the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “John Szarkowski


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


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.




THE ACT OF PUBLISHING A PHOTOGRAPH is roughly equivalent to a lawyer’s closing argument, in that it is an attempt to persuade, to sell an idea. To make his own “case”, a photographer must be fearlessly certain of what he is trying to say, a process that begins with the conviction that what he has frozen in an exposure is the truth, because his eye is a reliable narrator. Lying eye, lying result.

The best images narrow the gap between hand and eye.

The development of the photographer’s eye is one of two parallel tracks on the road to truthful images, the other being technical mastery. The challenge, then, for the photographer, is in narrowing the gap between what the camera captures and what the eye contends is the essence of the picture. Bear in mind that, between photographer and camera, only one of those things has an imagination. You have to tell the camera what to see in such a way that, as a mere technical measuring device, it has no choice but to obey.

John Szarkowski, the legendary director of photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art and a great shooter in his own right, expressed perfectly the problem that occurs when the eye and the hand are not on the same wavelength:

No mechanism has ever been devised that recorded visual fact so clearly as photography. The consistent flaw in the system has been that it recorded the wrong “facts”: not what we “knewwas there, but what had appeared to be there.

Long story short (and isn’t about time I tried one?) : don’t blame the camera when your vision isn’t realized in the final frame. Either you need a better vision, or a better way of setting up the shot so that the camera can’t help but deliver it. If you don’t turn on the water, the best hose in the world can’t put out a fire.

Stand in front of the court and make your case.

Show us what you see.


Even the smallest library on photography needs this book.

Even the smallest library on photography needs this book.


A VIDEO BIOGRAPHY OF JOHN SZARKOWSKI, FORMER DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY for the New York Museum Of Modern Art, makes the salient point that most great photographers begin by being great fans of photography, almost to the point of studying the work of others as much as they work to perfect their own craft. This makes perfect sense. Before you can teach others to see, you have to learn to see yourself. And that begins with watching how other people see.

Learning from the masters doesn’t necessarily mean stealing from them, or even being stylistically influenced by them. What you see most importantly in other photographers is how closely their selves are married to how they personally take the measure of the world in visual terms. You learn how few real accidents there are, how few miraculous pictures merely pop out of the camera fully formed. You see the deliberate agency of art, the conscious decision to choose this in order to achieve that.

Szarkowski, who oversaw MOMA’s photographic collections and exhibitions from 1962 to 1991, bore witness as well to the first true acceptance of photography as an art unto itself, with a vocabulary, a power, a poetry separate and distinct from painting. Under Szarkowski’s tutelage, the great new personal photographers, from Garry Winogrand to Diane Arbus to Lee Friedlander, moved from the periphery to the center of popular culture.

Not content to merely designate work worth seeing, or providing it with a prominent platform, Szarkowski also edited and published two of the most important general-use guides to what all of us should look for in a photograph. His seminal books The Photographer’s Eye and Looking At Photographs, both comprised of works from within MOMA’s collections, examined more than just subject matter or technical data, looking at the motives, biases, objectives and visions involved in the making of pictures. Most importantly, both books placed known and unknown shooters on an equal par, making the study of the art about what is achieved, not just how, or by whom.

I cannot imagine having sustained a lifelong interest in making images if I had not first encountered the works of, among others, Pete Turner, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Larry Burrows, Richard Avedon, Berenice Abbott, Alfred Stieglitz, Art Kane, Weegee, Sam Abell, or Francis Wolff. Many of these people thrilled and inspired me. Sometimes they infuriated or shocked me. And sometimes they did all of that in the same moment. All have knocked me upside of the head and repeated, over a lifetime: Look here. Look closer. Look again.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that photography is about technique, gear, luck or natural ability. You can work around all that stuff. But if you can’t see, you can’t show.

Study. Read. Admire.

Feed your eye.