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Daegan Miller

Landscape Historian

Earthward: The Ecology of Vision

About twenty years ago I was first punctured by a question whose barbs have yet to release: how do photographs work? It’s not so much the technical questions that interest me — though I’m not incurious as to how one manipulates photo-sensitive chemicals and pixels and shutter speeds — but the sensual one: how do photographs work on me?

I’m far from the only one fascinated by sun writing: ever since news first broke, in 1839, of the ability to mirror nature, writers, dreamers, artists, and intellectuals have argued over whether photography was an art or a technical process, merely, whether it was a marker of progress or a debasing idolatry. Whether photography was liberatory or enslaving.

For much of the past fifty years there has been one constant answer: photography is a form of violence, “a semblance of rape,” as Susan Sontag memorably wrote in On Photography (1973). Whether the photograph’s complicity in the culture of capitalism (think fashion and advertising), or the way it can naturalize various gazes — male, imperial, white, or bourgeois — it’s no longer possible to argue that photographs are “just” pretty pictures. They do something. They are not the world, but a version of it, a version often skewed in service of the powerful, and such is their power to frame the view that only a very few are aware of the distortion. We could call this approach to photography — where the picture is a suspicious thing that needs interrogation — the “Ideology of Vision.” (Martin Jay’s Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) is a classic on how modern Western thought turns a skeptical eye on the visual.)

There’s also an “Economy of Vision,” a mode of criticism in which photographs are recast as widely circulating material objects: from the photographer’s studio through gallery to collector and museum, from photojournalist to cheap-print newspaper and from there to a politician’s daily briefing dossier. Or online, from a smart phone to Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram. Along each decisive moment in its journey, the photograph is embedded in new contexts — frames, captions, hashtagged hot-takes — its image brushed and stretched and Photoshopped and cropped, or else dissolved into millions of digital ones and zeroes and reconstituted on a screen, taking on new meanings and put to new uses with each hand through which it passes. It’s not so much the image that holds meaning, in the economic vision, but whatever it is it is used for.

Important as both the ideological and economic view of the photograph are, they’ve never been able to answer my question — how do photographs work? — because they both shift the angle of inquiry away from the photograph itself to its various contexts.

I’ve begun to think of photographs as ecological, to think, with WJT Mitchell, of photographs as alive, as individual things with desires, things that exist in an ecosystem that includes ideology and use, but extends further, to other pictures, and further still to an audience member’s affective response. There’s something autonomous about photographs, but in a limited way, just as any individual species is both simply itself but also an agglomeration of bacteria, yeast, and other tiny symbiotic critters. I’ve begun to think that pictures deserve a criticism modeled not so much on economics, and even less on torture, but on coexistence.

What follows is a small shelf-full of books, an intellectual history of learning to see ecologically.

Editors’ Note: This Reading List is a companion to “Earthward: Landscape Photography in the Satellite Age,” by Daegan Miller. 

[Image: Census Tracts 9902, 9903, and 9901, Kauai County, Hawaii. [@everytract]]


    Sontag spent her life attracted to and repulsed by photographs, never quite sure whether photography was art or propaganda, whether photographs sensitized their viewers to the beautiful and the brutal, or whether they were simply one more cheap, benumbing spectacle: crudely titillating, mechanically reproduced, quickly consumed. “A capitalist society,” she wrote in On Photography, “requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex” (178). And yet, right at the book’s end, Sontag hesitates in what seems like a sum-it-all-up condemnation: “If there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images, it will require an ecology not only of real things but of images as well” (180).

    Sontag confronted this same troubling ambiguity whenever she returned to the subject of photography, as she would in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) and in “Photography: A Little Summa,” and “Regarding the Torture of Others” from her posthumous collection, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (2007). If, however, we can sidestep the question of photography’s status as art or not, and simply assume that photography is an art (as I have), then it’s in the lead essay of her first collection, Against Interpretation (1961), that I’ve found the roots of an ecological method: “What is important now,” she writes of art criticism, “is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.... In place of a hermeneutics of art we need an erotics of art” (14).

  • Against Interpretation and Other Essays


  • On Photography


  • Regarding the Pain of Others


  • At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches

    Farrar, Strauss and Giroux


    The Marxist art critic John Berger explicitly took up the problems and possibilities Sontag had raised in On Photography in his “Uses of Photography,” from About Looking (1980). Berger was able to avoid Sontag’s static art/propaganda binary by reimagining photographs as ever-emergent, like memories — bits of the past which erupt into the present. Whereas Sontag found the fluidity of photography troubling and seemed to think of ecology as a fixed web-like network of static relationships, everything in its niche, Berger’s was a more sophisticated understanding which saw ecology as a dynamic, shifting, evolutionary interaction. Rather than “arrested moments,” photographs, he understood, exist in “a living context” (61).

