Mark Tansey often paints about the nature of art and representation, and nowhere is this more evident than in On Photography (Homage to Susan Sontag), painted in 1982. In this work, Tansey shows us a man charging into a room and taking a snapshot of a woman in the bed. He aims a camera at her; she coolly levels a pistol at him. Tansey imbues this picture with a film noir atmosphere, the man appearing like an unscrupulous paparazzo or detective, the woman a femme fatale caught in some compromising indiscretion.
On Photography (Homage to Susan Sontag) is concerned with the nature of photography, which Sontag explored from several different angles in her collection of essays, On Photography. In the book, Sontag wrote about photography's subjective nature, despite its apparently scientific manner of recording a sight before it. Everything, after all, depends on where the photographer decides to point the camera, what to show, how to frame it. It is not an entirely dispassionate record. Photos of horrors around the world prompted Sontag to also consider the increasing detachment from the depicted atrocities felt by the photographer and, by extension, the viewer: "Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events" (S. Sontag, On Photography, London, 2002, p. 11). For Sontag, voyeurism was increasing, infecting the photographer's position and increasingly excluding the possibility that he or she could intervene. The situation resembles Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: one can either be a voyeur and photograph an event, or can intervene in that event, but cannot simultaneously do both. This dichotomy is at the heart of On Photography (Homage to Susan Sontag), where the gun-wielding dame in the bed is able to intervene, while the intrusive photographer is relegated to the position of voyeur - and potential victim. Tansey also implies an intriguing equivalency between the violence of the gun and the camera in this strange stand-off, with the man clearly in a position of power, information as his weapon, the woman's own unclothed state and position weakening the authority of her gun.
Even in choosing painting as a medium, Tansey explores and dissects several issues surrounding photography. In part, he does this through figuration, sometimes considered to have been rendered obsolete in art by photography. He adopts a photorealist visual style, accentuating the divide between painting and photography, while also introducing a false veneer of authenticity. Meanwhile, he also encapsulates the nature of illusion that underpins both photos and paintings in the space within the composition. That space recedes towards the glowing, veiled patch in the curtains, itself reminiscent of cinema screens. He thereby introduces those picture surface values that he has explored in several other works.
Tansey chose to explore this theme in his trademark monochrome, adding another dimension to the entire picture: this style of painting itself owes much to photography. Tansey co-opted that medium's visual language and twisted it to his own means. He focuses on a simple palette, heightening the sense that this is a contest, exploring a duality. Tansey also creates a confrontation between painting, the medium used here, and photography, the subject. On Photography (Homage to Susan Sontag) investigates the contest between photography and the fine arts that Sontag herself discussed extensively. And, to gain extra perspective, Tansey has painted using his own process of erasure; rather than add paint to the canvas, he often removes it, conjuring his image into being by means of reduction. Tansey has removed himself from the debate and become an observer, occupying a problematic place within the framework of Sontag's own opposition of painting and photography:
"The traditional fine arts are elitist: their characteristic form is a single work, produced by an individual; they imply a hierarchy of subject matter in which some subjects are considered important, profound, noble, and others unimportant, trivial, base. The media are democratic: they weaken the role of the specialized producer or auteur. They regard the whole world as material. The traditional fine arts rely on the distinction between authentic and fake, between original and copy, between good taste and bad taste; the media blur, if they do not abolish outright, these distinctions. The fine arts assume that certain experiences or subjects have a meaning. The media are essentially contentless (this is the truth behind Marshall McLuhan's celebrated remark about the message being the medium itself); their characteristic tone is ironic, or dead-pan, or parodistic" (S. Sontag, On Photography, London, 2002, p. 149).
Like the media, On Photography (Homage to Susan Sontag) blurs those distinctions; its medium is its message, and its tone is resolutely ironic. In this way, it condenses, critiques and outmaneuvers Sontag's analysis of photography and fine art, while finding an intellectually valid way of continuing to paint figuratively, against so much of the contemporary grain.