Saturday, October 8, 2011


“The Family of Man has been created in a passionate spirit of devoted love and faith in man.” 

This was my favorite sentence in Edward Steichen’s introduction to The Family of Man, originally a pivotal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in NY and now a book and canonical reference point in the history of photography.  I also enjoyed Steichen’s idea that “the art of photography is a dynamic process of giving form to ideas and of explaining man to man,” continuing to call it a “mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world.” 

It is interesting to me that the show included work from both amateur and professional photographers.  I can’t even fathom the process of editing a show out of two million photographs, edited down to 10,000, then to 503. 

I also enjoyed re-reading the introduction to The Photographer’s Eye by John Szarkowski. 

His point about the relative independence of photographic practice, as opposed to painting, was interesting. 

Since its earliest days, photography has been practiced by thousands who shared no common tradition or training, who were disciplined and united by no academy or guild, who considered their medium variously as a science, an art, a trade, or an entertainment, and who were often unaware of each other’s work.

I wonder what Szarkowski thinks of modern day photography, when photographers are almost obsessively aware of the work of other photographers, and where every person is surrounded by a flood of images all the time.  I don’t know if there is even the possibility of working without the influence of the history of the medium and its current practitioners. 

I also enjoyed his point about how, as photography became accessible, it began to document things or previously thought of as unimportant. 

            Painting was difficult, expensive, and precious, and it recorded what was known to be important.  Photography was easy, cheap, and ubiquitous, and it recorded anything: shop windows and sod houses and family pets and steam engines and unimportant people.  And once made objective and permanent, immortalized in a picture, these trivial things took on importance.  By the end of the century, for the first time in history, even the poor man knew what his ancestors looked like.

I liked these sentiment and idea, as most of the portrait photography I am inspired by focuses on “unimportant people.” 

Szarkowski’s point about the difference between the thing itself and a photo of it is an important one, though an issue that is still not fully understood.  He writes, “the subject and the picture were not the same thing, though they would afterwards seem so.”  I was also intrigued by the issue of believing the camera saw the truth, while human eyes saw only an illusion.  His ending point, that “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,” is especially interesting and relevant today. 

In regards to detail, Szarkowski writes, “the compelling clarity with which a photograph recorded the trivial suggested that the subject had never before been properly seen, that it was in fact perhaps not trivial, but filled with undiscovered meaning.  If photographs could not be read as stories, they could be read as symbols.”  He continues to say, “the function of these pictures was not to make the story clear, it was to make it real.

In writing about the frame, he notes that photography introduces the idea of selective editing and meaning-making by where one chooses to draw the frame.  In this way, what you choose to leave out of the frame is as important as what you include, and you can make a selection of the world around you in a way that only ever existed in your photograph, never in real life. 

The central act of photography, the act of choosing and eliminating, forces a concentration on the picture edge- the line that separates in from out- and on the shapes that are created by it. 

His examination of time was also interesting, saying “there is in fact no such thing as an instantaneous photograph” and that “photography alludes to the past and the future only in so far as they exist in the present.” 

His account of how the time necessary for making a photograph often resulted in images never seen before, such as men made blurry or ghost-like as a result of motion” was interesting as well.  Now, we take things for granted, and nobody would be surprised at such an image.  The idea of these images being new makes me think of spirit photography and the ways in which it must have been significantly more believable a century ago than it is today. 

Szarkowksi made two points in the last section of his essay that were especially poignant.  The first regarded the idea of seeing photographically, a concept difficult for us to understand because we have never known a world without photographic representation. 

At first the public had talked a great deal about what it called photographic distortion…  [but] it was not long before men began to think photographically, and thus to see for themselves things that it had previously taken the photograph to reveal to their astonished and protesting eyes. 

Secondly, he addressed the idea of gifts from photography itself, which I found especially relevant. 

For the artist photographer, much of his own sense of reality (where his picture starts) and much of his sense of craft or structure (where his picture is completed) are anonymous and untraceable gifts from photography itself. 

Because Szarkwoski played such a monumental role in how we currently view photography, it is interesting to read his ideas on the subject. 

In the essay about the MoMA’s collection, I was especially taken with the sentiment of the “spirit of photography… which delights in the inexhaustibly various guises in which a single idea will reveal itself.” 

Also, in acknowledging all of the staff who helped in maintaining the collection and working with the photographs, the author states “I am confident that each of these has considered himself enriched and rewarded by intimate contact with what is surely one of the richest and most puzzling of the arts.”  The idea of photography being puzzling and ever-changing is fascinating, especially as it relates to the reluctance of curators to take it seriously before relatively recently.  It is pointed out that with a collection of objects such as roman coins or impressionist paintings, the amount in existence is finite, and the curator’s job is therefore theoretically able to be complete at some point.  However, with photographs, they are being constantly created and the medium itself is changing rapidly, making it both exciting and risky to be a curator of photographs. 

The example of aerial photography being a new way of reading the world, and having within it an inherent code that could be read, was interesting as well.  Throughout all of our readings thus far, the theme of how photography has changed the fundamental way we see the world has continued to present itself.  Similarly, the writing about Edward Weston’s portrait of his son illustrates that through photography, we see the torso of a boy in a way that we had never seen it before.  We are seeing something in immense detail that we thought we were already familiar with, but in reality, have never seen in this way before.  Also with the Walker Evans photograph of the studio window, it is pointed out that the photograph of the studio window is not the same as the window itself.  Framed within a photograph and therefore given importance, it requires interpretation, which directly references Szarkowski’s ideas about the difference between an image of a thing and the thing itself. 

Lastly, in the writing about documentary photography, this theme continues to run through the article, especially in the case of Lewis Hine and his photographs of children in factories or the men building the Empire State Building.  Hine created the former with a political undercurrent, but in the latter, he was interested simply in seeing something that had never been seen before- and documented these men factually. 

These spectacular pictures are not melodramatic; they were not taken for sensation.  They are a straightforward record of a job that happened to be dangerous. 

I was also interested in the idea that even in the most documentary photography, perhaps with a political intent, the aesthetics are still incredibly important.

It is because I enjoy looking that I go on looking until the pity and shame are impressed upon me unforgettably. 

This is an idea that I deal with regularly in my work, the idea of beautifully representing something that might otherwise be challenging to look at or simply ignored, seducing the viewer with aesthetics and having the political intent creep in as a secondary fact, once it is too late and they have already been seduced by the image. 

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