This book is based on the 1964 exhibition of the same name. The first edition was printed in gravure in 1966 and was printed in 1980. The edition I received as a Christmas gift was a reprint from 2007 with relevant updates and some unavoidable cropping of plates.
There is an introduction by Szarkowski, which he opens with the phrase: This book is an investigation of what photographs look like and why they look that way.
He describes the process whereby the photographer tried to find his place in the existing art world. But because the process was cheap anyone with the means to purchase the material could practice photography. No training was involved. He quotes an English writer saying “photographers … run rampant over the globe, photographing objects of all sorts, shapes and sizes, under almost every condition, without every pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic?”
Photographers learned by doing and from looking at other photographs. The photographs in the book, 162 in all were made over a century. Szarkowski says the images have little in common except their success.
His set of images is divided more or less equally into five category heading: The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time and Vantage Point
In the first category, The Thing itself, images by well known photographers, among them, Edward Weston, Julia Margaret Cameron, Elliot Erwitt and many unknown photographers are presented. What I found interesting was that there was very little difference in the quality of the images between the unknown and well known photographers. Many of these images were portraits. For me the most interesting were the portrait of Ezra Pound by Richard Avedon and Maurice Lartique by Jacques Henri Lartigue. Many of the others were routine representations of “the thing” or the person.
I found chapter on The Detail, more inspiring although I would take issue with the inclusion of some of the images. Outside the studio the photographer could only choose that part (of the scene) that seemed relevant. He sought and found the significant detail. Bernice Abbot’s did just that in choosing to photograph Jean Cocteau’s Hands 1927. Garry Winogrand’s untitled image from 1963, of nuts being fed into the trunk of an elephant, contains, for me, a narrative although Szarkowski maintained that outside the studio the photographer’s work was incapable of narrative.
The next section discusses The Frame, what the photographer decides to include but equally what he decides to exclude. Joel Meyerowitz explains that he uses a Leica camera because the viewfinder is to one side and he can see what is outside the frame. Szarkowski says the photographer’s edge defines content. Elliot Erwitt’s Yale’s Oldest Living Graduate 1956, includes only part of the Cadillac in which the old gentleman is traveling but the image is perfect. Arnold Newman’s Portrait of Arp 1949 shows only the hand and the eye but somehow we get a full picture of Arp from this snippet.
The book moves on to the category Time. The opening image is of Eadweard Muybridge’s Gull Flying 1883 – 1887. This is a perfect demonstration of time passing as the gull flies along. Other early images such as Otto Steinert’s A Pedestrian 1951 shows the person blurred due to a long exposure. Blur, due to movement, was acceptable. Even earlier images eliminated people entirely who were moving, during the exposure.
The angle photographers chose is described as The Vantage Point (27) and this section includes some really fascinating images with which I was not familiar. Bill Brandt’s No. 43 from Perspective of Nudes is stunning as is his Child Resting 1950. To get these images the photographer had to move his camera and shoot his pictures from above or below or from too close or too far away or from the backside, inverting the order of things’ importance, or with the nominal subject of his picture half hidden.
In conclusion this is a book to treasure and to return to over and over again and I am very grateful to my daughter for having chosen it as my Christmas gift.