The initial critical reception of Susan Sontag's On Photography (1977) is one of the most extraordinary events in the history of photography and cultural criticism. No other photography book, not even The Family of Man (1955), which sold four million copies before finally going out of print in 1978, received a wider range of press coverage than On Photography. The scores of reviews of Sontag's book extended not only across the spectrum of specialized photography and art magazines - that is, from Popular Photography to Artforum - but also across an expansive range of general-interest and intellectual periodicals from the Christian Science Monitor to the Village Voice, from Esquire to Encounter, and from the Saturday Review to the Antioch Review. What's more, On Photography won the National Book Critics' Circle Award for 1977 and was selected among the top 20 books of 1977 by the editors of the New York Times Book Review.
Perhaps no photography book - certainly no book about photography - has been analyzed and discussed with more intensity, from so many different and competing perspectives, as On Photography. No reader, apparently, was left unmoved or unprovoked by it. Consider, for example, the reception that On Photography has received in this publication. In addition to the two essays in this issue, Afterimage has published four strikingly different articles on or about On Photography. The first, Dru Shipman's "Sontag On Photography" (January 1975) is not, strictly speaking, a review of On Photography; rather, it is an obsessive, point-by-point rebuttal of the first four of Sontag's seven essays about photography for the New York Review of Books (six of these essays, of course, became On Photography). Although not nearly as long-winded as Shipman's article (which, incidentally, took up nine pages of the 20-page issue), Michael Lesey's January 1978 review is equally if not more hostile. Like several other prominent responses to On Photography from the art-photography world - namely, Colin L. Westerbeck Jr.'s 1978 Artforum review and Robert Heinecken's 1978 photomontage portrait - Lesey tries to discredit Sontag's book by revealing it to be, as the title of his review put it, "an unacknowledged autobiography" as if the personal essay were somehow a criminal act. An abrupt about-face was signaled in the third and fourth Afterimage articles about On Photography: David L. Jacobs's "Sontag Re-Viewed" (Summer 1978) and John McCole's "Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, and the Radical Critique of Photography" (Summer 1979). In accord with Jacobs, McCole concludes that "the issues she raises will have to be faced, not only by radical critics, but by anyone who thinks and cares about photography."
That On Photography achieved a particularly broad and intense critical reception is indisputable. That Sontag's collection of essays is still sold and read (it is currently in its fourteenth English-language edition), and is available in numerous foreign-language translations (13 at last count), is equally certain. What is disputable and uncertain, however, is the complicated matter of how On Photography has been received by U.S. critics and scholars since that initial flurry of reviews, panels, symposia and other commentary in the mid- to late 1970s. The question is: How important, influential or authoritative is the book for currently active critics and scholars? Or, what is On Photography's critical reputation today? Apart from polling or interviewing these experts, there are two easier yet more reliable ways of gauging Sontag's reception.
The first method involves counting all the anthologies that contain excerpts or sections from On Photography, or reprints of Sontag's original essays for the New York Review of Books, the presumption being that anthology editors and publishers are themselves authoritative arbiters of intellectual reputations. As one might expect, Sontag's writings are reprinted in most of the major anthologies that burst upon the scene in the late '70s and very early '80s; these include The Camera Viewed: Writings on Twentieth-Century Photography (1979), Classic Essays on Photography (1980) and Photography in Print (1981). …