I AM A CAMERA. NO, I REALLY AM
To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft. His central problem is a simple one: what shall he include, and what shall he reject? While the draughtsman starts with the middle of the sheet, the photographer starts with the frame.
–John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVER SINCE I FIRST READ THAT SHORT PARAGRAPH, many moons ago, I realized that it contained everything I would ever need to know about composition. Other writers have rhapsodized both long and short, clear and muddy, beyond those few words, but John Szarkowski, the most significant figure in the curation of American photography, laid out, in concise prose, the terms of engagement between shooter and subject in such a clear fashion that little more need be said on the subject. It’s all there.
Szarkowski (1925-2007) was not the first director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, but he was certainly among the first to act as a forceful, articulate voice to advocate for the act of making pictures, insisting that it assume its rightful place, without apology or embarassment, among the established arts. Moreover, he purposefully curated MOMA’s photographic collections with the fervor and eloquence of a true believer, using the institution’s reputation as a springboard to advance the careers of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, and dozens of other emerging American artists*. His third MOMA exhibition, 1964’s The Photographer’s Eye, was adapted into a book by the same name two years later, and has since maintained a vital place as one of the foundational primers not only on what to see, but also how to see. I recommend it to all avid new shooters, but also to anyone who even looks at photographs and wonders what all the fuss is about. It’s that essential.
TPE contains 172 duotone images arranged into five distinct sections, each addressing a part of the mystery: The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame (from which the above quote is taken), Time, and The Vantage Point. Szarkowski confines his commentary to a brief set-up essay ahead of each section, then lets the pictures, taken by unknown amateurs and pros alike, to do most of the talking. The Photographer’s Eye was followed by other instructional canons over the course of Szarkowski’s career, including 1973’s Looking At Photographs to 1989’s Photography Until Now among many others. If you’re keen on building an essential library, throw these in the shopping cart as well.
Coming from a sensibility borne of his own photographic output, John Szarkowski forever ended the debate about whether the camera could produce “art”, even as he sparked many other discussions about what that art should look like. The Photographer’s Eye is as essential to picture-making as learning how to select an aperture or calculate a shutter speed, as it glorifies all the myriad motives for what goes into, or stays out of, that wonderful frame.
*Winogrand, Arbus, and Friedlander were, in fact, specifically showcased in Szarkowski’s historic exhibition, New Documents, in 1967. Here’s a link to MOMA’s page celebrating its enduring impact—M.P.
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