Szarkowski (pronounced Shar-COW-ski) was the curator of photography at MoMA for nearly three decades, starting in 1962. As Quentin Bajac explains in Contemporary Photography at MoMA (one of the required readings in our online course), Szarkowski loved the pure and documentary vision of the medium. He focused on contemporary work in his curation and championed many living photographers, and he was interested in exhibits that were “more about photographers than about moral or philosophical position” (as opposed to thematic exhibits). Winogrand, Arbus, Friedlander, Eggelston, Shore, Meyerwitz
Anyway, beyond his obvious good taste and incredible vision, his writing is divine. I could read him all day long. Swoon. Another required reading for the first course is Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye, which he states is an investigation of what photographs look like and why they look that way. His ideas are obvious but profound, and he expresses himself clearly and beautifully. Thaddeus!
Here’s my summary, but I promise you are missing out by not reading the real thing, my plagiarism in note-taking aside.
He starts by talking a bit about how photography is different from other mediums in that it is a “picture-making process based not on synthesis but selection”. The book is divided into five characteristics and problems inherent in the medium. They are:
- The Thing Itself - Photography deals with the actual, but the subject and the picture aren’t the same thing, the photographer needs to see not simply the reality before him but the still invisible picture and to make choices in terms of the later. (obvious but profound, right?)
- The Detail - The photographer is tied to the facts. S/he can’t post the truth (he wrote this pre-photoshop), so the photographer has to isolate details and document them which implies that those selected details have greater significance. “Intuitively, he sought and found the significant detail. His work, incapable of narrative, turned toward symbol.”
- The Frame - “The central act of photography, the act of choosing and eliminating, forces a concentration on the picture edge - the line that separates in from out - and on the shapes that are created by it.” AND! “The photographer edits the meanings and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame.”
- Time - Photography describes a discrete parcel of time, and it’s the present. It can also show what the eye can’t register. The photographer could capture the pleasure and beauty in this fragmenting of time that had little to do with what was happening but with seeing what had previously been concealed within the flux of movement. (That may have been an exact quote.)
- Vantage Point - Photography has taught us to see from the unexpected vantage point. If a photographer couldn’t move his/her subject, s/he could move the camera. To see the subject more clearly, a normal vantage point may have to be abandoned, which gave the viewer a unique perspective.
Do you think Jennifer Szarkowski has a nice ring to it?