The Intimate Public Sphere
There is something that today's ordinary photography—all of our clamorous photos of cats and parties and weddings and babies and torture, so visible of late—wants to say about itself, about its busy public life. Susan Sontag came closest to divining it, but ends up being haunted by it; haunted by the specter of a photography-become-omnipresent. For Sontag, omnipresence was the contemporary condition of photographs (that is, a new condition), and an ominous one. On Photography sets out to articulate "some of the problems, aesthetic and moral, posed by the omnipresence of photographed images." The book swerves from this theme to provide an ontology of photographs and an ethics of photography, two thematic interests whose collective effect is to exile omnipresence to a position external to photographs, something which gets imposed by a process of history. As if to say: omnipresent is what photographs have become, not what they should be. And in that becoming lies the problem of contemporary life that most vexed Sontag (the becoming-distant of culture, the becoming-omnipresent of apathy). In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag's last book, omnipresence—although the term there, and in her essays on the Abu Ghraib photographs, has become "ubiquity"—is still discussed as a condition of photography, but the ethics here soften. Maybe there is hope yet for a radical photography, for a photography which is not merely parasitic upon life. Sontag's hesitant re-valuation of omnipresence is the fulcrum for her re-valuation of the ethics of photography.
Is it clear what has become omnipresent here, in Sontag's work or in any of the recent work on photography which flies all around the subject of omnipresence but never quite lands (Manovich, Slater, Sekula, WJ Mitchell)? Is it clear what an omnipresent photography makes knowable and what it forces into secrecy? Whether that omnipresence is a becoming or a being? In any case, two contemporary phenomena, one as grotesque as the other is banal, seem to literalize some part of Sontag's concern: on the side of the remarkably unremarkable are photoblogs, flickr.com, and commercial photography sites like kodakgallery.com and shutterfly.com, witnesses to an eruption of intimate photography, out of photo albums and into visibility; on the side of the grotesquely banal are the Abu Ghraib photographs, through which banality erupts as a traumatic event. Considering these two phenomena of contemporary photography together, the work of this essay is to begin ramifying the notion of an omnipresent photography. What does it mean to say that photography is omnipresent, ubiquitous, or—the concept I would add to Sontag's terms, borrowing from Michael Warner and his theory of publics—circulatory? What potentials are opened up, for analysis, for action, if we consider omnipresence not as the lamentable state of contemporary photography, but as some part of its code, its ontology? My broadest interest is to understand how ordinary photography, considered in its omnipresence, potentializes new forms of public life and public knowing.