Photography in Search of Itself

Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art

by John Szarkowski
Museum of Modern Art, 216 pp., $9.95 (paper)


Like other steadily aggrandizing enterprises, photography has inspired its leading practitioners with a need to explain, again and again, what they are doing and why it is valuable. The era in which photography was widely attacked (as parricidal with respect to painting, predatory with respect to people) was a brief one. Painting of course did not expire with the advent of the camera in 1839, as one French painter hastily predicted; the finicky soon ceased to dismiss photography as menial copying; and by 1854 Delacroix graciously declared how much he regretted that “such an admirable discovery should have come so late.”

Nothing is more acceptable today than the photographic recycling of reality, acceptable as an everyday activity and as a branch of high art. Yet something about photography still keeps the first-rate professionals defensive and hortatory. And although virtually every important photographer, right up to the present, has written manifestoes and credos which expound photography’s moral and aesthetic mission, photographers give the most contradictory accounts of what kind of knowledge they possess and what kind of art they practice.

The disconcerting ease with which photographs can be taken, the inevitable even when inadvertent authority of the camera’s results, suggest a very tenuous relation to knowing. No one would dispute that photography gave a tremendous boost to the cognitive claims of sight, because—through close-up and remote sensing—it so greatly enlarged the realm of the visible. But about the ways in which any subject within the range of unaided vision is further known through a photograph or the extent to which, in order to get a “good” photograph, people need to know anything about what they are photographing, there is no agreement.

Picture-taking has been interpreted by its more reflective professionals in two entirely different ways: either as a lucid and precise act of knowing, of conscious intelligence, or as a preintellectual, intuitive encounter. Thus Nadar, speaking of his respectful, expressive pictures of Baudelaire, Doré, Michelet, Hugo, Berlioz, Sand, Delacroix, and other famous friends, said “the portrait I do best is of the person I know best,” while Avedon has observed that most of his good portraits are of people he met for the first time when photographing them.

In this century, the older generation of photographers described photography as a heroic effort of attention, an ascetic discipline, a mystic receptivity to the world which requires that the photographer pass through a cloud of unknowing. According to Minor White, “the state of mind of the photographer while creating is a blank…. When looking for pictures…the photographer projects himself into everything he sees, identifying himself with everything in order to know it and to feel it better.” Cartier-Bresson has likened himself to a Zen archer, who must become the target so as to be able to hit it. “Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards,” he says, “never while actually taking a photograph.” Thought is regarded as clouding the transparency of the photographer’s consciousness, and as infringing on the autonomy of…

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