John Szarkowski – Mirrors & Windows

I am currently reading my annotated copy of Mirrors & Windows, American Photograph since 1960 by John Szarkowski. Which discusses aspects of photography in the 1950’s which influence if not set the stage for contemporary photography in the 1970’s (book published in 1978). In retrospect, my habit of making a bunch of notes both in pencil and ink on a first edition book may not be very laudable.

Most interesting is Szarkowski’s discussion about the divergent work of Minor White and Robert Frank, and for me, perhaps precursors for today’s photographers & photographs. And of course, the implications for my own work. The way that Szarkowski discusses both White and Frank and the then current practitioners in the late 70’s, is helping me understand the critical language used to discuss current photography.

FYI, White, along with Walter Chappell, it is the “romantic view“, as an evolutionary of Stieglitz and subsequently Weston; a love for the eloquently perfect print, intense sensitivity to mystical content of the natural landscape and minimal interest of man as a social animal. Subsequent photographers per Szarkowski categorization in this path are Paul Caonigro, Jerry Uelsmann, Danny Lyon, Ralph Gibson, Judy Dater, Robert Mapplethorpe and Robert Rauschenberg.

And for a long while, I could easily categorize my own natural landscape photography in this philosophical path. And seeing Lewis Baltz’s construction photographs in this group, gives me pause to re-think if perhaps my current urban landscape photographs are perhaps still in line with this romantic view.

Then there are the photographs of Robert Frank who provided a “searing personal view of this country (Frank is Swiss for those not familiar with his background) during the Eisenhower years. Frank is the vanguard for the “Realist view“, providing a “sophisticated social intelligence, quick eyes and a radical understanding of the potentials of the small camera, which depended on good drawing rather than on elegant tonal description.” As stated by Szarkowski, in the realist view, “the world exists independent of human attention, contains discoverable patterns of intrinsic meaning and they by discerning these patterns, forming models or symbols of them with the materials of this art, the artist is joined to a larger intelligence.”

And of course, the realist view in the 1970’s that of Gary Winogrand, Henry Wessel, Tod Papageorge, Diane Arbus, Lee Freidlander, Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Edward Ruscha and Joel Meyerowitz. And I guess, not surprising for me, there are some photographers whose work I identify with as someone whom I thought were doing some interesting work, which I feel inspired some of my own urban landscape photographs.

By I appreciate that Szarkowski also notes that both of these photographers are not purely one or the other, that you can find aspects of both thoughts in the others work. In other words, you are not purely realistic or romantic, but some blend of these and somewhere on the pendulum as it swings back and forth through and during your life.

And so I continue to re-read this book, which also motivated me to purchase a used copy of John Szarkowski’s discussion of Eugene Atget. What the heck, if I am going to be writing my thoughts in the margins, why worry about a pristine new book, eh?

Best regards, Doug

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