Sunday, September 27, 2009

Book Report: The Photographers Eye - John Szarkowski

I found this book in one of Munich's art galleries, just after enrolling on the course.  This is a reprint of a book initially published to accompany a 1964 exhibition in The Museum of Modern Art in New York. The objective of the exhibition and book is to explore the interaction between the fine art and functional traditions of photography, in other words what photographs look like and why they look that way.  It reviews the history of photography, primarily through images and asks questions about how photographic composition evolved and influenced the way that we look at the world around us.  The images in the book also divide between known and sometimes famous photographers and cases in which the photographer is unknown.

The book divides the images into 5 categories:

The Thing Itself - in other words the fact that a photograph is a direct representation of what lies before the camera lens. However, the sheer reality of the photograph can obscure the overall context of the image by placing the emphasis on the subject and ultimately the photograph becomes the reality as it will outlast the subject.  A quote by Gerogre Bernard Shaw sums this up:

"There is a terrible truthfulness about photography.  The ordinary academician gets hold of a pretty model, paints her as well as he can, calls her Juliet and puts a nice verse from Shakespeare underneath.  The photographer finds the same pretty girl, dresses her up and photographs her, and calls her Juliet, but somehow it is no good - it is still Miss Wilkins, the model.  It is too true to be Juliet."
Wilson's Photographic Magazine, LVI, 1909.

In this section there are a number of images by Russel Lee of primarily domestic scenes, which .  The first, Russell Lee: Tenant Purchase Clients at Home, Hidalgo, Texas, 1939., depicts two middle class americans sitting by a radio, the man reading a paper, his wife doing some handiwork.

The symmetry of the image and the starkness of the home are almost brutal and whatever the feelings in the house, the image carries away tension and unhappiness.

The Detail - A photographer is limited by the facts of the scene as they find it, a story cannot be created by a photograph, it can only record the detail of what is actually there.  This suggests that although a photograph records the simple details in life, by doing so it gives them greater meaning and allows deeper examination of the seemingly trivial.  A quote from Robert Capa, the war photographer, expresses this: "If your pictures aren't good, you're not close enough".

The first image in this section is seemingly the opposite of this idea, it is a back and white image of a shallow valley devoid of any detail other than a scattering of rocks.  The clue in in the title: Roger Fenton, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, Crimea, 1855. At close glance many of the rocks are actually spheres, cannon balls.  This is a valley blasted by cannon fire, probably the last place many men and horses ever saw. Only in this small detail does the image have any meaning and then its detail conveys all the horror that has been cleaned from the scene.

The Frame - the frame defines the scope of a photograph and what it includes, but perhaps more importantly what it excludes.  The photograph preserves only what it captures, all else is discarded and the context of the scene is defined for ever after by the Photographers vision at the very moment of exposure.  The book also comments on the fact that early photographs were often very full with the subject often crowding the edges of the image, these guys had no access to cropping tools, enlargers, photoshop, an expensive plate needed to be used to its fullness.  This resulted in many very crowded early photos.

Two photographs captured my imagination.  In the first by an unknown photographer in 1910 (no link), two society ladies pose for an image at what is clearly a major event, judging by the hats.  Strangely the photographer has placed them low in the frame, the brims of their hats only extend upwards to a third of the frane.  In the upper two thirds a naked statue presents its posterior, clearly a visual joke created by a subtle repositioning of the frame - I cannot imagine the ladies in question would have been too impressed.

The second image also involves a very selective use of the frame- Elliott Erwitt: Yale's Oldest Living Graduate, 1956.  Breaking many of the "rules" of composition, this image captures the rear of a large 50's US automobile, in which sits an elderly gentleman at the very right edge of the frame.  This positioing makes him look very uncomfortable and the strong impression is of someone not wanting to be there, purely projected by the framing.

Time - No photograph is a instant in time, all have a finite exposure, long or short.  However all photographs are taken in the present and define that moment, the goal of all photographers is the capture in Cartier bressons wors, "The Decisive Moment".  The book also articulates the fact that the ability of the photograph to "freeze" time revealed for the first time the motion of birds and animals, in particular revealing a horses motion.  Prior to photography all horses were painted with straight legs, only after the first high speed images did people understand the gait and posture of a galloping horse.

The other aspect of time captured is that moment when things change a gunshot, a speech, a gesture, changing a persons life or even history.  The following image (photographer unknown), shows a concentration camp inmate identifying a guard to the authorities in 1945, bringing justice, but forever changing two lives.

Vantage Point - The use of photographic equipment and the immediacy of taking an image have resulted in the exploration of new perspectives, sometimes forced by constraints of equipment, but also through the liberation that a camera brings.  Photographers were frequently limited by the access options available and started to image scenes, such as back stage at an event, that would be ignored by a conventional artist.  The exploration made possible has changed the way that we look at reality.

My Final seclection from the book is an unusual perspective of a woman taken from vertically above as she sleeps face down in bed, illustrating the change in vantage point that a camera provides.  Irving Penn: Woman in Bed, 1941 (for Vogue).,dreaming,irving,penn,sleeping,woman-73b0631737e785ec5d8b7cc926ff5d2d_h.jpg

As a final comment I quote John Szarkowski's closing words: " The history of photography has been less a journey than a growth.  Its movement has not been linear and consecutive, but centrifugal.  Photography and our understanding of it, has spread from a center; it has by infusion, penetrated our conciousness.  Like an organism, photography was born whole.  It is in our progressive discovery of it that its history lies."

We all contribute, photography is art for the masses!

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