Book Review: Photographers Looking at Photographs–and Writing About Them

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Forty-eight years ago John Szarkowski, the director of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department — a department that more or less was leading the world in taking photography seriously as an art — published a book entitled Looking at Photographs. In his book he shared one hundred images from the Museum’s collection, some well-known, some obscure, and he wrote a one-page mini-essay to accompany each image.

The great strength of this book, still in print, isn’t in the photographs so much as in the words, a reversal that is most unusual in a photobook. Most people, when they buy and look at a photobook, don’t (with certain exceptions) pay all that much attention to the words. Art writing tends to be lacking in life and, in many cases, purpose. The time is better spent with the photographs.

But in Szarkwoski’s case the time is best spent with his essays. His writing has a lyrical quality and his points are often soft ones but what comes through is a sense that he is immersed in photography, immersed in the thinking about photography and in the feeling of photography. He’s not lecturing you, or using the photographs to illustrate some social theory or other, and when he talks about a photograph you understand that he’s talking about that actual thing, the printed image made by the photographer, which has qualities of size and surface and color (even if in black and white) that go beyond the information content of the image.

With some other writers on photography of that time, you can only conclude that, aside from their lack of humor and perhaps even their lack of affection for the medium, they do not feel a real difference in the aesthetic experience of a large platinum print on a museum wall versus a small, half-toned newspaper reproduction.

In the introduction to her book, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, Susie Linfield says it as clearly as can be said. Writing of how non-photography critics are deeply and personally engaged with the work, she writes:

These critics sought, and achieved, a fertile dialectic between ideas and emotions: they were able to think and feel at the same time, or at least within the same essay.

The great exception to this approach is photography criticism. There, you will hear precious little talk of love, or terrible nakedness, or passion’s pitch. There, critics view emotional responses—if they have any—not as something to be experienced and understood but, rather, as an enemy to be vigilantly guarded against. For these writers, criticism is a prophylactic against the virus of sentiment, and pleasure is denounced as self-indulgent. They approach photography—not particular photographs, or particular photographers, or particular genres, but photography itself—with suspicion, mistrust, anger, and fear. Rather than enter into what Kazin called a “community of interest” with their chosen subject, these critics come armed to the teeth against it. For them, photography is a powerful, duplicitous force to defang rather than an experience to embrace and engage. It’s hard to resist the thought that a very large number of photography critics—including the most influential ones—don’t really like photographs, or the act of looking at them, at all.

She’s writing about Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, John Berger, those three staples of every lazy introduction to photography syllabus, whose approach to photography criticism set the approach and even the writing style of future critics and curators.

What sets Szarkowski off as a writer on photography is that he was a photographer before he was a curator–indeed, while he was a curator and even after he was a curator–and that deep connection with photography allowed him the vantage point of looking around at photography instead of looking in at photography, looking in from the outside. In Photography rather than On Photography, if you will.

It’s easy to mistake Looking at Photographs as a survey of photographic history but it is not. In his introduction to the book, Szarkowski makes quite clear over several paragraphs that it is not. What the book is though is a survey of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography collection, which is an echo of the history of photography but a distorted and imperfect one.

Let’s let Szarkowski speak for himself:

This selection…[less than one percent of the Museum’s photographic holdings at the time] …is thus a small sample of a tiny part of photography’s achievement. In considering what the character of this sample should be, I had first to answer this question: Should it concentrate on the medium’s heroic figures, representing each by a selection of works that would suggest in rough outline the scope of his unique contribution, or should the selection be broadly inclusive, and attempt to describe photography from a somewhat more liberal and explanatory perspective? I have elected to attempt the latter.

He then goes on to fault his choices, highlighting the book’s limitations, noting that no matter how great a photographer’s achievement only a single work of theirs would appear in the book. He also expressed his regret about the “brutally abridged” selection of work from the 1800s, about the absence of color work which, he says, is “a complex and largely distinct issue that requires and deserves separate consideration.” He laments the exclusion of scientific photography as well as the limiting nature of the book itself–one hundred photographs taken from a hundred and twenty or so years of history requires “the most painful omissions.” Finally, displaying an uncommon lack of pretension, he mentions the book’s (and MOMA’s) weakness in international photography, the lack of resources to study it, and thus, in his own words, his ignorance of that work.

