On Photography

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1977.

First edition. 8vo (215x145mm). pp. 207. Steel-grey cloth with silver-stamped titles to spine. Illustrated dust jacket with some shelfwear and light chipping to the bottom edge. Signed and dated by Sontag on the front endpaper: "Susan Sontag 2/26/78 D.C." This copy is from the library of the celebrated photo-editor John G. Morris. It has been annotated in pencil throughout by Morris and so combines the observations of one of the major figures of photo-journalism on one of the key twentieth-century academic texts on the aesthetics of photography.

This collection of essays, originally appearing in the NYRB, is an important and intellectually wide-ranging study of photography. It takes in Plato, Whitman, Arbus and Warhol, the relationship of photography to art and the moral problems of photography. The annotations by John G. Morris show what happens when practice meets theory. There is much underlining by Morris and there are plenty of question and exclamation marks. It is fascinating to see Morris responding to the text. Where Sontag asserts: “The language in which photographs are generally evaluated is extremely meager”, Morris has written “Hear, hear”. Elsewhere, he observes “but she seems unaware of journalism”. And Sontag’s view that “eventually we look at all photographs surrealistically” is met with a question mark and a firm “No!”. But, generally, Morris’s comments are combatively engaging, as one would expect from a man who commissioned, edited and encouraged some of the finest photographers.
John G. Morris (1916-2017) was probably the most important photo-editor of the twentieth century. He worked with many of the most celebrated photographers - Robert Capa, Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith. As the London Picture Editor of Life during WWII, he was responsible for editing and publishing Capa’s coverage of D-Day. Later, Morris became the Picture Editor of Ladies Home Journal, Executive Editor of Magnum Photos, and Picture Editor of The New York Times. Until his death, he toured the world lecturing about photo-journalism “If it [a photo] has a message, the message has to come through... But, it should evoke something from the heart. It should pull at you. Not only should it inform you, it should hook you”.