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Recommended Readings: “The Photographer’s Eye”

the photographer eye

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John Szarkowski (1925 – 2007) was a photographer, curator, historian, and critic. He is mostly known for his role as the legendary Director of Photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art for almost 30 years (1962-1991). He published various books (collections and texts about criticism) and according to Sean O’ Hagan, he is considered to be “the most influential person in 20th-century photography”.

One of his most famous books, “The Photographer’s Eye” (1966), is based on an exhibition of the same name held at the Museum Of Modern Art in New Work in 1964. “The Photographer’s Eye” provides a critical perspective upon "the history of the medium in terms of photographers' progressive awareness of characteristics and problems that have seemed inherent in the medium". Accordingly, Szarkowski formulates a five point key basis as an introduction to the visual language of photography.

For Szarkowski the history of Photography has not been a journey but a growth with a centrifugal movement rather than a linear.

"Photography, and our understanding of it, has spread from a centre; it has, by infusion, penetrated our consciousness. Like an organism, photography was born whole. It is in our progressive discovery of it that its history lies."

John Szarkowski

While browsing this 155 pages book we notice that it contains more photographs than text and illustrates photographs from the early days of the medium development to the mid-1960s, including the work of Friedlander, Bresson, Evans, Weston, Strand and many others. We attach finally some interested excerpts from the book and from the introduction to the catalogue of the relative landmark exhibition (1964) of MoMA:

The Thing Itself

"…The first thing that the photographer learned was that photography dealt with the actual; he had not only to accept this fact, but to treasure it; unless he did, photography would defeat him. He learned that the world itself is an artist of incomparable inventiveness, and that to recognize its best works and moments, to anticipate them, to clarify them and make them permanent, requires intelligence both acute and supple..."

The Detail

"…The photographer was tied to the facts of things, and it was his problem to force the facts to tell the truth. He could not, outside the studio, pose the truth, he could only record it as he found it, and it was found in nature in a fragmented and unexplained form—not as a story, but as scattered and suggestive clues. The photographer could not assemble these clues into a coherent narrative, he could only isolate the fragment, document it, and by so doing claim for it some special significance, a meaning which went beyond simple description…"

The Frame

"…Since the photographer's picture was not conceived but selected, his subject was never truly discrete, never wholly self-contained. The edges of his film demarcated what he thought most important, but the subject he had shot was something else; it had extended in four directions. If the photographer's frame surrounded two figures, isolating them from the crowd in which they stood, it created a relationship between those two figures that had not existed before..."


"…Photographs stand in special relation to time, for they describe only the present..."

"...Photographers found an inexhaustible subject in the isolation of a single segment of time..."

""...[The photographer] discovered that there was a pleasure and a beauty in this fragmenting of time that had little to do with what was happening. It had to do rather with seeing momentary patterning of lines and shapes that had been previously concealed within the flux of movement. Cartier-Bresson defined his commitment to this new beauty with the phrase the decisive moment, but the phrase has been misunderstood... [It is] decisive not because of the exterior event but because in that moment the flux of changing forms and patterns achieved balance, clarity and order -- because the image became, for an instant, a picture...

Vantage Point

"…Much has been said about the clarity of photography, but little has been said about its obscurity. And yet it is photography that has taught us to see from the unexpected vantage point, and has shown us pictures that give the sense of the scene, while withholding its narrative meaning..."

"...If the photographer could not move his subject, he could move his camera. 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 too close, or too far away, or from the back side, inverting the order of things' importance, or with the nominal subject of his picture half hidden. From his photographs, he learned that the appearance of the world was richer and less simple than his mind would have guessed. He discovered that his pictures could reveal not only the clarity but the obscurity of things, and that these mysterious and evasive images could also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful..."

Book Summary:

  • Title: The Photographer’s Eye.

  • Author: Szarkowski J., Evans W., Strand P., Klein W. & Friedlander L.

  • Publisher: Museum of Modern Art, 2007 (first published 1980)

  • Language: English

  • Subject field: History of Photography

  • Keywords: visual language, history of photography, frame, time, representation, image

  • Intended audience: amateur and professional photographers, students, general public Relation to photography (1-5): 5

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