Part four: Reading photographs Book Review

Book review: The Photographer’s eye. John Szarkowski.

I am reading this book at the point where I am studying how to read photographs which seems extremely pertinent. So I rather than a standard book review this is a summary of my learning in relation to this.

Szarkowski sets out his intention for his book as “an investigation of what photographs look like, and of why they look that way” (Szarkowski, 2009).

I found it interesting how he makes clear that photography invaded the territory of art, could not work to old standards and had to find its own ways of making its meaning clear. Photography was invented by scientists and painters but the professional photographers it produced were varied in their skills and had increased vastly by the early twentieth century. There was a deluge of pictures, describing new things and in new ways, most especially the ordinary. Photographers learned from other photographers and photographs.

Szarkowski lists five issues he believes are inherent in photography and organises his selected images in these groups:

  • The thing itself: That the photographer deals with reality, though much of the reality can be filtered out by the photographer and as the photographer makes choices. He points out that our faith in the truth of the camera may be “naive and illusory …for though the lens draws the subject, the photographer defines it”. (Szarkowski, 2009).
  • The detail: The photographer could only record as he found it and had to “force that facts to tell the truth” (Szarkowski, 2009). He could however fragment details as well as put the details into a narrative. I hadn’t realised myself that the rise of photography freed painters from having to paint narrative stories. The images he chose for this section show a variety of significant detail and symbols, though these images I think could have equally have been placed in his groups of the thing itself.
  • The frame: Szarkowski considers that the central act of photography is the choosing and eliminating, which “forces a concentration on the picture edge…and on the shapes that are created by it” (Szarkowski, 2009). The frame he explains, edits meaning and patterns. Interestingly he poses the question whether painters’ use of the frame creatively was born from photography. Here the images that he chooses to illustrate seem to ideally do this, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Callejon of the Valencia Arena” 1933:
  • W1siZiIsIjE0NDM3MyJdLFsicCIsImNvbnZlcnQiLCItcmVzaXplIDIwMDB4MjAwMFx1MDAzZSJdXQ.jpg

  (The Museum of Modern Art, 2017)

  • Time: All photographs are time exposures, some shorter some longer, catching slices of time and movement. Szarkowski, helpfully explains that the new beauty of “seeing the momentary patterning lines and shapes that had previously been concealed within the flux of movement” (Szarkowski, 2009) as decisive moments not as dramatic climaxes but as visual ones. Many of the images that he shows here show time blurred such as Rene Groebli’s Nude dressing (1952) which was a new image to me.

rene-groebli-nude-dressing-1952

 (Curiator, 2017)

  • Vantage point: He points out that it is photography which has taught us to see from different vantage points, challenging our notions of reality. So pictures can reveal the clarity and the obscurity of things. He also suggests that this has influenced modern painters. The images he has in this section of his book illustrate this well such as Clarence John Laughlin’s The fierce eyed building (1938).

fierce eyed building.jpg

 (Harvardartmuseums.org, 2017)

Szarkowski has certainly set out his idea of what photographs look like, and why they look that way.

My learning points:

  • I have discovered another way to read photographs, to look at The thing, the detail, the frame, the time, the vantage point; have any of these influenced the photographer more than the other and how?

References

Curiator. (2017). Nude dressing by René Groebli. [online] Available at: https://curiator.com/art/rene-groebli/nude-dressing [Accessed 25 Jun. 2017]

Harvardartmuseums.org. (2017). From the Harvard Art Museums’ collections The Fierce-Eyed Building. [online] Available at: http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/art/155284 [Accessed 25 Jun. 2017].

Szarkowski, J. (2009). The photographer’s eye. The Museum of Modern art. New York.

The Museum of Modern Art. (2017). Henri Cartier-Bresson. Callejón of the Valencia Arena. 1933 | MoMA.

Please note: Any images by other photographers used on this site are accredited and are being used for personal research and educational purposes only.

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