John Szarkowski: The Photographer’s Eye

The six pages that make up the introduction to John Szarkowski’s 1966 book, The Photographer’s Eye, are in my opinion the clearest, most concise, most accessible and for me, the most relatable description of the essential elements of photography and why they are significant.  It may not in the end represent the only photographic philosophy I embrace, but it is one for which I am all in.  My work is, has always been predominantly consistent with the Modernist and Formalist school of thought of which Szarkowski is a leading proponent and prominent voice.

Szarkowski ends his introduction with the following:

“The history of photography has been less a journey than a growth.  Its movement has not been linear and consecutive, but centrifugal.  Photography and our understanding of it, has spread from the center; it has, by infusion, penetrated our consciousness.  Like and organism, photography was born whole.  It is in our progressive discovery of it that its history lies.”

I think this is an interesting and important description.  If one were to put an organism in a centrifuge it would separate into constituent components with the weightiest elements travelling through all the strata and ending up at the bottom of the test tube.  While photography’s origins are rooted in Modernism and Formalism, as the centrifuge spun, and photography grew, many other forms (genres) of photography became visible.  Yet traces of the Modernist origins trailed through those genres and even remained intact today in contemporary photography.  I believe Modernism, the quest for reality and purity in photographic form and function, are the weightiest element of the photographic organism and that is why the principles that define it are still in force today.

The introduction begins with:

“This book is an investigation of what photographs look like, and why they look that way.  It is concerned with photographic style and with photographic tradition: with the sense of possibilities that a photographer today takes to his work.”

“The invention of photography provided a radically new picture-making process – a process based not on synthesis but on selection.  The difference was a basic one.  Paintings were made – constructed from a storehouse of traditional schemes and skills and attitudes – but photographs, as the man on the street put it, were taken.”

“The difference raised a creative issue of a new order: how could this mechanical and mindless process be made to produce pictures meaningful in human terms – pictures with clarity and coherence and a point of view?”

He goes on to speak briefly about how quickly photography grew in popularity and how the change from wet to dry plate suddenly made photography accessible to many more people resulting in a deluge of new images many of which were “formless and accidental” and some that were “memorable and seemed significant beyond their limited intention.”  If he could only imagine the world today.

Szarkowski goes on to point out:

“But it was not only the way that photography described things that was new; it was also the things it chose to describe.  Photography was easy, cheap and ubiquitous, and it recorded anything: shop windows and sod houses and family pets and steam engines and unimportant people. And once made objective and permanent, immortalized in a picture, these trivial things took on importance.

This ‘revolution’ in the visual arts brought the world near and far to the doorstep of nearly everyone.  As the medium was new and the technology evolving, photographers had to learn how to use their tools and materials and to adjust to the limitations of the early equipment and they had to learn from each other’s work.

Sarkowski chose the photos in The Photographer’s Eye, he claimed, not because they fit a particular aesthetic or school, or were made by renowned photographers, “that they shared little in common except their success and a shared vocabulary: these pictures were unmistakeably photographs.”  He believed these photographs shared a vision of photography itself, and that “The character of this vision was discovered by photographers at work, as their awareness of photography’s potentials grew.”

Although Szarkowski claimed not, I find there are precious few photographs in the collection that do not fit into the basic model of Modernism.  There is the odd modestly abstract photograph, but on the whole, they fit very neatly into the form with which Szarkowski was most familiar and most comfortable.  He was in fact reportedly criticised late in his career for having failed to embrace Post-Modernist work.  He continued to his death to champion the idea that the camera was a ‘window’ to the world and he wasn’t keen on those who chose to use the camera as a ‘mirror’.

Since photography was being discovered by photographers, Szarkowski thought the history of the medium could be defined by “photographer’s progressive awareness of characteristics and problems that have seemed inherent in the medium.”  He posited five issues and said: “These issues do not define discrete categories of work; on the contrary they should be regarded as interdependent aspects of a single problem – as section views through the body of photographic tradition.  As such, it is hoped that they may contribute to the formulation of a vocabulary and a critical perspective more fully responsive to the unique phenomena of photography.”

