space reserved for being serious," she wrote toward the end of her life, "is hard to come by in a modern society, whose chief model of a public space is the mega-store (which may also be an airport or museum)." Or, one might add, a Chelsea filled with art galleries. But "space for being serious" was precisely what Sontag preserved in her writing—and in the frantic rush to consumption, with most critics simply providing (or withholding) seals of approval on the cultural assembly, line, we would do well to follow her.

 
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