I saw the image above – from Alec Soth’s Instagram feed, and said to myself: I hope Alec will read John Szarkowski’s introductory essay to his son. I have never completely agreed with Szarkowski but that hasn’t meant that I am dismissive of him as a critic, and a thinker when it comes to the art of photography. The essay he wrote to introduce the book that Alec’s son is holding in the picture above – William Eggleston’s Guide is actually a rather prescient and insightful one. There are two points in particular that Szarkowski makes that I believe remain relevant to our imagined ‘heady’ times as far as photographer is concerned.
But first, Evgeny Morozov! In his new book To Save Everything Click Here Morozov takes to task our new-age technology futurists and pundits for their historical amnesia, and general lack of awareness of the many antecedents of our seemingly exciting, ‘revolutionary’ present. In the book Morozov argues that (page 35):
Technological amnesia and a complete indifference to history (especially the history of technological amnesia) remain the defining features of contemporary Internet (and digital photography, I would argue) debate. As British historian of technology David Edgerton points out, “When we think of information technology we forget about postal systems, the telegraph, the telephone, radio and television. When we celebrate on-line shopping, the mail-order catalogue goes missing. Genetic engineering, and its positive and negative impacts, is discussed as if there had never been any other means of changing animals or plants, let alone other means of increasing food supply.” Only a hopelessly brave and optimistic soul would conclude that as ‘the Internet’ comes to dominate and overtake many of these earlier debates, our respect for historical detail will somehow magically increase. In anything, the ‘Internet turn’ in the technology debate will only aggravate this forgetfulness.
Evgeny’s point is that we today are so determined to see our digital world as something truly ‘revolutionary’ that we have forgotten the many similar debates that older technologies created when they first emerged, and the ways in which they were worked through and approached. As Morozov summaries:
Even though its leading proponents may not be aware of it – being too young or inexperienced with books – Internet-centrism, for all its boasting about the truly revolutionary and exceptional nature of the modern era, overlaps with and feeds on severeal earlier fetishes and discourses about technology, information, innovation, and digitality. (Ibid, page 35)
I am reminded of this when reading Szarkowski’s essay in the book. It focuses on the emergence and popularity of color film, how it challenged the established photographers who were comfortable working in black and white, and how the large number of photographs that were now being made by amateurs was challenging the serious photographer. There are two key points that he makes that I thought were important – first, what can differentiate the creative photographer’s work from the thousands of color photographs that were now being easily made by amateurs and hobbyists, and second, what photography was actually about.
You get the sense that Szarkowski is dealing with a world that is suffuse with photography – a reality created by the availability and ease-of-use of new camera technology. As he states:
The world now contains more photographs than bricks, and they are, astonishingly, all different.
And that with the ease with which new cameras can produce interesting photographs can lead to interesting results, commenting that:
…point the machine at random this way and that, quickly and without thought. When the film is developed every frame will define a subject differently from any defined before. To make matters worse, some of the pictures are likely to be marginally interesting [hard to rid the curator of his arrogance!].
The implications for the photography (note how Szarkowski never refers to the vernacular images as being made by a photographer – in his text ‘the photographer’ is a serious individual committed to the craft of photography as a craft, art, thought or insight) are quite explicit:
It is not easy for the photographer to compete with the clever originality of mindless, mechanized cameras…
The resort to color, and the mechanized approach to it has led to a simplification of photograph. So much so that:
…color has induced timidity and an avoidance of those varieties of meanings that are not in the narrowest sense aesthetic. Most color photography, in short, has been either formless or pretty. In the first case the meaning of color has been ignored; in the second they have been considered at the expensive of allusive meanings. While editing directly from life, photographers have found it too difficult to see simultaneously both the blue and the sky.
Szarkowski denigrate vernacular photography, but he is quick to point out why. He acknowledges that the vernacular, the amateur has a tremendous influence and populism and that it is growing, and influencing the works of the professionals … ‘the photographers too’, but there remains a difference. As he says:
…it should not be surprising if the best photography of today is related in iconography and technique to the contemporary standard of vernacular camera work, which is in fact often rich and surprising. The difference between the two is a matter of intelligence, imagination, intensity, precision, and coherence. (My emphasis)
The triumphalism of social media photography is loud and obvious. But it is an easy triumphalism as it is retroactive and reactive – projecting the tomorrow based on the today is quite easy, and almost always wrong. What has been harder is to defend the softer aspects of photography that have in the past always defined the act of the photographer, and differentiated her from the picture maker. Today, because of the close link between images, their online popularity / likes / eyeballs and corporate publication revenue generation, these softer elements have been made irrelevant whereas in the past they were not. Today we will consider simply making the image an act of photography – good enough for marketing, advertising, eye-balls, and even journalism.
But is this a given? Has the conversation about intelligence, imagination, intensity, precision, and coherence as critical components of the photographer’s task and art, become irrelevant? The fact that Szarkowski had to argue this issue back in 1976 tells us much about how we are still dealing with and asking the same questions, and confronting the same challenges. That perhaps our revolution isn’t quite that revolutionary at all, but merely a variation of an earlier situation where we had to be reminded that there remains a human endeavor called photography, and despite the ubiquity of the image, despite the ease with which it is made and shared, despite the growing sophistication of modern-day cameras, there are those who produce unique and fascinating works of photography and do it with intelligence, imagination, intensity, precision, and coherence. That they stand apart from the noise, and speak in whispers that can leave us moved, inspired, surprised, shaken, and perhaps even, changed in our understanding and care for the world and others around us. That is, they can speak in terms that are important, responsible, difficult, challenging, beautiful, and transforming.
In the same essay, Szarkowski quotes the great American photographer Robert Adams on prowling, and the purpose of it, and captured a key methodological difference between a photographer who goes out to see, and arranges what he has seen, and those who just grab things from the windows of their cars. As Adams argues:
Over and over again the photographer walks a few steps and peers, rather comically, into the camera; to the exasperation of family and friends, he inventories what seems an endless number of angles; he explains, if asked, that he is trying for effective composition, but hesitates to define it. What he means is that a photographer wants form, a unarguably right relationship of shapes, a visual stability in which all components are equally important…Pictures that embody this calm are not synonymous, of course, with what we might see casually out of a car window…The form the photographer records…is different because it implies an order beyond itself, a landscape into which all fragments, no matter how imperfect, fit perfectly.
The easiest thing to do is to jump into a raging river and allow it to carry you along in the hope that it will take you somewhere. What remains harder is to decide where you wish to go, need to go, and find a way across the raging river. We have been here before, and have had to confront these questions before. Despite the odds, there remained photographers who saw past the popular and managed to produce works of tremendous intelligence and sensitivity. Eggleston keeps bringing me back, even though there is so much that I do not like. But there is so much that cannot be dismissed because it challenges you, and compels you to look, and look once again. It reminds of to differentiate between a photograph and a picture, and to remain true to the modes of seeing, forms of experiencing, and discipline of producing that can’t be dismissed in the pursuit of a ‘Likes’ and ‘Followers’.