And it is these five things to which I was referring in my opening paragraphs that seem so clear, concise, relevant and accessible.  With these, I don’t need the obtuse musings of Barthes, or the mad imaginings of a world about to be subsumed by automation of Flusser.  Elements of the thinking of most of the other critical theorists can be incorporated into these five categories, and if they can’t, perhaps they don’t need to be because this a pretty good list and covers more than enough territory to handle a wide swath of the photographic universe.

The five categories are, The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time, and Vantage Point.  As Szarkowski said, they are not independent, and each element is important to ‘reading, decoding, interpreting, judging’ a photograph, or whatever other term of art you choose for the process of looking at and seeing photographic work.

Each of these categories is supported by several paragraphs of contextual explanation that can be easily read in The Photographer’s Eye so I am not going to quote them wholesale, but rather attempt to draw some of the most salient points associated with each to include as a summary of Szarkowski’s points.

The Thing Itself

  • Photography deals with the actual
  • The world itself is an artist of incomparable inventiveness and to recognise its best works and moments, to anticipate them, to clarify them and make them permanent, requires intelligence both acute and supple.
  • The factuality of pictures is different than reality itself; the subject and the picture were not the same thing even though they might appear so afterward.
  • People believe the photograph cannot lie and that what our eyes saw was illusion and the camera saw truth, but except for the fact that the image would survive the subject and become remembered reality. (Ed. However, as I have written before truth is illusory, the photograph was never and never can be truth in absolute terms.)

 

The Detail

  • Photographers are tied to the facts of things, and it is the photographer’s problem to try to force the facts to tell the truth.
  • Outside the studio, the photographer can only record what was found; fragmented and unexplained elements – not a story, but scattered and suggestive clues.
  • The compelling clarity with which a photograph records the trivial suggested the subject hadn’t been properly seen before and was perhaps not trivial but filled with undiscovered meaning.
  • Photography has never been successful at narrative.
  • If photographs cannot be read as stories, they could be read as symbols.
  • Even the large body of Civil War and WWII photography could not without extensive captioning explain what was happening.
  • The function of these pictures was not to make the story clear, but to make it real.
  • He quotes Robert Capra’s comment that expressed both the narrative poverty and symbolic power of photography when he said, “If your pictures aren’t good, you are not close enough.”

 

The Frame

  • A picture is not conceived but selected, therefore the subject is never truly discrete or wholly self-contained.
  • The edges of the frame mark the boundary of what the photographer thought was most important, even though the subject extended beyond inn all directions.
  • Choices create perceived relationships even where they do not actually exist
  • Choosing and eliminating, central acts of photography, forces a concentration on the pictures edge and the shapes that reside within.

 

Time

  • All photographs are time exposures, and each describes a unique parcel of time. (Ed. Derrida – punctum is a duration)
  • Faster lenses and film revealed fascinating details about movement that could not be discerned with the naked eye.
  • Great pleasure and beauty can be derived from fragmenting time to reveal momentary patterns and shapes previously concealed in the flux of movement.
  • He refers to Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, which define HCB’s commitment to this new beauty, but clarified the oft misunderstood phrase by saying ‘the thing that happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax, but a visual one; a picture not a story.’

 

Vantage Point

  • Photography has taught is to see from the unexpected vantage point.
  • Pictures can give the sense of the scene while withholding its narrative meaning.
  • Necessity sometimes, and choice others puts the photographer in places providing unfamiliar perspectives.
  • If the photographer cannot move the subject the camera can be moved.
  • Altering vantage points reveals the world is richer and less simple than the mind might have guessed.

 

Aside from Szarkowski’s reference to the camera discovering truth, I find this to be a remarkably relevant text and set of guiding principles for both the photographer and the critic. Just to elaborate briefly on the issue of truth, the camera is not capable of revealing truth.  Truth is at least a four-dimensional phenomenon and a two-dimensional medium cannot render it.  Moving pictures can come closer, but they too at best are only able to work in three dimensions at any given moment.  So, the idea absolute truth, aside from the fact that we will all someday die, can be discovered at all is dubious at best.   Relative truth is somewhat more achievable, but never in a single frame.  The best we as photographers can hope to achieve in my opinion is a reasonably faithful representation of facts and reality, bounded by the limitations of our equipment and our perspectives physically and politically.

 

References

SZARKOWSKI, John. n.d. The Photographer’s Eye. 7th printi. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

DURDEN, Mark (ed.). 2013. 50 Key Writers on Photography. First. Milton Park: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

 

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