First, let's be clear. The following quote is not from Susan Sontag. It is one of several quotes that Susan Sontag included at the back of her book On Photography. I still find it intriguing that she formatted things the way she did. I've seen authors include quotes, sometimes as many as a dozen, at the beginning of a chapter. I've never seen in author include a section at the end of their book that's just quotes. No explanation. No introduction. Being a quote fiend I can see the appeal. I love including quotes in everything I do. But to give no reason for including a quote leaves it entirely up to the reader to interpret the quote - not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, it also leaves this reader wondering why in heaven's name she stuck them there!
Regardless, as directed, I have selected one of the quotes from her collection.
"I photograph what I do not wish to paint and I paint what I cannot photograph." Man Ray
I know a little bit about Ray. He was an American born at the end of the 19th century and became a part of the Dada and surrealist movements. As luck would have it, I had to read a couple of the Dada manifestos for one of my seminars this week. Dadism as an art movement was in a sense anti-art and was a rebellion against bourgeois art with its pleasing aesthetic and imperial interests, which many of the Dadaists blamed for WWI. Dada pieces were often jumbled, messy, and not aesthetically pleasing. Dadaists suggested that things like war weren't orderly and beautiful, why should the art that depicted them be? They didn't always try to create a literal represenation of the world, but the world as it was seen, felt, and experienced. A world that direct representations couldn't fully express.
These are the thoughts that were on my mind as I read Ray's quote. The second part, in light of what I know of Ray and his artistic leanings, seems to fit well within the Dada mindset. "I paint what I cannot photograph," the things that photographs can't fully capture or express. I would be interested to know the date for the quote. The first part of the quote, understood within the same context, is less clear.
"I photograph what I do not wish to paint." If I read the second part of the quote assuming that he paints the things that photographs can't fully express, the first part of the sentence would seem to suggest that he paints the things that are simple, plain, and easily understood. I'm not quite satisfied with that interpretation, but it's the only understanding of it I can manage at this point.
On a personal level this quote appealed to me for a differenct reason. If I were to write the sentence about myself I would say that "I photograph what I do not wish to write and I write what I cannot photograph." To me, photography is for the things I can see, touch, and experience, even if a photograph can't full encapsulate what I feel about it or its subject. Writing is for the things I imagine, dream, and create. Intially, I wondered if Ray might have been approaching things the same way, that he painted the things he imagined and used photographs for the things he experienced. However, remembering where Ray fits in history, I'm more inclinced to think his statement has to do with his involvement in Dadaism and surrealism.