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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 what is being photographed. Determined to prove that photographs could—and when they are “good,” always do—transcend literalness, many serious photographers have made of photography a noetic paradox. Photography is advanced as a form of knowing without knowing: a way of outwitting the world, instead of making a frontal attack on it.

But even when ambitious professionals disparage thinking—suspicion of the intellect being a recurrent theme in photographic apologetics—they usually want to assert how rigorous this permissive visualizing needs to be. “A photograph is not an accident—it is a concept,” Ansel Adams insists. “The ‘machine-gun’ approach to photography—by which many negatives are made with the hope that one will be good—is fatal to serious results.” To take a good photograph, runs the common claim, one must already see it. That is, the image must exist in the photographer’s mind at or before the moment when the negative is exposed. Justifying photography has for the most part precluded admitting that the scattershot method, especially as used by someone experienced, may yield a thoroughly satisfactory result. But despite their reluctance to say so, most photographers have always had—with good reason—an almost superstitious confidence in the lucky accident.

Lately, the secret is becoming avowable. As the defense of photography enters its present, retrospective phase, there is an increasing diffidence in its claims about the alert, knowing state of mind that accomplished picture-taking presumes. The anti-intellectual declarations of photographers, commonplaces of modernist thinking in the arts, have prepared the way for the gradual tilt of serious photography toward a skeptical investigation of its own powers, a commonplace of modernist practice in the arts. Photography as knowledge is succeeded by photography as—photography. Perhaps the most candid statement of photography’s currently fashionable skepticism about its older ideals of authoritative representation has been made by Garry Winogrand, one of the most influential of younger American photographers, who rejects any ambition to previsualize and states as the purpose of his work: “to find out what things look like when photographed.”

Where the claims of knowledge falter, the claims of creativity take up the slack. As if to refute the fact that many superb pictures are by photographers devoid of any serious or interesting intentions, the insistence that picture-taking is first of all the focusing of a temperament, only secondarily of a machine, has always been one of the main themes of the defense of photography. This is the theme stated so eloquently in the finest essay I know of in praise of photography, Paul Rosenfeld’s chapter on Stieglitz in Port of New York (1924). By using “his machinery”—as Rosenfeld puts it—“unmechanically,” Stieglitz shows that the camera not only “gave him an opportunity of expressing himself” but supplied images with a wider and “more delicate” gamut “than the hand can draw.”

Similarly, Edward Weston insists over and over that photography is a supreme opportunity for self-expression, far superior to that offered by painting. For photography to compete with painting means invoking originality as an important standard for appraising a photographer’s work, originality being equated with the stamp of a unique, forceful sensibility. What is exciting “are photographs that say something in a new manner,” Harry Callahan writes, “not for the sake of being different, but…because the individual is different and the individual expresses himself.” Paul Strand calls picture-taking “a record of your living,” warning photographers to resist “insidious other people’s ways” that “get between you and your own vision.” For Ansel Adams “a great photograph” has to be “a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense,” and “thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.”1

Even when it is hard to take the claims of photographers literally, these hyperbolic and often naïvely stated claims are interesting for the ways in which they recapitulate traditional attitudes which radically oppose the self and the world. Photography is seen as an acute manifestation of the individualized “I,” the homeless private self astray in an overwhelming world—mastering reality by a fast visual anthologizing of it. Or photography is seen as a means of finding a place in the world (still experienced as overwhelming, alien) by being able to relate to it with detachment—bypassing the interfering, insolent claims of the self. But between the defense of photography as a superior means of self-expression and the praise of photography as a superior way of putting the self at reality’s service there is not as much difference as might appear. Both presuppose that photography provides a unique system of disclosures: that it shows us reality as we had not seen it before.

The revelatory character of photography generally goes by the polemical name of realism. From Fox Talbot’s view that the camera produces “natural images” to Berenice Abbott’s denunciation of “pictorial” photography to Cartier-Bresson’s warning that “the thing to be feared most is the artificially contrived,” most of the contradictory declarations of photographers converge in pious avowals of respect for things-as-they-are. For a medium so often considered to be merely realistic, one would think photographers would not have to go on as they do, exhorting each other to stick to realism. But the exhortations continue—another instance of the need photographers have for making something mysterious and urgent of the process by which they appropriate the world.

To insist, as Abbott does, that realism is the very “essence” of photography does not, as it might seem, establish the superiority of one particular procedure or standard; does not necessarily mean that “photo-documents” (Abbott’s word) are better than “pictorial photographs.”2 Photography’s commitment to realism can accommodate any style, any approach to subject matter. Sometimes it will be defined more narrowly, as the making of images which resemble, and inform us about, the world. Interpreted more broadly, echoing the distrust of mere likeness which has inspired painting for more than a century, photographic realism can be—is more and more—defined not as what is “really” there but as what I “really” perceive.

While all modern forms of art claim some privileged relation to reality, photography’s claim seems to rest on particularly strong grounds. Yet photography has not, finally, been any more immune than painting has to the most characteristic modern doubts about any straightforward relation to reality—the inability to take for granted the world as observed. Even Abbott cannot help assuming a change in the very nature of reality: that it needs the selective, more acute eye of the camera, there being simply much more of it than ever before. “Today we are confronted with reality on the vastest scale mankind has known,” she declares; and this puts “a greater responsibility on the photographer.”

All that photography’s program of realism actually implies is the belief that reality is hidden. And, being hidden, is something to be unveiled. Whatever the camera records is a disclosure, whether it is imperceptible, fleeting parts of movement, an order that natural vision is incapable of perceiving, or a “heightened reality” (Moholy-Nagy’s phrase), or simply the elliptical way of seeing. When Stieglitz describes his “patient waiting for the moment of equilibrium” he makes the same assumption about the essential hiddenness of the real as Robert Frank does when he waits for the moment of revealing disequilibrium, to catch reality off-guard, in what he calls the “in-between moments.”

It is not necessary for photographers to point up the mystery of the hidden with exotic or exceptionally striking subjects. When Dorothea Lange urges her colleagues to concentrate on “the familiar,” it is with the understanding that the familiar, rendered by a sensitive use of the camera, will thereby become mysterious. Photography’s commitment to realism does not limit photography to certain subjects as more real than others, but rather illustrates the formalist understanding of what goes on in every work of art: reality is, in Viktor Shklovsky’s word, de-familiarized. What is being urged is an aggressive relation to all subjects. Armed with their machines, photographers are to make an assault on reality—which is perceived as recalcitrant, as only deceptively available, as unreal.

  1. 1

    The quotations from Callahan, Strand, and Adams, along with most of the quotations in the early part of this essay, come from the statements collected in Photographers on Photography, edited by Nathan Lyons (Prentice-Hall, 1966).

  2. 2

    The original meaning of “pictorial” was, of course, the positive one popularized by the most famous of the nineteenth-century art photographers, Henry Peach Robinson, in his book Pictorial Effect in Photography (1869). “His system was to flatter everything,” Abbott says in a manifesto she wrote in 1951, “Photography at the Crossroads” (pp. 17-21 in Lyons’s Photographers on Photography). Praising Nadar, Brady, Atget, and Hine as masters of the photo-document, Abbott dismisses Stieglitz’ as Robinson’s heir, founder of a “superpictorial school” in which, once again, “subjectivity predominated.

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