Practice and Intent
At the outset of this course of study, I was not sure how to categorise myself as a photographer or where my practice fit. I entered the course on the basis of my wildlife work, which while important to me, didn’t fully represent either who I was nor who I wanted to be as a photographer. After three terms, I can say with confidence that I am a documentary photographer whose practice is based out of doors. My subject matter generally ranges between wildlife and natural history, landscape (natural and cultural), and human activities relating to animals or the outdoors and sport. These all derive from my fundamental intent as a photographer to use my camera as a tool to capture things I see and find of interest, and to be able to share them with others who may not have had the opportunity to see those things, or for whom those things were otherwise unseen or unnoticed.
While I always endeavour to make visually interesting and aesthetically pleasing photographs, I do not consider myself a ‘fine art’ photographer and instead hope to render what I see as realistically as I can because I believe there is more than enough inherent interest and beauty in the world around us and that additional manipulations and contrivances are not necessary. It is very much for me, first and foremost, about ‘the thing itself’.
I recently posted a rather extensive article on Szarkowski and The Photographer’s Eye which can be found at https://chasingthewildlife.blog/2019/01/17/john-szarkowski-the-photographers-eye/ , that goes into some detail about how it fits my view of the current state of my practice and my evolution as a photographer. However, to summarise, Szarkowski’s five interdependent elements that serve as the basis for how we as photographer’s take photographs, and how consumers of the work can view and judge that work serve to inform my way of making work. In each of the sub-genres under the broad umbrella of Documentary photography in which I work The Thing Itself, Detail, Frame, Time and Vantage Point factor into every photograph I take.
While it is undeniably true that Szarkowski was very much an adherent to and proponent for Modernism, I believe these five principles largely stand up to the test of varied genres and “schools” of photographic practice. They are both specific and general enough, and due to their avowed interdependence, to be applied with subtly shifting balances between the elements so as to be broadly applicable across the universe of photography.
That have been said, Stephen Shore in his book, The Nature of Photographs, to a degree builds from Szarkowski, but adds a couple of new and interesting elements worthy of further consideration. Shore begins with an intention similar to that of Szarkowski.
“The aim of this book then is…to describe physical and formal attributes of a photographic print that form the tools a photographer uses to define and interpret that content.” (Shore 2007: 12)
“This book is an investigation of what photographs look like, and of 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.” (Szarkowski 1966: 6)
Shore posits that “A photograph can be viewed on several levels. To begin with, it is a physical object, a print. On this print is an image, an illusion of a window on the world. It is on this level that we usually read a picture and discover its content:… Embedded in this level is another that contains signals to our mind’s perceptual apparatus. It gives ‘spin’ to what the image depicts and how it is organized.” (Shore 2007: 10) He calls these levels the Physical, Depictive and Mental levels respectively.
At the Physical Level Shore points out, “The physical qualities of the print determine some of the visual qualities of the image.” (2007: 16) It occurred to me that on the one hand of course this is obvious, but then again as much of our distribution and sharing of images these days is electronic (virtual prints) it isn’t really at the forefront of my mind until it comes time to prepare an exhibition or mount a print for sale. It matters a great deal to the final product on which paper, not only type but manufacturer, it is printed and by what process it is printed and by whom it is printed and whether the post processing platform was colour calibrated and matched to the print platform. This has to date not been a particularly significant issue, but it stands to become one moving on to FMP and whatever form the final product takes.
In the Depictive Level Shore again borrows from Szarkowski by suggesting the photographer “imposes order on a scene” by “choosing a vantage point, choosing a frame, choosing a moment of exposure, and by selecting a plane of focus.” (Shore 2007: 37) (Szarkowski’s Vantage Point, Frame, Time and Detail.) When Szarkowski referred to detail he was speaking more about the narrative capacity of photography, but when he said, “The photographer could not assemble these clues into a coherent narrative, he could only isolate the fragment, document it, and by doing so claim for it some special significance.” (Szarkowski 1966: 8) I do not believe it is a stretch to interpret isolating a fragment and granting it significance as an allusion to focal plane. That is precisely what we do as photographers when we decide how to capture a scene. We choose what is most important and that is where we focus.
Shore, like many writers before him including Szarkowski make the mistake of considering the photographic world three-dimensional when in fact it is four-dimensional. True enough the photographic image is essentially two-dimensional, but it is representation of a four-dimensional scene and as such it is always an illusion and never the truth.
“The world is three-dimensional; a photographic image is two-dimensional.” “The picture plane is a field upon which the lens’s image is projected. A photographic image can rest on this picture plane and, at the same time, contain an illusion of deep space.” (Shore 2007: 40)
Shore’s Mental Level seems to be the subjective counterpart to the objectivity of the Depictive. The Depictive was more about the mechanics of depiction and the detail of what was depicted. The Mental Level is about reading the photograph, assessing its meaning and significance. It depends on both the Physical and Depictive, for without them there is nothing use as the basis for the mental image. I think again in this way Shore is essentially reiterating Szarkowski’s view that his five elements are interdependent, and it is necessary to consider all in judging/ understanding a photograph.
There are strong similarities and parallels between Szarkowski and Shore, and while they may use slightly different wording, they are illuminating fundamentally the same concepts. Shore’s use of photographs and a little more parsing of the elements provides a complementary perspective to Szarkowski. As I stated in the linked article and briefly above I consider most of my work to be aligned with Szarkowski’s Modernist approach and as Shore is in my view quite generally consistent with that line of thinking I can see myself spending more time looking a re-looking at Shore’s examples as a means to continue to improve my ability to see and read photographs.
SZARKOWSKI, John. 1966. The Photographer’s Eye. 7th printi. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.
SHORE, Stephen. 2007. The Nature of Photographs. 2018th edn. London and New York: Phaidon Press.