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Looking at Photographs (Book Review)

Looking at Photographs

John Szarkowski (1925-2007) was Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from 1962-1991 and during that period put together Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art. This collection of images, published in 1973, accounted for a mere one per cent of MOMAs photography collection including work from the mid 1800s through to the early 1970s.

Each photographer is only represented by a single photograph in this book regardless of their standing or the number of images acquired by MOMA. Also, each photograph is accompanied by a short essay written by Szarkowski on the adjacent page. Each photograph is a black and white. The accompanying essays range from a historic understanding of each image through to discussion about its conception, execution and interpretation that places it into a context beyond a mere picture on the wall. It is important to know who made a photograph, why they thought it was important and how it contributed to the spider-web lineage of photographic geneology.

Szarkowski goes to great lengths to explain another way of seeing photographs. As he reminds the reader, often photographs can misrepresent a situation as much by what is left out as what is included. So knowing a photograph is much more than standing in front of a wall and making a subjective thumbs-up or thumbs-down about aesthetic beauty. A photograph also changes in meaning over time as culture and society change around it.

For example, Robert Doisneau’s photograph At the Cafe, Chez Fraysse, Rue de Seine, Paris, 1958 on pages 172-173 depicts an older man and a younger woman at the bar with wine glasses in front of them. The man is leaning on the bar with his left elbow. The woman faces forward, only part way through her first glass. In Szarkowski’s 1973 interpretation of this photograph he writes of the power between a man and woman in a pseudo-sexual dance, of sorts. In fact, even I found this interpretation offensive given we are now in 2011. This photograph, 50+ years after being made and 40 years after Szarkowski’s interpretation, now reflects a dirty old man, very sleazy, pushing drinks on the young woman who is thinking – “How do I get out of this situation?”

I know that too often I see photographs, particularly in Internet communities that I avoid like the plague, merely judged on sharpness, technical expertise and aesthetic contribution. As an amateur photographer interested in another way of viewing the world I find that perspective slightly repugnant. Give me instead a meaningful moment to step inside the photographer’s mind.

By far my favourite aspect of this book (and why I will eventually acquire a copy for my bookshelf) are those essays that make Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art a perfect coffee table book. It’s so easy to pick it up and fall to a random photograph with a one to a three minute read. The value of this coffee table style seems to have been lost in recent years.

Because where else would I be more engrossed in all of this than laying on my sofa waiting for inspiration? This book is a gem.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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