Penguin Books 1979
In Plato’s Cave
America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly
The Heroism of Vision
A Brief Anthology of Quotations
For Nicole Stephane
It all started with one essay – about some of the problems, aesthetic and moral, posed by the omnipresence of photographed images; but the more I thought about what photographs are, the more complex and suggestive they became. So one generated another, and that one (to my bemusement) another, and so on – a progress of essays, about the meaning and career of photographs – until I’d gone far enough so that the argument sketched in the first essay, documented and disgressed from in the succeeding essays, could be recapitulated and extended in a more theoretical way; and could stop.
The essays were first published (in a slightly different
form) in The New York Review of Books, and probably would never have been written were it not for the encouragement given by its editors, my friends Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein, to my obsession with photography. I am grateful to them, and to my friend Don Eric Levine, for much patient advice and unstinting help.
In Plato’s Cave 2
Seen Through Photographs, 9
Melancholy Objects 16
The Heroism of Vision 25
Photographic Evangels 33
The Image-World 43
A Brief Anthology of Quotations 51
(HOMAGE TO W. B.) 51
In Plato’s Cave
● Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth. But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images. For one thing, there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention. The inventory started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems. This very insatiability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world. In teaching us a new i visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads – as an anthology of images. To collect photographs is to collect the world. Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store. In Godard’s Les Carabiners (1963), two sluggish lumpen-peasants are lured into joining the King’s Army by the promise that they will be able to loot, rape, kill, or do whatever else they please to the enemy, and get rich. But the suitcase of booty that Michel-Ange and Ulysse triumphantly bring home, years later, to their wives turns out to contain only picture postcards, hundreds of them, of Monuments, Department Stores, Mammals, Wonders of Nature, Methods of Transport, Works of Art, and other classified treasures from around the globe. Godard’s gag vividly parodies the equivocal magic of the photographic image. Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.
To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.