Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Photographer's Eye - The Thing Itself

In April I travelled to southern California to visit my cousin, her husband and their new baby. We went to Los Angeles one day, the beach another, drank lots of wine and margaritas and ate a lot of delicious Mexican food. On my last full day there we found time to drive down to San Diego for the day to pay a visit to the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts. The exhibit on display at the time of my visit was "The Photographer's Eye" based on the ground-breaking book by John Szarkowski. As director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York from 1962 to 1991, Szarkowski, who passed away in July, 2007, curated 160 exhibitions.

As a self-taught photographer I cannot even begin to explain the value of this book to me. From what I understand this book, as well as his other book, "Looking at Photographs", are required readings for any student of photography. The Photographer's Eye forced me to think about the things that I already know but never really conceptualized in the way that he outlines them. I've already ordered my copy of Looking at Photographs.

The introduction of The Photographer's Eye states: "This book is an investigation of what photographs looks like, and why they looks 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." As a way of understanding what the medium uniquely offers to the visual arts, Szarkowski's thesis introduces five characteristics inherent to photography: “The Thing Itself,” “The Detail,” “The Frame,” “Time,” and “Vantage Point.”

Szarkowski says in his introduction that the invention of photography provided a process based not on synthesis but on selection - paintings were made, but photographs were taken. At the time that photographs first became available as an art form the question that arose was: how could this mechanical and seemingly mindless process be made to produce pictures meaningful in human terms? In other words, pictures that were relevant, with clarity and a point of view. These things could be created in a painting in the mind of the artist but in photography, it is different.

I've gone through my archives and I've tried to find some work that falls squarely within the parameters that Szarkowski defines. Interestingly enough, I feel that art knows no parameters...However, when examining my own work, I find that it can be categorized as he explains. Of course I think that many of my images fall into more than one category but then again so much in life that cannot simply be described in black or white does the same.

The Thing Itself

Szarkowski says in his book that the first thing that a photographer learned was that photography itself deals with the actual and that the world itself is an artist of incomparable inventiveness that must be clarified and recognized. To me this just means that the world is a blank canvas that provides us endless opportunities to make art. I suppose this is why we love light and nuance, dark and shadow and why an image can be different at 12:01 than at 12:02 and that an image can have different meanings. He also says that the factuality of pictures, no matter how convincing, are different than the reality itself. I think that when people view art - photographs, painting, sculpture, etc. - they create their own opinions and interpretations based on what they as individuals see. What the artist intended is relevant and obviously very important but viewers often have a different thought-process. Still, Szarkowski makes it easier for us to understand this. He says that it is the photographer's problem to see not simply the reality before him or her but the still invisible picture, and to make his or her choices in terms of the latter. This is an artistic problem and that the photograph does not and could not lie.

Working It

Plates for Sale

Boy Wai

In New York Freedom Looks Like...Too Many Choices

Shadow Play


No Trespassing

Cycle Afternoon

Lost in Thought

En Una Rueda

All photographs and content are Copyright Monica L. Shulman