    Two years later, in Another Way of Telling (1982), Berger extended his thinking: photographs were no longer like memories, but a form of subjectivity itself — a home — and the ambiguity that so troubled Sontag was, for Berger, a sign of every photo’s liveliness. Though he never quite made the leap to thinking of photographs as alive, he understood that it was through the act of looking at pictures that we humans know ourselves to be part of a wider community. And it was in this communitarian act that Berger found hope: by looking at art, including photographs, we can see creation unfold through another’s eyes and thereby become aware of what he described in “The Ideal Critic and the Fighting Critic,” from Landscapes: John Berger on Art, “our own potentiality,” the possibility each of us had to bring something new into our shared world (97).

  • About Looking


  • Understanding a Photograph


  • Landscapes: John Berger on Art


  • Another Way of Telling



    If Sontag hinted at the existence of an ecological way of seeing, and Berger began describing how such an ecology would work, WJT Mitchell has spent the last thirty years fleshing out both the idea of picture as-individual-species as well as the way every picture is a member of an ever-evolving ecological web. One of his key insights in What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images is that, though pictures aren’t literally alive, we act as if they are. “Here’s my child,” we say to the stranger on the plane as we make conversation to pass the time, handing over a photograph of a loved one. And if that stranger were to take out her car key and scratch out the eyes of our photographed child, we’d react with horror, as if real harm were inflicted upon flesh and bone.

    Pictures want things, too — they want your attention.

    Mitchell’s thinking is neither teleological in the way that the more ideological takes tend to be, nor is it as open-ended as the economic versions, where any picture can mean anything because it can be put to any use. There’s a fluidity to Mitchell’s work, though not an unbounded one: pictures are created by individual people reliant on specific aesthetics, cultures, and commitments, but they’re more like children: beings who never completely obey their parents’ wishes, who grow into their own, leading very long lives that will take them far from their birthplace, touching other lives, changing them, before passing on.

  • Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology

    University of Chicago Press

  • Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation

    University of Chicago Press

  • What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images

    University of Chicago Press

  • Image Science: Iconology, Visual Culture, and Media Aesthetics

    University of Chicago Press


    A flurry of recent books have begun arguing that documentary photography and photojournalism can only partly be understood as a series of objectifying, reifying gazes. Far better, these books argue, to understand photographs as asking of their audience something open-ended, unpredictable, anarchic: they ask of their audience to imagine. No photographer, no matter how skilled, can stop his audience from dreaming. And so photographs preserve a moment of encounter with another human, a moment of possibility in which empathy can bloom between the looker and the looked-at, or, solidarity, or outrage. This is what Ariella Azoulay, in Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography, calls “the civil gaze,” a means of human connection: “wherever human beings exist together,” as they do when a person looks at the photograph of another, “their existence is a political existence” (100).

  • Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography


  • No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy

    University of Chicago Press

  • The Public Image: Photography and Civic Spectatorship

    University of Chicago Press

  • The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence

    University of Chicago Press


    Every previous book in this list has helped me to think what approach an ecological attunement to photography might take. These three, Roland Barthes’s classic Camera Lucida, Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things, and Sarah Sentilles’s astounding Draw Your Weapons are in themselves ecological: Camera Lucida, an elegant testament to how allowing ourselves to be marked by a photograph (Barthes likens such an experience to being punctured) is to encounter something wild, something that must be experienced, not analyzed, madness chafed by reality; Known and Strange Things, a thickened web of interwoven essays held together only by Cole’s extraordinary sensitivity to aesthetics, politics, and the conditions of existence; and Draw Your Weapons....

    “The world,” Sentilles writes in her final eponymous chapter, “is made. And can be unmade. Remade.” Draw Your Weapons is one of the finest recent works of nonfiction I’ve encountered, 274-pages made up of seventeen chapters broken into 480 glittering shards on how photography — and literature, and careful thought — feels, a book whose pacing and prose create for its reader the passionate existence the book wants: “Let there be no reason to look away” (274).

  • Camera Lucida

    Hill and Wang

  • Known and Strange Things: Essays

    Random House

  • Draw Your Weapons

    Random House

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