Posts Tagged ‘John Szarkowski’


Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

A few weeks ago I read _Mirrors and Windows_, by John Szarkowski. (About whom we’ve [posted]( once or twice before at _1/125_.) It’s pretty fantastic.

I’ve tried quite a few times since then to write a useful post about the subject, with little success; each draft tends to spiral out of control, until I feel like I’ve written myself into the middle of a book-length disquisition on the nature of photography. That’s an easy trap to fall into with Szarkowski, because he’s such a moving target; his writing is so rich with information, allusion, interpretation, and provocation that it is hard to keep attention focused on any one argument or claim.

So, I’m going to give up on trying to write one coherent post on the book tackling everything that really interests me (which would still have only touched on a fraction of everything contained in the brief essay in _Mirrors and Windows_) and write two or three shorter posts, instead.

Let’s start with this passage:

> During the first century of his existence, the professional photographer performed a role similar to that of the ancient scribe, who put in writing such messages and documents as the illiterate commoner and his often semiliterate ruler required. Where literacy became the rule, the scribe disappeared. By 1936, when Moholy-Nagy delcared that photography was the lingua franca of our time, and that the illiterate of the future would be he who could not use a camera, the role of the professional photographer was already greatly diminished from the days in which his craft was considered a skill close to magic. Today it is only in a few esoteric branches of scientific or technical work that a photographer can still claim mysterious secrets. (pp. 14-15)

This interests me because I think it helps me understand a confusion many photographers have regarding the nature of what they do.

Following the metaphor, let us assume that we are living in a time after that in which the scribe had a useful role — a time in which (in developed nations) everyone has the ability to read or write for themselves.

In that context, what do we make of someone apparently performing the functions of a scribe? Examples might include:

* Translators
* Editors, designers, etc.
* Paralegals
* Medical transcriptionists
* Notaries Public
* Calligraphers

These are people who have technical skills which are not required for the normal, everyday reading and writing functions routinely performed by people in both their business and personal lives.

There are photographic equivalents to many of these functions — or, rather, there are photographic professions which have a similar relationship to the photo-literate as these professions do to the word-literate. For example, I doubt one hears the complaint that, “with digital, everyone is a crime scene photographer.” (Note: If there are any forensics people reading and I’m getting that wrong, please let me know.)

However, most types of professional photography currently being done today are not so well sequestered from the realm of everyday, non-professional photography, which is usually (although not quite accurately) classified as “amateur.” But there may still be parallels.

Of these post-scribe forms of technical literacy, the last — calligraphy — is the one that I find to be the most interesting in relation to photography. For our purposes, let calligraphy be defined as the practice of making series of written letters appear aesthetically pleasing; it is (or at least, can be) totally agnostic with regard to the meaning of words represented by those letters. It is about making things pretty, on demand.

I think calligraphy is interesting in relation to what people want from photography. Specifically, to what they want _when they first become excited_ about photography — when they stop regarding it as a routine task requiring no special knowledge or insight and begin to regard it as something they can and should do well. Perhaps even as something which they are _called_ to do well.

When people today feel that way about the written word, virtually none of them say, “_I want to be a calligrapher_.” They want to be novelists, or poets, or journalists, or what have you. They want to write something in which other people can find meaning, amusement, excitement, solace, escapism, or insight.

But when people feel that way about photography, huge droves of them turn to the photographic equivalents of calligraphy — like wedding photography, commercial portraiture, stock photography, and advertising — disciplines which are, at heart, dedicated to producing prettiness on demand.

Budding photographers are often obsessed with becoming skilled in technical areas related to these disciplines, so that they can be more “pro” — which, amusingly, means that these industries are generally less and less sustainable for those who actually do set up shop in them. (And, as with calligraphy, hand knitting, and similar crafts, this tends to shift the area of commercial viability away from doing the work in question and towards books, supplies, workshops, instructional videos, etc.)

Of course, that does not sum up every budding photographer. There are plenty of photographers who are deeply embedded in the art world (which has largely swallowed up serious photography), and photojournalism is not dead. And I would not suggest that art photography and photojournalism are not worthwhile pursuits.

But is there a photographic equivalent of a novel, at this point, or of a short story? (Equivalent in _use_ I mean, not in structure, like the “literary” photographs of Frank Gohlke.) Is there photography which is produced for and consumed by the general public, for the joy of it?

That is more questionable.

Certainly there are people who are making photography that I would consider to be suitable for this role; there is good photography that exists outside the art niche and apart from the perversely utilitarian industries of prettiness on demand, and also apart from the civic-minded function of photojournalism and documentary photography.

But what is happening to that photography after it is made? Some percentage of it is published in various forms, and some percentage of what is published is bought (if applicable) and viewed, but the extent to which that happens outside the art community or the community of people who identify as photographers is more questionable.

And that — well, that worries me a great deal.

