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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
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 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 “knew” was 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.
“I had this notion of what I called a democratic way of looking around, that nothing was more or less important. It quickly came to be that I grew interested in photographing whatever was there, wherever I happened to be. For any reason.” –William Eggleston
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE NOT PRIME MOVERS, in that the majority of us don’t personally carve out the foundations of new truths, but rather build on the foundations laid by others. Art consists of both revolutionaries and disciples, and the latter group is always the larger. With that in mind, it’s more than enough for an individual shooter to establish a single beachhead that points the way for those who follow, and to be able to achieve two such breakthroughs is almost unheard of. Strangely, one of the photographers who did just that is, himself, also almost unheard of, at least outside of the intellectual elite.
William Eggleston (b. 1939) can correctly be credited as one of the major midwives of color photography at a time that it was still largely black and white’s unwanted stepchild. Great color work by others certainly preceded his own entry to the medium in 1965, but the limits of print technology, as well as a decidedly snobby bias toward monochrome by the world at large, slowed its adoption into artsy circle by decades. After modeling himself on the great b&w street shooters Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eggleston practically stumbled into color, getting many of his first prints processed at ordinary drugstores rather than in his own darkroom. His accidental discovery of the dye-transfer color process on a lab’s price list sparked his curiosity, and he soon crossed over into brilliantly saturated transparencies, images bursting with radiant hues that were still a rarity even in major publications. Eggleston’s work was, suddenly, all about color. That was Revolution One.
Revolution Two emerged when he stopped worrying about whether his pictures were “about” anything else. Eggleston began what he later termed his “war with the obvious”, eschewing the popular practice of using photographs to document or comment. His portfolios began to center on mundane subjects or street situations which fell beneath the notice of most other shooters. The fact that something was in the world was, for Eggleston, enough to warrant having a picture made of it. A street sign, an abandoned tricycle, a blood-red enameled ceiling..anything and everything was suddenly worth his attention.
Reaction in the photographic world was decidedly mixed. While John Szarkowski, the adventurous director of photography at the New York Museum Of Modern Art, marveled at a talent he saw as “coming out of the blue”, making Eggleston only the second major color photographer to exhibit at MOMA, others called the work ugly, banal, meaningless. Even today, Eggleston’s subjects elicit reactions of “…so what??” from many viewers, as if someone told them the front end of a joke but omitted the punch line. “People always want to know when something was taken, where it was taken, and, God knows, why it was taken”, Eggleston remarked in one interview. “It gets really ridiculous. I mean, they’re right there, whatever they are.”
However, as can frequently happen in the long arc of photographic history, Eggleston’s work reverberates today in the images created by the Instantaneous Generation, the shoot-from-the-hip, instinctive shooters of the iPhone era who celebrate randomness and a certain hip detachment in their view of the world. As a consequence of Eggleston’s work, images have long since been freed of the prison of “relevance”, as people rightfully ask who is qualified to say what a picture is, or if there is any standard for photography at all. Thus does the obvious become a casualty of war.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MOST APPEALING FEATURE OF EVERY NEW ART is that, for a while, everyone participating in it is an amateur. Because a new art has no history, it has no history-makers….no professionals, no celebrated artistes, no one who is doing it better. Everyone is, briefly, in the same “how-do-you-work-this-thing?” boat.
Of course, eventually, some ornery cuss or another begins to figure out how to progress from stumblebum to star, and then everyone’s off to the races. Photography, like other infant arts, began as a tinkerer’s toy, sprouting an occasional outlier genius here and there, until the pool was fairly crowded with People Trying To Make Their Mark. And one of those first mark-makers was not yet out of short pants when his pictures began to be the embodiment of the phrase “and a little child shall lead them.”
