‘The Photographer’s Eye’ – John Szarkowski

I only received this book from the local library a couple of days ago and already I’ve read the short introduction and viewed the photographs 3 times. It’s not a very big book in terms of physical size, nor of page numbers, only 156, but the messages it’s been able to convey to me has been immense.

Szarkowski was Director of the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art from 1962 to 1991 and wrote this book in 1966 and it’s still in print, which to my mind shows the enduring messages it projects.  Another very influential book he wrote in 1974, Looking at Photographs, is also still in print, but unfortunately there is only one copy within the public library system and borrowing is restricted.

The premise of the text is that to be a good photographer the exponent either comes to the art with no preconceptions of what ‘art’ is about, and therefore has no baggage to direct their view, or if they have knowledge of ‘art’, then they must be prepared to forget that pre-knowledge to be able to embrace photography’s capabilities as an art medium.  His contention is that the early photographers learned their trade empirically, and as time passed 5 issues became predominant in making good pictures and good art and are inter-dependant.  These 5 issues are still valid in modern photography and this is my personal interpretation of the messages.

The Thing Itself

The photographer must be able to see that the subject and the picture are not the same thing, but soon will be, and that it is their job to see the reality before them, and the still invisible picture therein, and to make all other choices around making that picture reality, subject to that invisible picture.

The Detail

The Valley of the Shadow of Death - Roger Fenton http://www.getty.edu/art/collections/images/m/06711401.jpg

Is the truth of the picture.  The small details and how they are juxtaposed with the ‘The Thing Itself’ will testify to the veracity of what the photographer is trying to portray.  If the details do not fit with the main idea, then the whole picture will hold no truth. It’s been supposed that the photograph of ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’ by Roger Fenton was not only not taken in the valley where the Charge of the Light Brigade took place, but that his assistants also helped the picture along by moving cannonballs to make the image more believable. Veterans of the Crimean War viewed this picture with scepticism as they not only recognised that this was the incorrect valley, but the positioning of the cannonballs was a little too fortuitous.

The detail can also be the whole point of the picture, and the most mundane photograph can be seen to be a masterpiece when the detail is examined closely.  The sum of all the detail parts is less than that of them considered as a whole, and as such a lot of post-modern photography becomes clearer as a consequence.

The Frame

Unlike a painter who has the choice of what appears at the edge of the picture, in fact what is left out or borrowed from elsewhere, the photographer has to make do with what is and needs to make the frame enhance the picture by bringing in, together or mystifying what might be there.  Poor framing will spell the death of even the best subject, no matter how technically correct the rest of the picture might be.


Not only should the amount of time the scene is exposed to the sensor/film be considered, but the meaning that time has on the past, present and future of that scene.  A photograph is a section out of time, capturing the scene as it was when the shutter opened and then closed.  It tells us nothing directly about the past, only inference, and nothing about the future, only imagination, and what the photographer wishes to portray about the past and future can, to some extent, be worked into the picture by judicious control of the other four issues.

The mechanical aspect of time has an impact on the picture too, as it can impart feeling into the end result.  A feeling of speed can be obtained by slowing down the shutter speed, or by speeding it up isolation can be achieved.  Timing of when the shutter release is pressed is possibly one of the most difficult to learn.  Too soon or too late does not get the cigar, although multi-frame shooting can overcome some of the problems, however, there is always the danger that if the frames per second isn’t fast enough, the exact moment will still fall between two consecutive frames.

Vantage Point

Photographers are nearly always presented with a vantage point that they would not willingly choose for themselves, it’s always too far away, too close, wrong height, wrong angle, and it’s therefore the ‘art’ of photography to make what you can of what you can see.  This will mean that knowledge of the subject will be paramount to make sure that the final picture takes maximum advantage of where you stand.


Because the book is supported by images which range well over 100 years of photography, parallels can be drawn with the  post-modern photographic art.  As I see it, many of the post-modern pictures are, upon first appearances, mundane to the extreme and to my mind simply because they are of everyday scenes which are contemporaneous and therefore unexciting.  If I look at the pictures from 100 years or so ago, I find them fascinating!  Are they masterpieces of fine art?  By no means, but they are not something I see every day and therefore hold untold pieces of interest.  It’s almost voyeurism sitting there feasting upon the bygone and never to return, so won’t the post-modern images of today be the same in 100 years time?  I think so.  When looked at in this light the modern images become something else, and by applying the 5 issues to them I can see more.  This doesn’t mean that all post-modern photography is good, far from it a lot is absolute rubbish, but there is a far greater amount than I first gave credit to that is worth a second and third look.

Twins - Diane Arbus

I have heavily criticised the image ‘Twins’ by Diane Arbus in the past because I thought it mundane and ‘a family snap’.  Using the 5 issues as a guideline the image certainly, for me, doesn’t take on the mantle of fine art, but it does now have hidden depths I’d dismissed before.


2 Responses to ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ – John Szarkowski

  1. BIll Cooper says:

    I came across your blog post on ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ while researching for a talk I am giving at my local Museum. I very much enjoyed your personal interpretation of Szarkowski’s introductory essay. I was introduced to the book by a curator at the V&A while on a course there and it made a deep impression.

    I’ve signed up for more!

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