Windows and Mirrors by John Szarkowski

Windows and Mirrors by John Szarkowski, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

When I initially wrote about Windows and Mirrors, American Photography since 1960 by the late John Szarkowski in August 2008, it was from my personal perspective of how I have used this book over the years to try to help me understand his two basic photographic tenets; a photograph as a Window (direct observation) or as a Mirror (introspective narrative). My thoughts were developed during the period that I was just formulating The PhotoBook.

Interesting is Szarkowski’s discussion about the divergent work of Minor White and Robert Frank and for me perhaps precursors for today’s photographers & photographs. And of course the implications for my own work. The way that Szarkowski discusses both White and Frank and the then current practitioners in the late 70’s is helping me understand the critical language used to discuss current photography.

FYI, Szarkowski states that White along with Walter Chappell provides a Mirror or “romantic view” as an evolutionary of Stieglitz and subsequently Weston; a love for the eloquently perfect print; intense sensitivity to mystical content of the natural landscape and minimal interest of man as a social animal. Subsequent photographers per Szarkowski’s categorization are Paul Caponigro, Jerry Uelsmann, Danny Lyon, Ralph Gibson, Judy Dater, Robert Mapplethorpe and Robert Rauschenberg.

And for a long while, I could easily categorize my own natural landscape photography in this philosophical path. Seeing Lewis Baltz’s construction photographs in this group makes me wonder if Szarkowski’ categories are still relevant.

Then there are the photographs of Robert Frank who provided a “searing personal view of this county during the Eisenhower years. Frank is the vanguard for the Window or “Realist view” providing a “sophisticated social intelligence, quick eyes and a radical understanding of the potentials of the small camera, which depended on good drawing rather than on elegant tonal description.” As stated by Szarkowski in the realist view “the world exists independent of human attention, contains discoverable patterns of intrinsic meaning and they by discerning these patterns, forming models or symbols of them with the materials of this art, the artist is joined to a larger intelligence.”

The realist view in the 1970’s are that of Gary Winogrand, Henry Wessel, Tod Papageorge, Diane Arbus, Lee Freidlander, Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Edward Ruscha and Joel Meyerowitz. Not surprising for me there are photographers whose work I identify with and whom I thought were doing some interesting work that inspired some of my own urban landscape photographs.

I appreciate that Szarkowski does state that photographers can not be categorized as purely one or the other and that you can find aspects of both in the many photographers work. In other words, you are not purely realistic or romantic but some blend of these and somewhere on the pendulum as it swings back and forth during your life. The book does illustrate Szarkowski’s main points very well and I found it a very insightful read and equally compelling in understanding today’s photographic images. It is also a wonderful survey of the 196o’s and 1970’s and if you have an interest in a particular photographer you will find it somewhat lacking. What it does provide is a nice context to review the work of photographers who are developing a similar vein of work.

As I continue to re-read this book I am motivated to purchase a used copy of John Szarkowski’s discussion of Eugene Atget. (Update: which I did, the review is here).

Windows and Mirrors was published in 1978 by the Museum of Modern Art(MoMA), NYC and distributed by the New York Graphic Society, Boston. The hardcover book has 152 pages, 127 plates (17 in color) and was published in conjunction with a traveling exhibition of the same name. My first edition copy now has a lot of my notes, highlights and underlines as this was more of my textbook on contemporary photography when I purchased it 1978.

The text is entirely by Szarkowski and he makes it clear early on that this book and exhibit was focused on photography from 1960 to 1978.  Thus the book does not include except by reference the photographs of Adams, White, Callahan, Penn, Siskind, Sommer and others who were a significant force in the 1950s.

The book provides a very broad representational survey of photographers of both intents as well as those who might be considered somewhere in the middle with some classic examples of their work. It is a great snapshot of this period and foretelling of what would continue to creatively develop.

The book binding, paper selection and printing were excellent for the late 1970’s and still reads and handles well today.

Although probably not meant to be a textbook it is a great study of the photographers and their photographs who have provided the developmental foundations for the current contemporary photographers.

Best regards, Douglas Stockdale

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