"The Photographer's Eye:" A Way of Seeing

January 19 - April 20, 2008

Wall texts for the exhibition

'The Photographer's Eye:' A Way of Seeing inaugurates the Museum of Photographic Arts' 25th Anniversary year by celebrating the museum's permanent collection, and by paying homage to one of photography's most important practitioners, John Szarkowski, Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York from 1962 to 1991, who died July 7, 2007. Through this exhibition, MoPA renews its commitment to collecting by examining over 125 photographs within its collection through the photographic thesis set out by Szarkowski in his 1966 groundbreaking book, The Photographer's Eye.
In 1966, the world of photography was far from what it has become today with its dedicated museums, galleries, university programs, and ascending market values. In the mid-1960s, Szarkowski wrote The Photographer's Eye to educate the small but growing audience of photography enthusiasts about what the camera did best and what it accomplished distinctly from all other art forms. Being a photographer of some accomplishment himself (illustrating his first book, The Idea of Louis Sullivan (1956), with his own photographs), Szarkowski identifies, in The Photographer's Eye, the core characteristics and problems intrinsic in the medium so that "they may contribute to the formulation of a vocabulary and a critical perspective more fully responsive to the unique phenomena of photography." These core elements are The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time, and Vantage Point; they become the template for this exhibition. Five of Szarkowski's own photographs -- until recently, the hidden half of his lifetime of looking -- are inserted into his own thesis, announcing each section and eloquently defining it.
-- Carol McCusker
Szarkowski retired in 1991, after organizing 160 exhibitions and writing numerous books. He introduced to national and international audiences the work of Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and William Eggleston, secured the lasting reputations of Walker Evans, Edward Weston, and Andre Kertesz, and rediscovered the forgotten French master Eugene Atget. He created solo shows for Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, and August Sander. Each of these photographer's works appear in this exhibition. In accessing MoPA's permanent collection on its 25th Anniversary, it is clear that the collection reflects the medium's full complexity not only from John Szarkowski's perspective, but also those of the museum's directors and curators, and the generous patrons and artists who helped them build it. As it enters the next 25 years, the growth and refinement of MoPA's permanent collection will continue to be a resource that complements the museum's educational commitment to San Diego and the larger photography community.
'The Photographer's Eye:' A Way of Seeing is an homage to John Szarkowski's way of seeing. His own picture making comes out of an American classical tradition inspired by Walker Evans and Edward Weston ("Walker for the intelligence and Weston for the pleasure," he said). Aware of how changes in technology affected photography throughout its history, he remained unsympathetic towards computer imagery and manipulation. Such images might be art, but for him they were not photography. In The Photographer's Eye, he writes: "Our faith in the truth of a photograph rests on our belief that the lens is impartial, and will draw the subject as it is.... This faith may be naive and illusory . . . but it persists. The photographer's vision convinces us to the degree that the photographer hides his hand."
Known as a formalist, Szarkowski was drawn to how a photograph was built, the relationship between elements within its frame, the shape of shadows, the lines of planes, and its varying tonalities -- not unusual for someone whose first love was architecture, and who then married an architect.
Each Section - (excerpts from The Photographer's Eye)
The Thing Itself
"More convincingly than any other kind of picture, a photograph evokes the tangible presence of reality. Its most fundamental use and its broadest acceptance has been as a substitute for the subject itself -- a simpler, more permanent, more clearly visible version of the plain fact.
The first thing that a photographer learned was that photography dealt with the actual world.... He also learned that the factuality of his picture, no matter how convincing, was a different thing than the reality itself. Much of the reality was filtered out in the static little black and white image, and some of it was exhibited with an unnatural clarity, an exaggerated importance. The subject and the picture were not the same thing, although they would afterwards seem so. It was the photographer's problem to see not simply the reality before him but the still invisible picture, and to make his choices in terms of the latter."
The Detail
"Once he left the studio, it was impossible for the photographer to copy the painters' schemata.... The photographer was tied to the facts of things. He could not, outside the studio, pose the truth; he could only record it as he found it, and it was found in the nature of 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 doing so claim for it some special significance, a meaning which went beyond simple description. The compelling clarity with which a photograph recorded the trivial suggested that the subject had never before been properly seen, that it was in fact perhaps not trivial, but filled with undiscovered meaning. If photographs could not be read as stories, they could be read as symbols."
The Frame
"The central act of photography, the act of choosing and eliminating, forces a concentration on the picture edge -- the line that separates in from out -- and on the shapes that are created by it.
The photograph's edge defines content.
It isolates unexpected juxtapositions. By surrounding two facts, it creates a relationship.
The edge of the photograph dissects familiar forms, and shows their unfamiliar fragment.
It creates the shapes that surround objects.
The photographer edits the meanings and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame. This frame is the beginning of his picture's geometry. It is to the photograph as the cushion is to the billiard table."
"Photographs stand in special relation to time, for they describe only the present.
Exposures were long in early photography. If the subject moved, its multiple image described also a space-time dimension. Perhaps it was such accidents that suggested the photographic study of the process of movement, and later, of the virtual forms produced by the continuity of movement in time.
Photographers found an inexhaustible subject in the isolation of a single segment of time. They photographed the horse in midstride, the flight of birds, the drape of a pedestrian's clothing, and the fugitive expressions of the human face.... [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
"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."

Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:


and this book:

The Photographer's Eye, by John Szarkowski. Published by Museum of Modern Art, 155 pages, ISBN 087070527X.

The Photographer's Eye by John Szarkowski is a twentieth-century classic--an indispensable introduction to the visual language of photography. Based on a landmark exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in 1964, and originally published in 1966, the book has long been out of print. It is now available again to a new generation of photographers and lovers of photography in this duotone printing that closely follows the original. Szarkowski's compact text eloquently complements skillfully selected and sequenced groupings of 172 photographs drawn from the entire history and range of the medium. Celebrated works by such masters as Cartier-Bresson, Evans, Steichen, Strand, and Weston are juxtaposed with vernacular documents and even amateur snapshots to analyze the fundamental challenges and opportunities that all photographers have faced. Szarkowski, the legendary curator who worked at the Museum from 1962 to 1991, has published many influential books. But none more radically and succinctly demonstrates why--as U.S. News & World Report put it in 1990--"whether Americans know it or not," his thinking about photography "has become our thinking about photography." -- from Google Books


TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

John Szarkowski: A Life in Photography is a 47-minute video produced by Richard B. Woodward. Checkerboard Foundation, 1998. For nearly 30 years, from 1962-1991, John Szarkowski served as the Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This film examines his double life as curator and photographer. Szarkowski, author of the classic "Looking at Photographs," has taught generations how to think about and look at images. (video description courtesy of International Center of Photography)

John Szarkowski on the Photography of Ansel Adams is a 47-minute DVD. During his nearly three-decade tenure as Director of the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art, Szarkowski recast the world's thinking about the art of photography. His radically new conception of the medium's possibilities - and its limitations - has influenced critics, historians, theorists, and photographers ever since. In this lecture on Ansel Adams, Szarkowski tackles the deeper significance of Adams' work beyond his enduring popularity as an environmental pioneer and rhapsodist of the American West. (video description courtesy of Iternational Center of Photography)

TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format


Go to page 1 / 2

Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History. Individual pages in this catalogue will be amended as TFAO adds content, corrects errors and reorganizes sections for improved readability. Refreshing or reloading pages enables readers to view the latest updates.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Museum of Photographic Arts in Resource Library.

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2008 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.