Reading – Looking At Photographs – John Szarkowski

This book, which contains 100 pictures from the collection of The Museum of Modern Art and is accompanied by text for each one.

In the introduction Szarkowski noted that, unlike paintings, photography, although it is admired is never really seriously collected in the same way. I note that this book was published in 1973 but this is still an interesting point. And with the commonplace of camera, digitalisation and the availibility to almost everyone, has this made photography even less of a collectible art? And perhaps even more strutanized than it has been since it’s invention?

It was also interesting to note that this book contained less than 1% of the museum’s holdings. The potential for so much undiscovered phtographic art is astounding.

For me, these points are part of why I find photgraphy so intriguing. Photography is an art that anyone has the potential to explore and it takes me back to the phrase “Every Man an Artist”. Photography allows people easy access (in this time) to a method of expression, connecting people with themselves on a deeper level. Of course, the explosion of the “selfie” in today’s world may look like a rather shallow attempt at expression and is very subjective as to whether you could call it an “art”, there is still an exploration of self which can be analysed and commented on with it’s representation of today’s modern society.

Rather than makes notes about Szarkowski notes, I have chosen to read each one and choose my favourites from this book as well as make notes on some points I feel are important to photographic history.

  • William England, created glass negatives capable of reproducing a photographic in vast quantaties, thus making photography part of the publishing world.
  • In the 1800’s and early 1900’s photographers were simply experimentalists from all walks of life. During these times, studies and courses as there are now didn’t exist. Just ‘normal’ people giving it a go.
  • During the late 1800’s wet plate processing was only sensitive to blue light, thus rendering skies in landscape photography, blank white. Some photographer chose to rectify this by printing in clouds from a separate negative.
  • Julia Margaret Cameron’s “Madonna with Children” drew me to it. She used resources around her, her friends, family members and their children and converted them into characters. This particular image is quite moving and beautiful and I admire her ability to pose the children too! Especially in a time when equipment was much slower than it is now.
  • Peter Henry Emerson “Poling the Marsh Hay” has dream like qualities about it but the lady’s expression is very clear. It is well composed and pays attention to the smaller details including the reflection of the tree in the water and the people working in the background. Interestingly Emerson had been largely responsible for the separation and debate about whether photography was an equal to the traditional fine arts.
  • Jacob A. Riss “Police Station Lodger, A Plank For a Bed”. This photo is wonderfully composed but as Swarkowski describes it, it appears this was ‘by accident’. I find it incredible that photography can sometimes be an ‘accidental art’ and luck can definitely play a part in what can be achieved in photography when you are simply an amateur.
  • Szarkowski theorises why women were seemingly quite important in photography in comparison with their numbers in photography at the time. He makes some interesting points and notes that photography has never been subjected to licensing laws or trade unions, which, had they existed, might have put women at a disadvantage when pursuing the art.
  • Lewis W. Hine, with the help of a new camera called a Graflex (which allowed the photographer to see the picture right before recording it) used photography to record and describe the social conditions around him. “Macon, Georgia” has a strong emphasis on the boy in the front, selectively focusing on him and blurring out the boys behind. This gives the picture weight and depth. The boy is backed up by the gang behind him, despite the fact their faces are out of focus.
  • Szarkowski describes the term ‘amateur’ when talking about Jacques Henri Lartigue (who was a child photographer) I find this point interesting by the definition. Amateur to mean “pursuing something for the love of it as opposed to pursuing something for the rewards’ This is a rather lovely way to describe an amateur. However, as Swarkowski says, this definition is not usually what people mean when calling someone an amateur. It is usually meant that one is not serious nor competent. I much prefer the first, less derogatory definition.
  • Honore Daumier said that “photography described everything and explained nothing”. I agree that this is very often true. Photography is subjective and one photograph can have many meanings since it leaves the explanation up to the viewer. When I consider my own work, I believe there are times when my meaning and explanation has changed or evolved over time. It can be based on my mood at the time of shooting in comparison to the mood I am in when viewing it. Sometimes, I can see extra meanings when I reflect on previous work. As long as the photo awakens something within, I believe it works for me. I am also sure that when I look through this particular book (and other bodies of work and photography books) there are photographers and photographs I am instinctively drawn to and others which I am not. This is something that is probably different from person to person.
  • When Szarkowski descibes the work of Alfred Steiglitz, he touched on what I felt was an important point, which was his ability to adapt and evolve by not remaining static or constant to a single concept throughout his career. He acheieved something, many photographers don’t, and that is longevity.