In exactly this same way, Photographers Looking at Photographs is not a history of photography, though it starts on its first pages with images from Eadweard Muybridge and Lewis Hine and proceeds chronologically until Julie Cockburn and Awoiska van der Molen–the images from both photographers made within the past eight years–at the end. Just like Szarkowski’s book this book is a survey of a specific collection, in this case the Pilara collection, the photography holdings that make up the heart of the exhibition program at Pier 24.

What is Pier 24? That’s quite simple. It is, in my estimation, one of the remaining institutions that believe in the power of photography. It shows nothing but photographs, mostly drawn from the collection of its benefactor, the Pilara Foundation.

It may seem a little idiosyncratic–it charges no admission, you must reserve entry in advance, and the photographs displayed are without wall labels, though there is a gallery guide at the desk. The goal of the limited entry is to raise the experience of viewing photography from that of the typical, crowded museum, where a semi-mob can push you along and zombie-walkers (my family’s term for the vacant-faced visitors lost in their audio tours) rove the galleries. The lack of labels is an attempt to fight back against the tendency of the wall label’s famous name or descriptive title to color your perception–and taint your judgment–of the thing hanging in the frame in front of you. Peeking at label after label also interrupts and disrupts the flow of one image to another. The people at Pier 24 are after a more primal relationship with photography and a purer exposure for the viewer to the power of photography.

What then is Pier 24 doing putting out a book where the words have at least equal billing to the images? The goal is not only an homage to Szarkowski’s book, as Pier 24’s associate director Allie Haeusslein (the force behind the creation of this book) explicitly states in her introduction, but I think also an unstated hope that this book will motivate and inspire others as Looking at Photographs inspired Pier 24’s founders and staff.

Photographers Looking at Photographs (hereafter PLAP) takes the basic format, picture and one-page essay, of Szarkowski’s book and offers a twist–instead of essays in a single voice the book will allow selected photographers to choose an image from the Pilara collection and write their one-page reaction to that image.

Let’s look at a few.

Mark Klett, first up in PLAP, shares with us a panorama of San Francisco made in 1877 by Muybridge. Klett, a photographer highly skilled in the technical details of the medium’s early years, noticed in this famous 360-degree panorama an important detail that others had missed–one of the thirteen images (the seventh) was, for unknown reasons, taken out of sequence–the shadows are wrong. Perhaps that 20×24-inch glass plate negative, coated just before exposure, had been damaged and reshot.

Much of Klett’s own work centers on issues involving time, so an out-of-sequence image in this well-known work is not, for him, a trivial thing.

It’s easy to underestimate the implications of this simple rearrangement of linear time and space, but considering that Muybridge’s next and most famous invention was a process for capturing sequential images of a horse in motion, a breakthrough that we recognize today as the precursor to the modern motion picture, the lessons of an out-of-place photograph in time do not seem inconsequential.

Deborah Luster, another photographer in PLAP, has had Disfamer in her head ever since, at about the age of twenty-five, she saw “reproductions of Disfarmer portraits in 1976 on a posted flyer and was astonished that such powerful photographs were produced by a fellow Arkansawyer in a small town much like the one where I grew up.”

Mike Disfarmer (always called, simply, Disfarmer) was a very odd fellow, his name selected by him to emphasize that he was not related to the family he grew up with–his story was that he was blown into their home as a three-year-old by a tornado. He photographed the people of Herber Springs, Arkansas for decades, his negatives uncovered in the 1970s to subsequent fame.

Ten years after seeing her first Disfarmer images, Luster brings a book of his work to the Angola Prison warden to demonstrate the kind of work she wants to do there (she actually had other ideas for her images). The warden takes the book and examines the images and then offers advice that serves well not only to a portrait photograph but is wisdom to any photographer, critic, or curator.

“These pictures really get to the root of these folks,” he said. “Welcome and good luck,” he added, handing the book back to me. As I thanked him and promised to do my best by the prison, he interrupted by pointing his biscuit at me. “Don’t forget, young lady,” he said, “Thou barest not the root, but the root thee. Don’t get in the way of the mystery.”