His name was Jacques Henri Lartigue, and, whatever else formed his strong visual sense, it certainly wasn’t the nobility of poverty, born, as he was, in 1894 in France to upper-class wealth and the privilege that went with it. His photographic muse thus contained none of those inspiring Lean, Hungry Years or Hard-won Real World Experiences that we associate with mature art; the kid was just born with an instinctually strong knack for composition, and what he chose to compose just happened to be the activities of the Rich and Famous….in other words, everyone he hung out with.
Lartigue’s social set was the class every other social set in France aspired to; the people who seasoned at the Rive Gauche, the people who competed in lawn tennis tournaments, the country’s first race car drivers and aviators. Armed with a simple gift camera, and taught processing by his father, Jacques began snapping the world around him at age seven, maintaining journals that contextualized the images, bookmarking his family’s gilded role in the newborn twentieth century.
Gifted with an eye for photographic narrative, Lartigue nevertheless segued into painting, where he spent virtually his entire adult life. In fact, it was not until a friend showed some of Jacques’ photos to John Szarkowski, director of photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art, that Lartigue had his first formal photographic exhibition, in 1963, when he was sixty-nine.The show led to international recognition of his untutored yet undeniable talent, as well as a few prize portrait commissions and a second social career with the same elite one-percenters with whom he had rubbed elbows as a boy. One of his final collections, Diary Of A Century, was published in cooperation with Richard Avedon in 1978. He died a late-blooming “overnight success” at ninety-two.
What began for Jacques Henri Lartigue as family snapshots became one of the most important chronicles of a vanished world, and thus the best kind of photojournalism (or sociology, depending on your college major). For shooters, this boy of privilege remains the romantic ideal of the talented amateur.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I FEEL THAT THERE SHOULD ALWAYS HAVE BEEN A NOBEL PRIZE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY, just as there always has been for literature. Why one of the lively arts should be deemed more capable of uplift or inspiration than another is beyond me. I even think that a photo Nobel might be more inspiring, overall, than the majority of images that cop the journalistic Pulitzer prize each year, since so many of the winning entries focus on horror, loss, war, and suffering….you know, the stuff that sells newspapers.
If there ever had been a Nobel for photography, I can think of no more obvious winner than the legendary Family Of Man exhibit, mounted by Edward Steichen, which just observed its sixtieth anniversary with a marvelously updated edition of its original catalogue book. Steichen, who in 1955 was the director of photography for the Museum of Modern Art, was himself a grand master of still-lifes, portraits, fashion, architectural, and even floral studies, whose own output towered over the world for over seven decades. However, he used the Family show not to showcase his own work but to show the universality of the human experience across every culture on the planet, as interpreted by over 273 photographers in 69 countries. Mounted in cooperation with the United States Information Agency as a diplomatic tool, The Family Of Man celebrates those things that unite us, not the petty divisions amplified by journalists and other mischief makers. It is an inventory of births, deaths, weddings, rituals, weddings, wars, discoveries, and delights. It is a miraculous catalogue on the phenomenon of being human.
Over the years, the optimistic message of Family Of Man fell victim to the ironic detachment and busted ideals of several generations of hipper-than-thou cynics, some criticizing it as a Pollyanna-ish vision of mankind, others saying that it rendered many individual photographers faceless by jumbling all their work together. In fact, all photos in the exhibit are captioned with their creator’s name as well as his/her nation of origin. And as for hope being the antithesis of honest art…well, if you hold that belief, you’re wasting your time here.
Over sixty years later, The Family Of Man remains one of the towering achievements of art and journalist photography, reassembled now in its original presentation format at Clervaux Castle in Steichen’s home country of Luxembourg. Art must be about raising us up, even as we use it to remain mindful of how far we have to come as a race. But I will always, always vote on the side of hope, as Edward Steichen did. The Family Of Man is neither sugar-coated nor bleak. It is both imperfect and filled with potential, as we ourselves are. And its credo, as stated in 1955, remains a lesson for anyone trying to use a camera to chronicle the human condition:
“There is only one man in the world and his name is All Men.There is only one women in the world and her name is All Women.There is only one child in the world and the child’s name is All Children.”