John Szarkowski’s was a photographer, critic, curator and historian. He succeeded Edward Steichen, another photographer, as the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1962. A couple of years later, Szarkowski became the architecture of the photography exhibition called “The Photographer’s Eye” held at the Museum of Modern Art in New Work in 1964. This exhibition included 200 photographs, which were selected to show how photography was a unique art form. The exhibition attempted to answer the questions: What do photographs look like? And why do they look that way? To answer this question, the exhibition was divided into five sections, each emphasizing the photographer’s “visual language:” The photograph itself, the details of the photograph, the frame, the time, and the vantage point.
Soon after, in 1966, he wrote the short, yet influential book “The Photographer’s Eye,” which was based on this exhibition. He writes: “the invention of photography provides a radically new picture making process—a process based not on synthesis but on selection” Paintings, for instance, are made, but photographs are taken.
What do photographs look like? Why do they look that way? When is a photograph an art form? Szarkowski’s provides answers in his book using text and photographs by some of the masters, such as Edward Weston, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, and obscure photographers. Essentially, the photographer is always faced with five choices: The photograph itself, the details of the photograph, the frame, the time, and the vantage point. This represents the visual language of the photograph. Essentially, the photographer discloses a fragment of reality by using this visual language.
1. The Photograph Itself. Szarkowski suggests that more than any other art form, “a photograph evokes the tangible presence of reality.” He writes: “Our faith in the truth of the photograph rests on our belief that the lens is impartial.” In other words, the photograph is evidence; record; proof; memory; memento mori. And yet, this is not entirely true. The photographer captures only snippets of reality with the camera. What the best photographers accomplish is to show us what is already there— or reality in a unique way.
2. The Details. The photographer must decide what details of a story or event or person to include. He can never capture the entire event, the entire story, the entire experience, the whole personality. The photographer is witness capturing fragments of the truth, not the entire truth. The photographer observes reality as it is unfolding and decides what to include in the image before pressing the shutter release—perhaps the candid, such as emotion and human action, or symbols, or a metaphor, or a small slice of the experience. Szarkowski’ writes: “From the reality before him the photographer can only choose that part that seemed relevant and consistent…His work, incapable of narrative, turned toward symbol.”
3. The Frame. Szarkowski writes: “The essence of the photographers craft is a simple one… What shall he include, what shall he reject?”The edge of the frame sets the boundaries. The frame determines point of focus, elements of the image, what is important and what is insignificant. The photographer must answer two questions: What to include? And what to omit? In any situation, the photographer has an endless supply of possibilities that can be captured and frozen in time with the camera.
4. Time. Szarkowski writes: “The photographer is a witness in time capturing a fragment of reality. The photographs stand in a special relation to time, for they describe only the present.” The photographer often seeks to capture the decisive moment or “peak moment”—the crescendo of the action– often with the intention of portraying emotion and action. The photographer takes a picture of what is always in the “present moment”, never the past. And yet, the photographer can capture symbols, metaphors, objects that share or reveal or provide proof of the past. The photographer might also decide to slow down time with a motion blur by selecting a slower shutter speed.
5. Vantage point or perspective. The photographer can avoid the cliché by changing position, shooting high, low, or from a different vantage point. The best photographs share reality from a unique or unusual perspective. Szarkowski writes: “To see the subject clearly, often to see it at all, he had to abandon a normal vantage point, and shoot his picture from above, or below, or from close up, or too far away….. And in doing so, the photographer alters our perception of the world. He or she sees the world in a new way.
According to Szarkowski, photography has significantly shaped how we view the world. I think of war, terrorism, famine, events most people have never witnessed, except through photographs. We see the world often by recalling the memories of photographs. We often believe that fragments of truth are the whole truth—-evidence, reality of human existence. Yet, all photographs are an illusion of reality, because they can never represent the entire experience, or event, or personality.
Though the book was written nearly 50 years ago, Szarkowski’s wisdom is still relevant to the modern day digital photographer, whether professional or enthusiast. He provides a framework for photographers who are seeking to develop their own photography style, those characteristics that make them unique and appealing and memorable. The intention of the photographer in developing a style must be always to focus on the purpose of the photograph, the details, the frame, the decisive moment or some fragment of reality, and the vantage point or perspective from which the photograph will be captured.