John Szarkowski: Mirrors and Windows

Print-16-04-25-002wrIn 1978 John Szarkowski curated Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960 at the Museum of Modern Art; in the same year the exhibition catalogue was published as a book of the same name (1). The exhibition explored Szarkowski’s theory that by the late nineteen seventies photography in America had moved from being concerned with public to private issues. He believed that the photographs of the preceding twenty years could be seen either as mirrors which he described as being a “romantic expression of the photographer’s sensibilities” or windows “through which the exterior world is explored in all its presence and reality” (2)

He took his reference point from two practitioners who had created landmark works in the nineteen fifties; in Minor White’s magazine Aperture he saw the prototypical mirror as compared with Robert Frank’s The Americans (4) which represented the window. It is helpful to return to Szarkowski’s reference points as a means of better understanding the point he was making.

Sun in Rock - Minor White 1947

Sun in Rock – Minor White 1947

Minor White, who was to edit Aperture Magazine for twenty years, was interested in Eastern philosophy and according to Sabina Jaskot-Gill (3 – p.335) wanted his readers to “think of photographs as independent units of meaning”. Sun in Rock is typical of his approach where he cropped the subject to detach it from the wider landscape, distilling it to an abstract form. His intent extended beyond creating the aesthetically pleasing composition shown here as he believed that this form of abstraction could, in Jaskot Gill’s words “metaphorically reveal inner states of mind and emotion” (3 – p. 336). As an editor, teacher and practitioner White was highly influential; two of his students Jerry Uelsmann and Paul Caponigro featured in the Mirrors and Windows exhibition with Caponigro’s studies of the standing stones at Avebury and Stonehenge having a particular resonance for lovers of landscape detail as an artistic form.

Funeral - St Helena, South Carolina - Robert Frank c.1958

Funeral – St Helena, South Carolina – Robert Frank c.1958

Robert Frank, a Swiss immigrant to America produced his seminal work The Americans (4) in 1958 (i). It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this book, to turn its pages is to preview the work of some of America’s and Europe’s most influential photographers; Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Tod Papageorge and Garry Winogrand to name but a few and looking back we can determine the influence of Walker Evans’  American Photographs upon Frank.

His view of America in the mid fifties is a highly personal perspective, perhaps an America that could only be “seen” by an immigrant, with all its foibles, social tensions, rituals, failures, cultural icons and what Arbus called the “hollowness” (5) at the heart of the American dream. It is straight documentary of the most descriptive kind, without comment or naive judgement, just a factual depiction of a people transitioning from the constraints of their shared history to the liberalisation of the sixties and beyond. Both Jeff Wall and Ed Ruscha acknowledge that what Frank and Evans had achieved could not be matched (5) so he not only influenced those who leveraged his approach but motivated a generation of practitioners to find new ways to document America and its challenges.

Szarkowski himself is one of the great influencers of photography and played a significant, if not primary role, in moving the market for the professional photographer from publications to the gallery. He was a thinker and critic rather than an evangelist for photography and speaking of his predecessors, Beaumont Newhall and Edward Steichen said “consciously or otherwise, (they) felt more compelled than I to be advocates for photography, whereas I – largely because of their work – could assume a more analytic, less apostolic attitude.” (6) He curated a series of exhibitions, that can now be seen as landmarks along the road to contemporary photography not just in America but world-wide.

In 1964 he curated The Photographer’s Eye (reviewed here), the catalogue of which is still seen as essential reading for students, where he promoted the democratisation of photography by attributing value to the vernacular as well as the professional or artistic photograph; an idea that was certainly not en-trend in the early sixties. In 1967 he presented  New Documents featuring Arbus, Friedlander and Winogrand bringing their quirky perspective of the street to the attention of the public and stimulating the rapid evolution of intelligent and personal street photography that continues to this day.

He exhibited Brassai and Cartier-Bresson bringing European documentary and photo journalism to the American audience, purchased Eugene Atget’s archive for the MoMA and, in 1976, shocked the art establishment with William Eggleston’s Guide (reviewed here). Eggleston was, at the time, even less well known that Arbus, Friedlander or Winogrand had been in 1967 and had the audacity to photograph banal subjects in colour in a way that challenged the established view of what constituted art photography. With each of these major exhibitions Szarkowski correctly foresaw the direction photography was taking and identified the most talented practitioners to support his vision. Three years after his death in 2007 Sean O’Hagen wrote “Szarkowski’s greatest gift was not his brilliant critical mind, nor his ability to help define what is now accepted as a canon of great photography, but his willingness to take risks with his own reputation.” (6)

Mirrors and Windows did not introduce new practitioners that would go on and dominate their chosen genre nor did it revolutionise the way photographers approached the eighties or nineties it just set out a simple truth. As with all great ideas Szarkowski expresses something that seems obvious once we hear it but because his writing style is crisp and understandable the idea has lived on to become a principle of photographic theory.

