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[Ed note: Working in a rush, I made a big, bad editing mistake and posted only a truncated version of this article yesterday. This is the full version. If you already read the first part here yesterday, please skip to the subsection with the heading "Then and now" and continue reading to the end. My sincere apologies to author and audience for my error. —Mike]


Written by Moose

I bought Looking at Photographs by John Szarkowski based on Mike's recommendation. I would recommend that his hypothetical friend not bother. No single book is sufficient to be worth the trouble, unless it's a "check off the list of topics" library; in which case, who cares? I just don't get that book. And yes, I do open it and browse from time to time, hoping that it has changed, hoping that I have not, at least in that direction.

As Mike says, it's a history, a collection of historical photos. But also a specialized history, with a bias. He was one of the group of powerful curators and gallery owners who determined who did and did not become a successful photographer on the national stage. The book celebrates and works to reinforce that taste.

Although folks like Fred Herzog, safely off in remote Vancouver, were doing fresh work in color, it would be a few more years before William Eggleston more or less shoved color down those collective throats, through sheer brilliance and the pressure of a viewing and buying public that saw the value of color photos for more than reporting.

The situation in Art Photography at that time might be seen as analogous to the Three Minute Rule in commercial radio, before Dylan broke it; originally technological limits that became embedded in taste and practice. "In those days, if you recorded a song that was longer than three minutes and 15 seconds, they just wouldn’t play it," Thomas Tierney, director of the Sony Music Archives Library, said. In those days, if it wasn't black-and-white, and didn't follow accepted standards of subject matter and approach, they just wouldn't hang it.

Flip through Looking at Photographs, and ask yourself how many of the photos were not made from the perspective of a standing adult male, using a lens with an angle of view in the range from that of a 35mm lens on 35mm film to that of a 90mm lens.

Looking at Photographs is old: the subjects are all at least 50 years ago, most older, many much older. The medium is B&W, in part for technical reasons, but also as a matter of artistic judgement. The range of subjects and angles/approaches to them are rather limited. Again, tech and taste.

I lived through the latter part of the era those photos present, and much that is earlier feels familiar from the photos I saw back then. But it's not alive for me. Looking at Photographs is staid (well, OK, to me, boring). The text is all curator-speak, about the photographer's place in their world, repeated obvious observations about the content, and so on.

Erwitt Venice

Elliott Erwitt, Venice, 1965

Szarkowski's commentary on "Venice, 1965" is an example. He starts out with a stated premise that there are only three ways of seeing the physical world, and ends with a statement that any opinion about the photo must fall into one of those three. He completely ignores other possibilities, including the first one that occurs to me when I see it.


A photo of mine that it reminds me of makes, in my mind, both when I took it and now, no comment on the content of the frames or the nature of the institution in which they hang. It's about repeating patterns of shape, tone, light and reflections, largely abstract. (The entire thing, by the way, is a row of hung art as seen in a mirror on the side wall, with a moon sticker on it, reflection of reflections.)

Erwitt's photo is of the same sort to me, an exploration of found shapes, with repetitive elements and reflections, that actually depends on not being able to see the content of the frames, which would detract from the arrangement of elements. Look, for example, at the echo of the ornate central frame in the doorway frame.

Then and now
If photography is to be Art, it must evoke an emotional reaction in the viewer. The vast majority of these photos don't do that to me. The commentary seems almost perversely designed to kill off any such reaction with distant, dispassionate, superficial observation.

"Why would anyone want to photograph an indisputably colourful world in monochrome? If colour film had been invented first, would anybody even contemplate photographing in black and white?"

—Russell Miller, Magnum: Fifty years at the Front Line of History (1999), p. 4

Anyone taking up photography today, unless interested in recreating the past, should be looking at good representations of how it is practiced today, what it means to people today and how current photographers create photographs that make them feel fulfilled and, with luck, engage others.

I'd suggest books such as:

The Practice of Contemplative Photography by Andy Karr and Michael Wood, to start to understand how the photographer's inner life and relationship to the world may be used to do individual creative work.

Why Photographs Work by George Barr, for insight into how others see photographs. The commentary is head and shoulders above that of Looking at Photographs.

Mother Earth, ed. Judith Boice (2nd. edition) for examples of the vast range of subjects and approaches to them possible today that can create such a wide array of beautiful, and moving (at least to me) photographs.

It's Not About the F-Stop by Jay Maisel, about all the above, plus seeing the artistic arc of a passionate and wide-ranging photographer's life.

Appointment in Venice by Alex Gotfryd, for something mysterious, using the techniques of the past to create a personal vision. Showing as well how a series of photos as a planned project may create something larger.

Such a small sample, for such a vast subject….


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