The Photographers Eye by John Szarkowski is an illustrated book compiled from photographs collected for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1964 and the theme of this book is based upon the theme of the exhibition.
Szarkowski introduces his book by explaining that it’s theme, ‘is an investigation of what photographs look like and why they look that way. It is concerned with photographic style and with photographic tradition: with the sense of possibilities that a photographer today takes to his work.’ Szarkowski looks at how the art of photography has evolved through the period of 125 years from the earliest surviving pictures to the 1960’s. Szarkowski looks at how photography has created and taught us new ways of seeing; how photography could make it’s own rules independent of the established art world partly through ignorance and from the practicality dictated by the camera and its view and enthusiastic experimentation. Szarkowshi has selected a range of photographs to illustrate how photographers from different backgrounds all came to share the same photographic vision that was not taught but learned through years of practice and considers the history of this medium, ‘in terms of photographers progressive awareness of characteristics and problems that have seemed inherent in the medium.’
He has divided his book into five sections examining five issues that he believes are characteristics inherent and problematic in photographs and understanding these five sections will help in the understand of the language for the ‘reading’ of a photograph.
The thing itself.
Outside of the studio the photograph, unlike a painting, is captured not created therefor the photographer has fewer choices in composition, he can only choose what to and what not to include in the frame. However, instead of limiting what photographers would choose to make pictures of the camera’s ability to capture anything in an instant making a permanent record of it opened up opportunities to create images of the ordinary and bland subjects that artist would not have drawn or painted and make them interesting . However, black and white images would leave out certain details and exaggerate others and yet the final image would still be accepted as a true representative of the subject. Holgrove wrote, “The nineteenth century began by believing that what was reasonable was true and it would end up by believing that what it saw a photograph of was true.” The almost lifelike reproduction of the black and white image helped raise the naïve notion that the camera doesn’t lie for which many photographers were happy not to discourage. George Bernard Shaw wrote that this was a double edged sword, “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, and the picture is admired beyond measure. The photographer finds the same pretty girl, he dresses her up and photographs her, and calls her Juliet, but somehow it is no good – it will still be Miss Wilkins, the model. It is too true to be Juliet.”
“If your pictures aren’t good, you’re not close enough.” Robert Capa. Outside of the studio, unlike drawings and paintings, photographs can only record what is actually in from of them and in the real world of photography it is usually impossible to alter the position and distance of various subjects to simply improve the composition of the picture. Therefore often a photographer can only position himself in a place that will only capture a part of the image. Unlike drawings and paintings photography is unable to produce a story type narrative, as successful painting will often combine several events that have occurred over a period of time and the artist has combined them into one scene that can tell the whole story. Photography can only capture one scene at a time and when a selection of images are put together to tell the story these images still require text in order to explain the connection to each picture and the event itself. However, it was soon realised that the photograph could use symbols instead to represent the intended narrative, therefore photographers focused on detail some that may have seemed to ordinary and trivial or dull to the painter but when photographed could symbolise the scene / event / for the narrative that the photographer could not otherwise be so easily produce. An example of this is a photograph of cannon balls scattered across a road symbolising the recent ferocious battle and bombardment. The chosen detail is the spent and discarded ammunition on a deserted road symbolic of the recent action. In this style of imagery few words are needed, the photographer is taking advantage of the viewers own imagination to complete the story for the picture.
Where as in drawing and painting the frame is conceived, in photography it can only be selected forcing the photographer to choose what to include or not to include. In this way what ever the photographer includes in to the frame will now have a relationship with one another that they may not of done in real life for example, two strangers photographed standing together on a platform waiting for a train can now appear to be companions simply because both were selected to be in the frame. The painter begins with a blank canvas, the draftsman from the centre of his sheet the photographer from the frame. The photographer must learn how to edit the real world, to isolate and juxtapose when unexpected elements come together within his frame. The frame contains, what is inside the frame is subjected to close scrutiny but a photograph can also imply beyond the frame.
A photograph is a moment of time captured by the camera this moment can be 1/1000’s of a second in length or up to several minutes or more. A photograph captures this moment and freezes it in to an image describing a parcel of time which may allude to the past or future can only ever be viewed in the present. This can mean that an image’s meaning can change or be re-interpreted by future generations of viewers. Early photography required longer lengths of exposure time for the slower chemicals, often resulting in images never before seen, dogs with two heads babies with two faces transparent or elongated people as they moved during the exposure period. Often theses early images have been regarded as photographic failures which ironically as film and cameras have improved and become faster modern photographers are now being deliberately replicating the affects for modern artistic styled pictures. As the exposure time became faster images could be captured never before seen by the human eye, how the horse gallops, a bullet in flight, droplets of water thrown out from a splash as a stone hits the water, and many more sights invisible to the human eye due to the speed of the moment. Cartier-Bresson defined the expression “The decisive moment” a visual climax a moment when the camera has captured a moment when all the elements came together to capture that image at the right moment. Thanks to modern cameras with fast shutter speeds and fast continues shooting these decisive moments can be more easily captured providing of course you are prepared for them. For example, sports photographers positioned to see and focused on the spot he or she will predict the moment will occur.
Unlike a drawing or a painting the photographer has limited choices when choosing a vantage point and so the photographer has sometimes been forced to use unusual view points such as very low level worm eye views, views from backstage seeing only the backs of the actors, birds eye views looking down, distorted and strange views created by lens distortion or patterns of light. Through the necessity of moving his camera to see his subject clearly or to see it at all the photographer learned that the appearance of the world was a lot richer and less simple than he would have first guessed. He also discovered, ‘that his pictures could not only reveal the clarity buy also the obscurity of things, and these mysterious and evasive images could also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful.’