John Szarkowski’s book The Photographers Eye was based on an exhibition of the same name held at the Musuem Of Modern Art in New Work in 1964. It featured the work of Friedlander, Evans, Strand and many others, and attempted to give an overview of the fundamental challenges and opportunities of the photographic medium. In the introduction to the book, he offers a brief historical overview of photography in terms of how it has evolved and how he sees it as a unique artistic medium.
Szarkowski begins by stating a core tenet of his outlook on photography which is that it is fundamentally different from other picture-making processes in that it is based on selection rather than synthesis – the photographer takes elements of the real world for his picture, whereas the painter makes the elements of his picture from scratch. This immediately posed a new creative dilemma – how can this process be used to create meaningful pictures and valid art? This question would not be answered by means of recourse to existing theories of visual art, but instead tackled by a rag-bag consortium of commercial photographers, amateur enthusiasts and casual snap-shooters, who may not have been consciously trying to answer it at all, but nevertheless have managed to evolve an aesthetic practice that defines what photography is.
This observation is the first of many within the essay that Szarkowski uses to argue for photography as having a unique place within the broader world of artistic practice. He then goes on to discuss a number of specific characteristics of the medium that, taken together, constitute a case for its inclusion as an art-form on a par with other visual practices such as painting.
The first of these is what he calls the thing itself. By this he means that photography provides representations of the real world, and the photographers art is one of seeking out and revealing that which is already there. An interesting dichotomy arises here between the public perception (now shattered, of course) of the photograph’s inability to lie, and the photographers awareness of this not really being the case. Szarkowski suggests that in response to this problem the photographer will often claim (somewhat disingenuously) that what the picture depicts is real but what the eye saw was an illusion. This position is given credence by the fact that images survive while memories fade, and hence the image often becomes the remembered reality.
The next inherent characteristic of the medium is the detail. Photography is tied to depicting reality and furthermore depicting reality as it happens, in the presence of the photographer. The photographer cannot ‘pose the truth’ but merely capture fragments of that truth as it unfolds before him/her. Photography therefore has to be content representing the details of a narrative or an event, rather than attempting to represent the entire thing. A useful analogy here might be that of capturing a football match. Whereas a television broadcast or a written account could claim to be capturing everything that happened, photographs can only capture discrete fragments of what happened. As such, photographs cannot tell stories, but they can capture details of things that have symbolic significance, and that might previously have been overlooked. Szarkowski claims that such details can reveal depths of undiscovered meaning that may be lost in a straight narrative account, and that the function of photography is not to tell a story, but to make a story real.
The frame refers to the edges of the photograph, and is the demarcation between the elements of the real scene that the photographer decided to include, and the elements he/she decided to leave out. The photographer can look at the world like a scroll painting, offering an infinite number of possible compositions as the lens is moved up and down, and left and right. This observation is closely related to the initial one regarding photography as a process of selection rather than synthesis, with framing being a part of the process of selection.
The fourth characteristic is that of time. Photographs are not instantaneous but rather a rendering of the scene over a discrete parcel of time. Furthermore this time is always the present, so photographs cannot directly represent the past or the future, but merely allude to it. Szarkowski describes two ways in which time exposure produces unique images and insights. The first one is when long time exposures (e.g. in the early days of slow lenses) produced images that had never been seen before – blurred figures, dogs with two heads and so on. The second is when short time exposures allowed us to see details previously lost in the blur of movement. For example, Muybridge‘s studies of galloping horses allowed us to understand the horse’s gait in a way we did not before. Similarly, Cartier-Bresson‘s notion of the decisive moment is only made possible by the ability of the camera to freeze a short parcel of time.
The final characteristic that Szarkowski identifies is that of the vantage point. The photographer has to photograph the subject from one of whatever range of vantage points happen to be available, and these may be less than ideal. Rather than this being a failing of photography however, this has proven to be a boon, as photograph has shown us the world from a variety of unusual and unique angles and perspectives, and in doing so has altered our perception of the world.
Szarkowski finishes his piece by arguing for the place of photography as a unique medium that has both profoundly influenced how we view the world and also profoundly influenced a broader artistic practice outside itself. He likens photography to an ‘organism’ that was born whole – the history of photography is not one of development of the medium, but development of our understanding of what the medium can do.
Szarkowski is essentially mounting a case for the place of photography as an art-form and defining the unique characteristics that differentiate it from other visual art-forms such as painting. His essay is an exposition of the Modernist idea of medium specificity applied to photography. If we accept this notion that what defines an art-form are the specific characteristics of the medium itself (rather than, for example, the purposes and uses to which the medium is put) then he presents a strong case. This is not to say, however that one cannot take issue with some of the specific characteristics he puts forward.
For example, great emphasis is placed on how photography is a process of selection rather than synthesis. One could easily argue though that the painter also engages in a process of selection, in that he/she must select what to paint. Szarkowski would say that the painter selects from their imagination, whereas the photographer must select from the real world, however the rise of constructed and staged photography over the last few decades largely destroys this distinction.
Similarly photography’s concentration on the detail, and the consequent necessity of seeing it as a symbolic rather than a narrative medium, could also be said to be a characteristic of painting. The difference of course, is that the painter can arrange all elements of the scene in such a way that a narrative can be constructed, but once again, whereas in Szarkowski’s time such an approach to photography was unheard of, it is now an established practice in the work of artists such as Jeff Wall.
I am going to use one of Elliot Erwitt‘s dog photographs to illustrate this post. Erwitt is a photographer who is very much situated in the New York modernist tradition that Szarkowski has done so much to promote. His photographs of dogs, serve as excellent examples of Szarkowski’s notion of vantage point as providing us with a unique view of the world that we would not necessarily encounter through a medium other than photography.