Ann DeWitt on Annie Leibovitz’s Photographs of Susan Sontag
In Greek mythology Proteus was able to change shape with relative ease—from wild boar to lion to dragon to fire to flood. But what he found difficult, and would not do unless seized or chained, was to commit to a single form, the form most his own, and carry out his function of prophecy.
— Marvin Israel, Birthday Card to Diane Arbus, 1971
In 1973, Susan Sontag said of the nation’s increasing obsession with photography, “Kodak put signs at the entrances of many towns listing what to photograph.” Sontag’s own life could have populated a town and had its very own sign. But in 1973, America’s focus was on other landscapes. As Sontag notes in On Photography, photographers, laymen and otherwise, were capturing images of a once hidden middle-America through the scope of the photographic lens. The American family was embracing the photo album with a catholic philistinism, reclaiming Nature as well as the nature of time in a “program of populist transcendence.” It had been that way, says Sontag, ever since the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, when the camera rode the rail West. Like so many of Sontag’s essays on aesthetics—rife with literary comparisons and insistent on bridging the gap between literature and the “craft based arts”—here Sontag stakes photography’s evolution with Whitman: “Nobody would fret about beauty and ugliness, he implies, who was accepting a sufficiently large embrace of the real, of the inclusiveness and vitality of actual American experience.” “The United States,” Whitman offered, “themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” Sontag interprets the work of Walker Evans and Diane Arbus through a similarly optimistic intersection: “All facts, even mean ones, are incandescent in Whitman’s America—that ideal space, made real by history, where ‘as they emit themselves facts are showered with life.’” It was photography’s job to demystify the ordinary lives people already led behind closed doors.
"I’ve always considered the whole Writing Practice idea as yet another example of some poets’ insufferable egotism, a total guy thing, like they think they’re such geniuses their shopping lists should be bronzed. Would these guys consider a woman blogging about her heartbreak as part of a serious writing practice? I doubt it. Is my refusing to consider this blog Real Writing an internalized misogyny? My posts are too slight, to femmy, too sloppy (I’m a compulsive reviser), too easy."
- Dodie Bellamy
Laurie Weeks: Making Magic Out of the Real
- KS: I love how the line “This pot was strong. And Jane’s hair was many, many things” sums up the hilarious melodrama of young, unrequited love. Did you have to tap into some old memories to write this?
- Laurie: I use everything but I’m not interested in simple recitation of autobiographical occurrences that issue from a supposedly static reality because for me anyway that’s not helpful, it almost blinds me. I want to dive into mystery. Since birth I’ve craved all things psychedelic, the energy and beauty of it. The pleasure. It’s not so much that I “tapped” into old memories but rather that my body, my entire being, is an unstable field of experiential data—faint scenes, the voices and words of everything I’ve seen or read, the knots of confusion where language struggles for interpretive control of sensation and perception, and I’m writing from within that field to explore and contest the numbness, narrowing of vision, the mandated destruction of imagination that turns one into an abstraction to oneself. An obedient one. Simply, for example, by trying to pin you down to a single, fixed identity based on artificial categories of hierarchy and value that discipline and punish according to the needs of power.
There is music that makes you nostalgic and then there is music that makes you feel a longing for the past that is something else. And there is music that makes you remember things about yourself that you had forgotten -
When you are a woman or a girl or female no one says to you, “Look, artists who are great take without asking, and take and take and do not apologize” because when you are a woman or a girl or female, the only thing you are supposed to take is a lot of other people’s shit. No one says to you, “Be sure you are strong enough to take and not apologize and keep going when the taking leaves you nothing to go back to.” Be sure you are strong enough to steal and live alone with what you’ve made yours.