The struggle between what is learned and the power of a photograph is a struggle that Barbara Probst shares, her choice of photo a classic female nude by Ruth Bernhard. Her thoughts filled with art-school political issues such as the male gaze and objectification of women, she asks herself “Do I really see this figure for what it is, or do I see it as what I am, what I know and what I feel?” She balances atop the great wall that separates theories about photography and the deep experience of photography–then she crosses over:

…My mind’s activity drops. I leave everything aside and let my eyes see. No more obstacles between me and this picture, I am just looking–looking with devotion and tenderness, with empathy. In this fleeting act of pure looking, Ruth Bernhard’s Classic Torso” becomes universal–that is to say, human. And I am connected to it as another human looking at it. I experience a brief and immensely consoling encounter with this photograph and its subtle and refined sculptural impression of a woman, in which human existence appears in its purity as truly dignified and hopeful. All past and future seems to be hidden within it. I can see all of this…

Working as a photographer, especially when you’ve practiced the craft for many years, allows you not only to see your own images in a highly refined way but it allows you insight into the work of other photographs. That’s the very premise of PLAP, of course.

This Garry Winogrand image is among his best known and Joel Meyerowitz was with him when he made it, just walking along on other business when Winogrand saw the photograph and immediately reacted. I’d guess two or three seconds from the seeing to the click of the shutter. Did Winogrand notice the people in the background and recognize the (literal and figurative) depth they added? Meyerowitz hints that he thinks Winogrand did but, in any event, the value they add to the image was surely apparent on the contact sheet.

In a delightful moment in paging through PLAP, the next photograph…I hate to give these little moments away…is the same photograph!…this time with an essay by Martin Parr. Parr opens with “Not very original” which seems to be referring to his choice of such a well-known image but is a wonderfully deadpan joke on the double encounter with Winogrand’s people on a bench. Parr marvels at how wonderful and rare this photograph is, with everything–the poses of the young women (and one young man) and their relationship to each other–coming together just so (Parr knows the difficulty as he shoots pictures of people, too) and then shares an observation that is one I’ve noted in my own life far too many times: “…one way to recognize a great image is that I find myself wishing I had taken it.”

All too true and all part of the creative cocktail of an artist–admiration mixed with equal parts jealousy.

Most of the essays are good, offering something to latch onto, something to raise your awareness of the photo, the photographer who made the photo, or the photographer who wrote the essay. Some are better than others, or at least strike me with more force, and I’m sharing a few of those here. But a couple of the essays don’t work at all. I’ll mention two of them.

One–I’ll let you buy the book and find it on your own–doesn’t seem to be talking about anything. I’ve read it twice. Another, a Jeff Wall essay next to a Stephen Shore image of a man in a batting cage, is a long ramble about Wall’s memories of growing up watching baseball. I’m not much of a sports fan so maybe there’s a hidden message here that I’m missing.

What I didn’t miss, though, is how many of the photographer-writers here own a copy of the very print they are writing about. Linda Conner, countering a feminist boycott in the early 1970s, felt the power of a Bellocq nude prostitute enough to obtain her own print a few years later.

Neil Selkirk shares the story of a Diane Arbus photograph that appeared and reappeared at key moments in his life, marking the milestones in his development as an artist, until he owned his own.

John Chiara says he doesn’t collect photographs but has just the one, the one he chose for the book, an image with text from the phenomenal Rich and Poor by Jim Goldberg.

Jim Goldberg, in turn, has an image from Larry Sultan’s The Valley in his home.

Several of the essays struck me in a more personal way, reminding me of myself. Alex Webb relates a story about Josef Koudelka where Koudelka would “slap a stack of some five hundred of his work prints on the table and demand I tell him which were my favorites” with Koudelka penciling Webb’s initials on the back as he chose.

I’ve done that same thing but for different reasons. I grew up in one of the richest of the poor families in the poorest white section of Akron, Ohio and my family’s exposure to art was minimal. When I was an artist the first time they were all puzzled, especially my parents. When I went to Harvard for grad school–not in the arts–they told all of their friends but then I went back to being an artist and they were doubly puzzled. They didn’t understand me and they didn’t understand my work. A few years ago I took home to Ohio several boxes of prints. I realized I hadn’t tried hard enough and I sat down with them and showed them my work, showed them in an organized, proper manner, showing actual prints, taking my time. I put their initials on the back of any they voiced strong approval of and mailed them their own print as a Christmas gift that year.

