BA Phot

The photographer's eye

John Szarkowski

see also Mirrors and Windows

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Szarkowski, J. (2007) The photographer's eye. Revised 3rd ed. New York: MoMA.

Originally published in 1966 (i.e. pre-digital), based on a 1964 MoMA exhibition, it was reprinted in 1980 and 2007 with minor changes. Szarkowski seeks to offer an approach for examining, describing and evaluating photographs, "an investigation of what photographs look like, and why they look that way. It is concerned with photographic style and photographic tradition."
Szarkowski identifies five key aspects of the photograph, The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time and Vantage Point.

The Thing Itself

This, clearly, is the subject of the photograph, but the important point for Szarkowski that a photograph is not reality but it "evokes the tangible presence of reality … a simpler, more permanent, more clearly visible version of the plain fact" (p. 12). This needs to be taken in the context of its time: pre-digital, pre-Photoshop.

The Detail

The photograph is not narrative and the photograph does not explain. The photographer chooses what seems "relevant and consistent" (p. 42)

Pine Boards and Frank Stenlund
John Runk
Pine Boards and Frank Stenlund
The Frame

This is the Big Thing so far as the course to date is concerned. The frame isolates the subject although reality extends beyond the frame. "If the photographer’s frame surrounded two figures, isolating them from the crowd in which they stood, it created a relationship between those two figures that had not existed before" (p.9). There is a glorious analogy, "The photographer edits the meanings and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame. This frame is beginning of his picture's geometry. It is to the photograph as the cushion is to the billiard table" (p.70).
This section of the book begins with a wonderful photograph (right), John Runk, Pine Boards and Frank Stenlund, South Stillwater (now Bayport), Minnesota, 1912. John Runk Historical Collection, Stillwater, Minnesota. The image was sourced here.

Otto Steinert
Pedestrian's Foot
© Otto Steinert Estate

Szarkowski makes two main points here, firstly that photography offered a view never seen before, citing Muybridge's horses as a key example. Second, and more important nowadays, there is "a pleasure and a beauty in this fragmenting of time that [has] little to do with what [is] happening". This ties in with Cartier-Bresson's decisive moment which Szarkowski clarifies: "the phrase has been misunderstood; the thing that happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax but a visual one. The result is not a story but a picture" (p. 10).
I'll take the opportunity to include one of my favourite photographs, Otto Steinert, Pedestrian's Foot. It is in the Time section of the book but the first, not surprisingly, is a Muybridge.

Vantage Point

Photography has allowed otherwise unavailable sights and views, sometimes because of constraints on the photographer, sometimes because of the imaginativeness and insight of the photographer. Photographs have influenced artists (Francis Bacon is cited) and photography itself. "From his photographs, he [the photographer] learned that the appearance of the world was richer and less simple than his mind would have guessed. He discovered that his pictures could reveal not only the clarity but the obscurity of things, and that these mysterious and evasive images could also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful (p. 126).

Page created 13-Jan-2019 | Page updated 22-Nov-2021