It is not an especially complex theory. A photograph that might be called a mirror will tend towards being subjective as opposed to a window being objective, reflective as opposed to a direct view, expressive rather than documentary and potentially manipulated instead of being straight. So, whilst a mirror might achieve an abstract simplicity and exhibit what Szarkowski calls a “single minded concern for formal coherence” (1 – p.22) a window will tend to “deal with matter that is specific to a particular place and time” (1 – p.22). We can look to a window to impart information and a mirror to communicate abstractions. He couches the same argument in a variety of ways including by associating the mirror with a romantic view that he defines as believing that the “meanings of the world are dependent on our understandings” (1 p.18) so the meaning of any given subject, whether it be a life form or an object, is not derived from its history but from the “anthropocentric metaphors we assign to them” (1 p.18). On the other hand the window can be associated with realism and the view that the world and everything in it “exists independent of human attention”.

An interesting and subtle twist to Szarkowski’s theory is that mirrors and windows are the points at the end of a spectrum and that photographs are rarely entirely one or the other but fall somewhere on the curve between the two and that any given photographer may produce work that falls at different points on the same curve.

The theory is well known and often repeated but the photographs Szarkowski selected are perhaps less discussed. Given his reputation for prescience, it is perhaps surprising that only a minority of these photographers went on from this exhibition to establish themselves as significant and influential practitioners; indeed some of the mirrors photographers who have subsequently made their mark on the history of the medium, such as Bruce Davidson, Danny Lyons and Ernst Haas, have done so not by using abstraction but in documentary or reportage. This does not undermine Szarkowski’s ideas, in fact it strengthens his argument that the same practitioner will potentially operate at different points on the axis between mirrors and windows.

Untitled - Jerry Uelsmann 1964

Untitled – Jerry Uelsmann 1964

It is perhaps too easy to categorise the mirrors as conceptual but that is my overriding impression. Some practitioners, such as Jerry Uelsmann, offer surreal landscapes by combining multiple photographs  that display a mastery of darkroom techniques. And whilst out of context, his intent is obscure, his work is a prime example of photography as self expression.

Critics tend to describe his work as metaphorical, and no doubt it is, but like much of surreal art in any medium the code to translate the metaphors can be elusive to the untrained eye.

The overriding impression of both the examples included in Mirrors and Windows and of his wider work is of constructed landscapes in the surrealist tradition that are perfectly targeted as gallery photography. It is inventive, creative, technically highly accomplished, visually arresting and saleable.

Uelsmann’s work has stood the test of time in sense that the MoMA still shows twenty six of his photographs in their on-line collections but despite the fact that he was still creating new work as recently as 2007 his collection at the MoMA only reflects the sixties. My hypothesis is that many of the mirror photographers follow this same pattern, recognised and selected by Szarkowski at a particular moment in time but whose work has mostly been forgotten in the following forty years.

Many of the windows photographers have probably suffered the same fate but the real difference is that among those who are well remembered a significant number have become hugely influential and would win selection should ever a hall of fame be established. These most obviously include Elliott Erwitt, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Joel Mayerwitz, Diane Arbus, Edward Ruscha, William Eggleston and Robert Adams.

There is no particular conclusion to be drawn from such a superficial piece of research but there is a suggestion that conceptual photography is a far harder arena in which to win lasting recognition unless we see their legacy in terms of the constructed realities of Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall or Andreas Gursky. The documentarists, street photographers and commentators on the human condition seemingly achieve greater longevity in a world where being recognised and remembered as a photographer outside of academia is challenging.

Notes on Text

(i) First published in France in 1958 and subsequently published in the USA in 1959, republished in 2008 and a further nine times since.

Sources

Books

(1) Szarkowski, John (1978) Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960. New York: The Museum of Modern Art

(3) Jaskot-Gill, Sabina (2012) Subjective Photography in the USA. An essay included in Photography The Whole Story edited by Juliet Hacking. London: Thames and Hudson

(4) Frank, Robert (1958) The Americans (ninth Steidl edition) Göttingen: Steidl

Internet

(2) Szarkowski, John (1978) Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960 [Press Release] (accessed at MOMA 21.4.16) – http://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/5624/releases/MOMA_1978_0060_56.pdf?2010

(5) O’Hagen, Sean (2014) Robert frank at 90: The Photographer who Revealed America Won’t Look Back. (accessed at The Guardian 21.4.16) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/07/robert-frank-americans-photography-influence-shadows

(6) O’Hagen, Sean (2010) Was John Szarkowski the Most Influential Person in 20th Centuary Photography? (accessed at the Guardian 21.4.16) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/jul/20/john-szarkowski-photography-moma

(7) Uelsmann, Jerry Collection (accessed at The MoMA 25.4.16) – http://www.moma.org/collection/artists/6001?locale=en

Karapetian, Farrah (2008) Reframing Mirrors and Windows (accessed at The Highlights 21.4.16) – http://thehighlights.org/wp/reframing-mirrors-and-windows

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