  • “Photography is a matter of eyes, intuition and intellect” (Szarkowski, page 86) I feel this is a perfect summary of the skills that a good photographer should instill into their work.
  • I am drawn to “Montmartre” taken by Andre Kertesz in 1927. The patterns of the shadows have my eyes dancing across the picture and settling on the blurry figure to the left when I notice the small figure sitting at the bottom of the stairs looking in the direction of the figure.  There is a relaxed natural beauty in this picture which says to me that beauty can be all around you, everyday, if only you open your eyes and see it.
  • August Sander’s picture of the Circus People draws me in, the intricisies of each person’s pose in the photograph feels unique to them and tells me a bit about what they might have been like. For instance the lady on the left, looks tired but serious in her endevours, the woman in front appears to me as baulsy and self aware, the gentleman on the right appears set and resigned to his life the way it is. I find the stage in which the portrait has been set, tells me a lot about the hardship and living conditions that these workers suffer.
  • The vouyeristic nature of Erich Saloman’s French statesmen photograph is an athestic I enjoy about this partivular picture. To view these important men, unaware they are being watched and seeing them relaxed in their setting most likely discussing very important worldy matters, gives these usually untouchable figures a sense of humanism to them but since they are being photographed through the window, the barriers still creates a feeling of unaccessibility to this situation for the average person. We can only watch and guess what it happening from a distance through a closed window.
  • When Szarkowski talks about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, he summizes that the best work of a photographer is that which is usually done for himself (as opposed to commissioned work). This is an interesting point, does photography really come to life when it is not forced but more of a personal endevour borne out of something from within the artist? I believe this is so.
  • Bill Brandt’s young Housewife in Bethnal Green, to me, looks like a photograph that was staged for a fairy tale book. A type of Cinderella character, beautiful but not without struggle and hardship. Framed by the window and appearing lost in her own world. This is a stricking picture. I also admire Brandt for being an individual of his time, he did not conform to photographic traditions but took himself on his own journey and explored his own ideas without submitting to the pressure of being “trendy”.
  • When Szarkowski discusses the photograph of Russell Lee of the Son of a Sharecropper Combing his hair in bedroom of shack, he talks about the many ways in which a photograph can be made. How it is easy to take a photograph but what makes it complex is due to the number of ways you can photograph the same scene, each one giving a diffierent outcome and ultimately a completely different aspect to the final image. This is what we, as photographers are faced with every time we press the shutter. The angles, the views and the difference in light among so many more. How do we decide on these things in the moment? Or do we trust our eye and take a chance that we will get it right or miss an opportunity for a “great” photograph? I believe that, coupled with the ability to “see” a photograph before pressing the shutter, there is always an element of luck in photography. If we intricately planned every picture, this would show and it would lose it’s spontineity and feeling in the moment.
  • Robert Capa’s photograph “colaborator” truly captures the feeling of such unease amongst so many smiling faces. If we were to remove the shaven headed woman from the photograph, the feeling created by this picture would be vastly different. It is sad to see such joy in the faces of the crowd as they stare and mock a woman and her innocent child. A true “mob mentality” is shown and there isn’t a single simpathizing face on display here. Only the man leading her way to looks resigned to the situation present. I am left wondering as to how this woman and her chil’sd lives turned out in the end.
  • Szarkowski states “The fact that one may misunderstand the contect of a picture is of no concern to the picture, which leads it’s own life independent of our interpretations” This made me laugh in agreement. Regardless of opinion about a photograph, which are usually great in number and very diverse, the picture remains just how it is and how it always will be. It is in the eyes and minds of the viewer which gives life, meaning and depth to a photograph, of which can differ tremedously between people.
  • Szarkowski explains that photography has never been very good at telling stories and it has been discovered after many attempts at this, that photography is about capturing a single moment among many and the quality of that moment which make the best photographs, This is an interesting point and one that sticks with me when I working on assignments and for my own pleasure with photography. You can only capture a single moment among many and what you capture will often have no bearing as to how the rest of the day went.
  • The photo “Sicily” by Bruce Davidson drew me in. The simplicity makes it seem peaceful with the sun shining through and the small child running across the picture. The shadow of the tree leads the eye nicely to the child and the white space of the sky is filled well with the building on top of the hill.


  • Szarkowski, J. (1984) Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art The Museum Of Modern Art, New York