An article about children’s response to the horror of the bridge collapse in Minneapolis last week opened with the following sentence:
They all said the same thing: It was as if they were suddenly in a movie.
O’Connor, Anahad. “Schoolchildren Struggled to Escape.” New York Times.August 2, 2007.
It wasn’t the only story to focus on the movie-like sensation of surviving the collapse. (Here is another.) I couldn’t help but think about a section in Susan Sontag’s On Photography that has always bothered me. In it, she notes that people often compare reality to images in order to validate reality:
It is common now for people to insist about their experience of a violent event in which they were caught up–a plane crash, a shoot-out, a terrorist bombing–that “it seemed like a movie.” This is said, other descriptions seeming insufficient, in order to explain how real it was.
Sontag, p. 161
Where Sontag stumbles here, I think, is in confusing the purpose of these comparisons. They are inevitably used by people who live in relatively comfortable and predictable worlds to describe how UNREAL or SURREAL an event was. The recent collapse of the bridge is a prime example.
It seems bizarre that Sontag could have misunderstood the motivation behind such a simple statement. More likely, I think, is that Sontag was pushing the envelope a bit in order to make her case a bit more sensational. I imagine this comes as little surprise to anyone engaged in rigorous academic discussions of visual theroy, where Sontag is not a particularly well-regarded figure. (The entry on Wikipedia for On Photography dwells primarily on how the book has fallen out of favor since the days of its early acclaim. But Sontag was never writing for scholarly journals, and I find that On Photography, despite its controversial (as well as largely uncited) claims and weak points, redeems itself by condensing and popularizing major photographic issues into unbeatably readable prose. It’s a great primer on photographic theory–far better, in my opinion, than classics like Weston’s Daybooks, which are primarily interesting as documents of his peculiar brand of Modernism, or even Szarkowski’s Looking At Photographs, which is illuminating but too focused on individual images to provide a productive overall view of photographic issues. Sontag provides a larger perspective which, if not perfectly accurate, is always relevant and readable. For that she deserves some space in the canon.