As a way of beginning, one might compare the art of photography to the act of pointing. All of us, even the best-mannered of us, occasionally point, and it must be true that some of us point to more interesting facts, events, circumstances, and configurations than others. It is not difficult to imagine a person-a mute Virgil of the corporeal world-who might elevate the act of pointing to a creative plane, a person who would lead us through the fields and streets and indicate a sequence of phenomena and aspects that would be beautiful, humorous, morally instructive, cleverly ordered, mysterious, or stonishing, once brought to our attention, but that had been unseen before, or seen dumbly, without comprehension. This talented practitioner of the new discipline (the discipline a cross, perhaps, between theater and criticism) would perform with a special grace, sense of timing, narrative sweep, and wit, thus endowing the act not merely with intelligence, but with that quality of formal rigor that identifies a work of art, so that we would be uncertain, when remembering the adventure of the tour, how much of our pleasure and sense of enlargement had come from the things pointed to and how much from the pattern created by the pointer.
To note the similarity between photography and pointing seems to me useful. Surely the best of photographers have been first of all pointers-men and women whose work says: I call your attention to this pyramid, face, battlefield, pattern of nature, ephemeral juxtaposition.
But it is also clear that the simile has flaws, which become obvious if we consider the different ways in which the photographer and the hypothetical pointer work. The formal nature of pointing (if the notion is admissible) deals with the center of an undefined field. The finger points to (of course) a point, or to a spot not much larger: to the eyes of the accused, or a cloud in the sky, or a finial or cartouche on a curious building, or to the running pickpocket-without describing the context in which the spot should be considered. An art of pointing would be a conceptual art, for the subject of the work would be defined in intellectual or psychic terms, not by an objective physical record. The pointing finger identifies that conceptual center on which the mind's eye focuses-a clear patch of the visual field that one might cover with a silver dollar held at arm's length-outside of which a progressive vagueness extends to the periphery of our vision."
"John Szarkowski’s passing will be widely mourned by those of us in photography, although he was always a controversial figure. His vision of photography was maybe narrow, but at least it was a consistent vision, passionately and eloquently held, and importantly from my point of view, privileged photography before pseudo-painting with the camera. It’s also important to note that he was a photographer himself - he knew what was going on in photographers’ minds at that moment of pressing the shutter.
I was always in awe of him. A long time ago, when I was a young whippersnapper, we were discussing his favourite subject, Eugene Atget.
‘Tell me,’ he said, referring to one of the major bones of contention in Atget studies - intentionality, ‘when he looked through the groundglass, did Atget totally know what he was doing?’
‘We can’t know that,’ I replied, taking the craven way out.
‘Of course he fucking did,’ snapped Szarkowski, dismissing me imperiously.
Once out of his office, and rather chastened by this, I got to thinking about it. Damnit, of course he was right. Of course Atget knew absolutely what he was doing. He may not thought of himself as an artist, he didn’t have a theory, he probably couldn’t articulate it. He was a photographer, he used his eyes. He looked through the groundglass, he liked what he saw, he took the picture.
Thank you, John, for that fundamental lesson, and for many others."