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The Photographer’s Eye – book review

John Szarkowski’s (1925 – 2007) The Photographer’s Eye ‘concentrate[s] only on aesthetics –the visual content of the image –at the expense of what surrounds the photograph’ (Bull, p11). This is clear in Szarkowski’s introduction to the book in which he sets out the ‘five issues’ for consideration, being: 1) the thing itself (subject of a photograph), 2) the detail , 3) the frame, 4) time, and 5) vantage point. There is no consideration of the broader context in which a photograph is taken or in which it is used. This is a modernist perspective – with  ‘an emphasis on materials, techniques and processes’ (Tate).

The book takes us through a journey of disparate photographs using each of Szarkowski’s ‘issues’ as chapter themes. There is no colour – it is 1966 and it wouldn’t be until 1976 that MoMA featured an exhibition of William Eggleston’s colour photographs (shown in William Eggleston’s Guide, for which Szarkowski was to write an accompanying essay). The photographs are from a mix of known and unknown photographers.

As well as photographs, each chapter contains a few words of introduction from Szarkowski and a quotation from a notable artist or writer relevant to the theme of the chapter. For example in ‘the thing itself’, the quote is:

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 is still Miss Wilkins, the model.
It is too true to be Juliet.

George Bernard Shaw

The photos selected in each chapter explain visually Szarkowski’s themes – the juxtaposition of different styles and different subject matter make this all the more powerful. We learn about the range of subjects that are photographed – much broader than in other media that requires more effort to produce; how the details are important for our interest and to convince us what we are seeing is a reflection of reality; on the frame, ‘to quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft’; the special relationship of photographs with time – describing only the present and preserving moments of time as images; and finally, the vantage point – how although the photographer cannot move the world, moving himself can create fresh and unusual perspectives on the world.

This is a truly wonderful book on the narrative within photographs and, therefore, how we might think about that when making photographs. For context, go elsewhere!

References

Bull, S. (2009). Photography (Routledge Introductions to Media and Communications) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

The Guardian [online]. Was John Szarkowski the most influential person in 20th-century photography? Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/jul/20/john-szarkowski-photography-moma [accessed 1.3.2016]

Szarkowski J (1966). The Photographer’s Eye. 2007 edition. New York, The Museum of Modern Art.

Tate [online]. Modernism. Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/m/modernism [accessed 1.3.2016]

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