Two of Four Books

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

Four Books

On a recent trip to Moe’s, I picked up three books:

  • Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye, ed. Gilles Mora and John T. Hill
  • Edward Weston: The Flame of Recognition, ed. Nancy Newhall
  • Andre Kertesz: His Life and Work, Pierre Borhan

I’ve started working on these, and also been finishing my first pass through John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs.

I haven’t gotten to the Weston yet, and I’ve just scratched the surface of the weighty (and so far as I can tell well-executed) Kertesz volume. However, I did wrap up the Szarkowski, and I’m far enough along in Mora’s and Hill’s text to offer some initial judgments about that.


I bought Looking at Photographs after reading this post in The Online Photographer, and after listening to Jeff Curto’s excellent class session on Szarkwoski. If you don’t already know who Szarkowski is and what Looking at Photographs is, by all means, follow those links; I won’t pretend to try to do a better job at explaining it.

The reproductions are fantastic. There is one per photographer, each accompanied by a facing page of text providing a fragment of Szarkowski’s perspective on and understanding of the photograph and its creator. The result is not, of course, an all-encompassing tour of the history of photography — although I think it pairs of nicely with Beaumont Newhall’s general history. Instead, Szarowski gives the reader just enough information to prevent a casual viewing, to force the reader to really look at and into the photographs, and enough of a context to appreciate that each photograph has a place in history, even if that place isn’t laid out completely.

For the most part, it works fantastically well. Szarkowski’s style is a bit pedantic, and in those few cases where I have anything approaching a basis for judging the accuracy of his statements, I actually have some disagreements. However, to say because I think he’s wrong about this or that aspect, the book is less valuable, would be to miss the point; Szarkowski isn’t arguing positions, but sharing his vision of these photographs and photographers. The reader is obliged to form his or her own vision.

The only case where I feel Szarkowski fails outright is in his passage on Roy DeCarava. Szarkowski presents him as a chess player or theater director, an ingenious manipulator of archetypes. This is not just an inadequate characterization but an almost totally irrelevant one. Talking about Roy DeCarava — even in the few paragraphs dictated by the structure of Looking at Photographs — without mentioning race, anguish, or jazz begs the question: Why include DeCarava at all?

If you doubt me on this point, get your hands on a copy of any book of DeCarava’s work (The Sound I Saw is one I see on a lot of remainder tables) and then read what Szarkowski put on page 178 of Looking at Photographs. If you can figure out what the one has to do with the other, please let me know.

However, that is the exception. A few of the passages which are more the rule:

Most photographers of the past generation have demonstrated unlimited sympathy for the victims of villainous or imperfect societies, but very little sympathy for, or even interest in, those who are afflicted by their own human frailty. Robert Doisneau is one of the few whose work has demonstrated that even in a time of large terrors, the ancient weaknesses and sweet venial sins of ordinary individuals have survived. On the basis of his pictures one would guess that Doisneau actually likes people, even as they really are. (p. 172)

What it is that makes a photograph truly work is in the end a mystery, as success doubtless is in any art. Finely hewn critical standards may help us explain the admirable, but between the admirable and the wonderful is a gulf that we can see across, but not chart. (p. 192, re: Paul Caponigro)

The popular formulation of this convention was expressed int he claim that the camera does not lie. The question of mendacity was of course not to the point; the relevant question would have been, Why were the camera’s innumerable truths so fragmentary and so apparently contradictory. (p. 196, re: Ken Josephson)

Photography is full of time-honored problems that have, like rocks in a stream, been worn smooth by the endless fumblings of countless photographers and writers. Szarkowski has a knack (not always reliable, but reliable enough) for breaking then apart and finding astonishing new problems inside…

This cannot be said of the authors of the Walker Evans book, however.

Mora and Hill on Walker Evans

Books of or about photography can be divided more or less into three types:

  1. Books created and edited by photographers
  2. Books — like Looking at Photographs — which contain photographs by one or more photographers but which as books are the original work of a talented editor.
  3. Books which collect the work of a photographer, assembled in an academic manner (typically chronological), and accompanied by a text, such that the text is an original work but the book is not an original work.

Books of the third type are, in my admittedly very limited experience of books of and about photography, by far the most likely to suck. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it is a function of the sort of personality which is drawn to create them, or perhaps it is the lowered expectation applied to the readability and literary excellence (or, rather, the lack thereof) of academic writing.

Of course, some books of this kind are excellent and invaluable. Peter Bunnell’s Minor White: The Eye That Shapes features extremely fine scholarship which I think is essential to understanding Minor White and his work.

Sadly, this does not seem to be the case with Gilles Mora and John T. Hill’s Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye.

I should admit before going farther that I have only just started this book, and it’s entirely possible that at some point before its end, it transforms into something worthwhile. But if the writing thus far is any indication, that outcome is highly unlikely.