In another essay, Daniel Gordon relates his discovery of Edward Weston’s toilet. For him Excusado, which he encountered as part of the process of selecting a work to write about for this book, represents a demonstration of

…the importance of photographic fundamentals: camera placement, focus, framing, light, and perspective. These elements, in the right combination, have the ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

All true enough (except that I usually think of camera placement and perspective as the same thing) but there’s more to it than that–Weston’s photograph represents a triumph of seeing.

While Weston’s image may look like a one-off, something he did quickly for fun, he actually made many images, many variations of this image, over the course of two weeks, only hitting upon the final composition at the end. His progress on this image takes up four pages in my copy of his journals.

I made my own Excusado once-upon-a-time, perhaps after having read Edward Weston’s Daybooks one too many times. It’s worth trying yourself. Here’s a scan of the negative of my effort. I should have spent two more weeks on it.

Erica Deeman saw the same Rineke Dijkstra exhibition at SFMOMA in 2011 that I saw and her choice of images (there is a fold-out in the book) from the Pilara collection and from that show (as I recall) are good ones but there was a far more powerful work for me that day.

The deadpan portrait is an art world cliche that still hasn’t run its course, alas, but Dijkstra’s portraits–which did much to popularize this mode of portraiture–stand apart. As Deeman says, it’s all about transitions. But Dijkstra’s most powerful work, the one that struck me as an unforgettable moment that day I visited her show, was a video she made in the basement of a Liverpool club. A young working-class woman is in front of the video camera–she may be alone in the room with the camera running. She’s at the club to party but somehow has been enticed to pose for a video, and she stands there, the club music thumping in the background. Slowly her body begins to move to the music, then moves more, and more still until she breaks out in dance, giving in to the music. It’s a magical work.

Throughout PLAP the photographers write about their personal connection to photographs, to the emotional and aesthetic experience of photography. I mentioned elsewhere Barnett Newman’s famous quote that “aesthetics is to artists what ornithology is to birds” which is as close as anyone has got to rock bottom truth of the matter. Some of the photographers chosen for the book have been to art school in the past generation and some of their essays hint at a struggle to form their experiences into some theoretical mold, although, with the exception of Matt Lipps who uses Roland Barthes’s term “punctum”, the book is blissfully free of learned analysis and dogma.

Alec Soth, for example, writes about thinking of his own daughter when viewing a picture of a young woman, unlatching the door to her small circus house, suspecting that August Sander must have thought of his own daughter when making the picture. Sixteen-year-old Donovan Wylie had a cherished copy of American Photographs by Walker Evans and he “took it to bed with me like our forefathers did the Bible.” Michael Subotzky‘s entire career has been shaped by a single photograph, an image by David Goldblatt of a struggling farming family around the kitchen table, “…a picture that still grips me with admiration as I think about calling the Mallies family to see how they are doing.”

Ed Templeton tells a great story that hinges on mistakenly believing that Larry Clark was dead. Paul Graham insists that Eggleston’s work isn’t really about the color–his point is that if it is all just about the color, so unusual in 1976, why does the work still work today? Tim Hyde found his picture, an image that looks like a deluged building or parking deck, in a book and taped a color copy to his wall as a student.

Photographers Looking at Photography is–it may sound obvious but it is not–all about photography.

It’s easy to find art books and articles where photography is presented as an offshoot of some literary theory, some philosophy of language, aching to be a political theory, the image itself an illustration to demonstrate this fervor. And the art suffers because of it. Not because a photograph cannot and should not be political or serve some meaningful purpose in the world aside from an aesthetic one but because, when bringing all this baggage to weigh on a photograph, it’s too easy to confuse the tools of analysis with the subject of that analysis.

