Tuesday, July 24, 2007

More on John Szarkowski

As John Szarkowski passed away during the time I was at the cottage, I've only just been reading through the avalanche of obituaries and tributes online.

I'm still mulling over a few thoughts, but I wanted to add these comments he had on Atget - who I think was one of the major touchstones in photography for Szarkowski. One, a comment from the introduction to the big MoMA four volume series on Atget, the other from a comment on Alec Soth's blog from critic and photo historian (The Photobook I & II with Martin Parr) Gerry Badger

"Atget, Pointing.

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."

And by Gerry Badger:

"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."

BTW, although the MoMA books are hard to find and expensive, you can still get Szarkowski's single volume book of - meditations is the only word I can come up with - on Atget. And in the light of John's passing, if you own the book, take the time to read again his comments on the last two or three photographs in it


Anonymous said...

Although trained as a fine artist, I've arrived late at a love of photography (I'm 41). After a slow motion revelation that I might find some wonder in taking anything other than family pictures, I browsed my employer's library shelves (I work for a college) and discovered a book about Atget and fell in love almost instantly. I've looked at other photographers and enjoyed some of their work, but nothing touches, moves me with the force that Atget does. After purchasing the single Szarkowski volume and the book about his influence upon other photographers (name escapes me this moment), I began to scour the web for s/h copies of the MoMA set you refer to. I now have the first three (you might be interested in these two posts). I've found Szarkowski's introductions to be eye-opening and hugely stimulating. I'm sad, having so recently discovered the man, to learn of his departure. Is there another book of his that you'd recommend?

Anyway, sorry to go on at such length. Thank you for your blog, I'm a keen reader.

Anonymous said...

Atget, being a master, and like many masters, perhaps knew a little _more_ than what what he was doing in order to obtain the result he intended. Perhaps he also _knew how to forget_, at the most opportune moments.

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