I feel a little uncomfortable dismissing what the writers argue about Evans’s work out of hand, not so much because I think they may really have something to say, as because they seem to say very little. What tiny nuggets off actual content they provide are so deeply and inextricably embedded in the most execrable prose that I have difficulty evaluating it. Of course, I have no background in art history, so it is entirely possible that I am substantially missing the point in regards to the scholarship here, but even if we assume that — there’s no excuse for this writing. My notes in italics.

Walker Evans was a man with an innate sense of wit, which is not to be confused with comedy or humor. (God forbid we should think wit meant humor.) A keen understanding of irony and satire (Which presumably have nothing to do with humor or comedy.) was a constant in his life and in his work….

Wit could be a grossly scaled sign spelling “Damaged” being hoisted onto a truck. Wit could be attempting to capture and fix an evocative moment with a 35mm camera held out the window of a moving car. Wit was the nonchalance of denouncing the impossible vulgarity of color photography while making color photographs. Wit was the irony of taking up the Polaroid SX-70 camera as a tool for serious work. (p. 7)

Yeah, nothing says “wit” so much as holding a 35mm camera out a window. I don’t know what Evans was really like, or how he would have defined wit, but Hill appears to define it as condescension.

The first things that interest us about photographers are the photographic problems that their work presents, resolves, and reformulates, and by which the photographers are sometimes defeated. Other questions belong to biography. (p. 9)

In addition to being eye-rollingly pretentious and crappy prose, this would be a profoundly inane observation even if it wasn’t the beginning of what is fundamentally a work of biography.

Walker Evans fascinates. (p. 10)

My margin note reads: “Thanks for letting me know, dipshit. I thought I’d just bought a book about someone boring.”

Of a comment by Szarkowski on Evans, they write:

And while it may be true, the statement does not go far enough, since it ignores the direction in which Walker Evans opened up photography, taking it to the far side of modernity.

The appropriate response to Szarkowski is not to try to be more arch, pretentious, and arbitrarily declarative.

The Hungry Eye intends to contribute to this broader understanding of his work by showing another Evans, a man who was one of the most intellectually stimulating practitioners of modern photography. (Good thing they keep reminding me that he’s interesting. I keep forgetting. I wonder why that is.) In order to give some account of the richness of this work we have tried to make it visible by giving it a structure, using the same method Evans had in mind when he spoke of “the photographic editing of society.”

Pause and read that again.

This passage is immediately followed by the revelation that they have presented the images in chronological order.

Now, I don’t know what Evans actually had in mind when he spoke of “the photographic editing of society,” but I’m guessing it wasn’t just putting it in fucking chronological order.

Not that there’s anything wrong with chronological order — it’s often the best, even the only, way, to present content. But there’s nothing marvelous and innovative about it, nor does using it magically link them to Evans’s method.

They also constantly feel the need to drop names of other photographers, both before and after Evans, in the history of photography. These name-droppings (my margin note is “these guys drop names like a pigeon shits on statues”) are almost always followed by an explanation of how Evans is fundamentally more awesome than virtually every other photographer in history.

They demand we acknowledge that his early work is better than the early work of Cartier-Bresson and Kertesz, that even a fraction of his oeuvre “would assure his place among the great photographers,” and proudly point out how he casually “killed off Edward Steichen in passing” in an essay.

Now, I believe that Evans is a very important, and very great, photographer. But the volume with which they make these comparisons has me doubting that belief a bit. It’s as though these writers have taken up Walker Evans as their penis, and they must reassure themselves continuously that he is a very fine penis, and much longer than all the others.

I won’t provide quotations for this point, because it would take forever.

And, in fact, I’m getting pretty tired of this whole exercise. Just a couple more quotes, though:

A photographer, he referred constantly to literature.

Good, because I had totally forgotten Evans was a photographer. For a minute there I was sure he was famous as a writer of short stories. Or an insurance executive. Also, remind me — was Evans fascinating? I forget.

In what way would “He referred constantly to literature” be less informative without identifying him as a photographer?

Also, just how constantly was he referring to literature? Pretty often, as they proceed to emphasize. And re-emphasize. “Evans Repeated, time and again, ‘I am a man of literature.'”

You know, maybe Evans really was a dick…

If so, that would go a long way toward explaining this otherwise inane and meaningless line:

He took a frontal approach to reality. (p. 15)

Obviously they mean a “full-frontal approach to reality.”

I think I may have to skip the rest of the damn text and just peruse the reproductions, which are of acceptable quality. I should also see about having a cock-punch-o-gram delivered to these writers, care of Harry N. Abrams, Inc., the publisher.

All right, I need to go do something that doesn’t make me feel so indignant for a while. I’ll put up a later post if anything else interesting comes up in the Evans book, and also as I get into the Weston and Kertesz ones….