Art, and photography in particular since it seems so obviously of something, is difficult to write about. It seems easy to do. A photograph has a subject, a certain time and place, a topic, but that is all mostly an illusion, at least in a great photograph. What great photographs are striving for is precisely that thing that doesn’t lend itself to words. One thing I repeat again and again is that the more you can capture the essence of a photograph in words, the more you can describe the experience of the photograph in a paragraph, the more that photograph has failed. It’s a question of being different mediums. Some works are best suited as visual art, some as text. Creating work in the wrong medium is a common error in art-making. Forcing a successful work of visual art onto a textual foundation is a common error in the study of photographs.

Worse, many curators and critics seem rushed to expand the definition of what the medium of photography is, as if they are already bored with it, as if the real excitement isn’t in photography itself but somewhere over there, just beyond. But I’d bet the bored ones aren’t photographers themselves.

And then there is the mode of writing. PLAP wisely–perhaps unintentionally and unavoidably since it is written by practitioners–eschews the standard Sontagian “voice” of the arts writer.

In the introduction to PLAP Allie Haeusslein writes about her inspiration to create this book and Andy Pilara’s hope that it could be made to “sound a little bit more like Szarkowski”–an impossible hope given that seventy-five authors contributed to this book–but it does strike at the tone of the book, again, looking around at photography from the inside rather than looking down on it from the outside.

Haeusslein quotes Hugh Edwards, the photography curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, who nicely captured the difference in tone:

Looking at Photographs is photography’s best portrait of itself. Each of the essays facing the chosen examples is like a reflection of the picture it accompanies and is free of preaching and didacticism…

That’s just the right word, didacticism, to describe so much of today’s art and art writing and, indeed, much of the photography coming out of the top art schools, bred on this same kind of writing.

In 2016 (has it been five years already?) Pier 24 put on a show called The Whiteness of the Whale, the title taken from chapter forty-two of Moby Dick.

(As an aside, I have multiple copies of Moby Dick on my bookshelves and I keep a copy on my dashboard–first-timers in my FJ Cruiser are requested to pick a page at random then read aloud the first sentence their finger touches in the same way you would read a fortune cookie. I have a plan–temporarily thwarted by COVID–to buy dozens of copies of Moby Dick and to leave them in hotel rooms next to the Gideon Bible. My standing word of advice to young people–avoid reading Moby Dick until you are in your 20s despite high school teachers forcing it on you, ruining Melville like they so often ruin Shakespeare.)

The Pier 24 exhibit was by photographer Paul Graham and at that time I had been looking at much of the photography that was being done and marveling at the perfect skin tones and the beautiful colors of so much of the work. My God, people were getting good at photoshop. But at the same time, despite so many young photographers coming out of art school using 4×5 cameras, I got the impression that they really didn’t have a feel for the camera yet. There’s a certain something in a photograph that speaks to a photographic way of seeing, where sometimes you know that the photographer is “one with the camera”, if that doesn’t sound too stupid to say out loud.

That was the feeling I got looking at Paul Graham’s exhibit, whatever the significance of the show’s title, made up of three projects, a shimmer of possibility, American Night, and The Present. I said to myself then, here is a photographer, someone who sees as only the camera can see. I found the show fascinating, the best thing I’ve seen at Pier 24 and they show many good things.

PLAP reminds me in a way of the Whiteness of the Whale show. Many of the essays underline just that sort of close-to-the-medium way of seeing photographs and thinking about photographs, so genuine and so full of that hard-to-define truth of photography.

Hilton Kramer, in his 1973 review of Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs, quotes from the book a passage that applies equally well to Haeusslein’s Photographer’s Looking at Photographs, illuminating in both cases the important value of these publications in providing a platform for future work. In his essay on a Bill Brandt photograph, explaining that Brandt worked in England and thus worked in isolation, Szarkowski wrote:

Nonartists often misunderstand the nature of artistic tradition and imagine it to be something similar to a fortress, within which eternal verity is protected from the present. In fact it is something more useful and interesting, and less secure. It exists in the minds of artists, and consists of their collective memory of what has been accomplished so far. Its function is to mark a starting point for each day’s work. Occasionally it is decided that tradition should also define the work’s end result. At this point tradition dies.

That’s a fitting summary, for a photographer, of both the images and the essays of Photographers Looking at Photographs: it is a collective memory of what has been accomplished so far, marking a starting point for each day’s work.

[Note: Photographers Looking at Photography is available directly from Pier 24.]

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