Category Archives: The Photographer’s Eye

John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye

John Szarkowski and The Photographer’s Eye (1966) reprint 2007

While I had casually looked through The Photographer’s Eye By John Szarkowski before, I recently took the time to read it properly and consider its premise.

The Author

Szarkowski (b.1925- d.2007), a photographer, critic, curator and historian, succeeded Edward Steichen as the director of Modern Art in New York in 1962, aged just 36. Despite the fact that Steichen had curated “The Family Of Man’ photography exhibition at MoMA in 1955, an exhibit that later toured the world, when Szarkowski took over at MoMA in 1962 there was not a single gallery exhibiting photography in New York. Szarkowski is widely accepted as being the person who changed that, giving stage to the, at the time, relatively unknown Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, amongst others.


The Photographer’s Eye is based upon a 1964 exhibition. It is the investigation of what photographs look like, and of why they look that way.

The book has minimal text, but has many black and white photographs spanning approximately 125 years. These photographs, Szarkowski states, share a vision, not of aesthetic or academic theory but to photography itself. The photographs are from both recognised and unknown photographers and are divided into five sections. Each of the five sections examines the choices imposed on the artist with the camera: The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time and The Vantage Point.

I will now look at each of these in turn and some of the photographs chosen to illustrate each chapter.

The Thing Itself

Szarkowski notes that photography deals with the actual. He states that the photographer must accept and treasure this fact and in doing so learn to anticipate and capture the best works and moments in this world. An important factor to consider is that subject and picture are not the same, the photographer has to think how to make the ‘invisible picture’ be seen. From this I imagine that Szarkowski is suggesting that the photograph can convey a ‘truth’ as suggested by the photographer, or even perhaps a ‘truth’ that is individually perceived when viewing an image.

He includes a photograph by Arthur Rothstein taken in 1939, ‘Mr. and Mrs. A.B., in their Farm near Kersey, Colorado’ (p18). The photograph shows a couple, presumably Mr. and Mrs. A.B., standing side by side in front of a large tree. They are smiling and holding arms full of fresh produce, that, judging by the title of the photograph, they have grown on their farm. The image can be viewed by clicking this link to The Library of Congress.

The photograph was made for the FSA (Farm Security Administration), which was originally established as the Resettlement Administration in 1935 to help the American economy recover. Roberts (2007, p106) notes that struggling rural communities were given government loans to spend on new machinery, livestock and trucks etc. They were also encouraged to grow crops that were marketable.

Linking back to Szarkowski’s idea of the photograph as a truth, I cannot help but wonder what ‘truth’ this image conveys. Roberts notes that the purpose of the photograph commissioned by the FSA was to educate urban Americans about rural deprivation and also to influence Congress into further investment in these areas. While many of the FSA images I have seen do show scenes of hardship this particular image, to me, appears as evidence of some success in the government’s redevelopment scheme.

The Detail

Szarkowski notes that by capturing the detail, isolated fragments, are documented and gain significance. By recording the trivial, the photographer suggests that the subject had never been seen before properly and is perhaps full of undiscovered meaning.

 On p48-49, Szarkowski illustrates this by displaying five photographs in which hands are the dominant subjects. The hands act as simple symbols that alongside other details suggest to me very different meanings.

Insane Stockade at Dr Albert Schweitzer’s, Lambaréné. (1954), by W. Eugene Smith shows a wooden slatted gate or a door with glimpses of a dark interior. Two hands can be seen holding the door from the inside, fingers overlapping the exterior. These hands seem to symbolise captivity and confinement.

Untitled, (1959) by Roy Decarava, appears to have been shot in a street but all that can really be seen are a pair of trouser-covered legs and the forefingers of two cupped hands that are carrying a large black square. With no further clues in the image or the title, one can only guess what the hands area carrying and why? That being said, I did think of burden and weight when I looked closely at this image.

Hands and Kimono, (1924) by Edward Weston shows a small section of a torso of kimono-clad girl. Her hands are neatly folded in front of her stomach. The position of the hands and the details supplied by the kimono suggest conservatism and modesty.

Hands of Jean Cocteau, (1927) by Bernice Abbott show a pair of hands placed on top of a man’s hat. The hands are wrinkled and appear to be well-worn. These details evoke, for me, the idea of hard work and labour.

The Frame

Simply put, the edges of the frame demark what the photographer thinks is important. Szarkowski notes that this process of selection and elimination, deciding what to include and leave out, is the central act of photography.

I think Elliott Erwitt’s ‘Yale’s Oldest Living Graduate’ (1956) shows this well on p83. The photographer has chosen to eliminate the person or persons in the front of the car, showing only the man (the graduate) in the back seat, making it clear who the subject of the photograph is.

Szarkowski states that capturing objects within the frame creates a relationship between the objects. In this case the relationship between the man and his surroundings was not immediately obvious. However the photograph’s title and the captioning within the photograph, led me to think that the sport’s field in the background was perhaps part of Yale’s campus, relating to the alumnus in the car.


Szarkowski notes that whether short or long exposure, photographs describe a unique parcel of time and that the time is always the present.

He refers to the well-known Cartier-Bresson phrase ‘The decisive moment’, saying that it is often misunderstood. This got me thinking about what I understood the phrase to mean. If I’m being honest, I think I have thought it to describe a photographic opportunity as a result of being in the right place at the right time. Szarkowski looks at ‘The decisive moment’ in more depth by saying that it is to do with recognizing the momentary patterning of lines and shapes that are often lost in the flux of movement and capturing these in a picture.

I thought Straw Market (1960) by Stefan Moses on p116 was a good example of how time has been captured on camera. The scene shows a market stall covered with straw handbags. In front of the stall two men face each other arms raised, preparing to fight. A woman looks on, hand over her mouth in shock. A priest is walking towards the camera but is glancing over his shoulder towards the men behind him. The scene is certainly one of interest and raises many questions, perhaps about why has this altercation arisen and who is the woman? However, it is perhaps ‘The decisive moment’ chosen by the photographer that makes the image so strong. The positioning of the figures has meant that their bodies create a strong triangle shape while their eye lines all seem to follow the same pathway. Factors which all create relationships between the subjects in the frame.

Vantage point

Szarkowski notes that by choosing unexpected vantage points, often by necessity, the photographer reveals not only the clarity but also the obscurity of things. Reading this brought to mind an expression by Bryan Peterson (2012) who talks about ‘mining the mundane’ to describe awakening the eye/brain to the possibilities of creating successful images from mundane objects and in mundane locations.

I thought McClellanville, South Carolina, (1955-57), p138by Robert Frank was a good example of an unexpected vantage point. The photograph is taken through the glass window of an empty barbershop. Central in the frame stands a solo barber chair while bottles line a shelf on the back wall. What makes the image interesting is the reflections in the glass. The photographer’s shadowy outline can be seen as can tree branches and a house across the street. The image appears to have been taken through a fine mesh curtain, which adds some density to an image that is otherwise about transparency.


I found this book interesting and enjoyable. The theme discussions were brief but clearly explained, while also leaving room for further thinking.

A lasting idea I have taken from this book is Szarkowski’s thoughts on the development of photography. He describes photography’s growth as being centrifugal and photography as being the great teacher, library and laboratory for those who have used cameras as artists. Put simply, photographers learn by understanding their tools and equipment and from other photographers. A statement that is as true today as it was nearly fifty years ago when the book was written.

Peterson, B.(2012) Understanding Composition Field Guide. New York: Amphoto Books

Robert, P. (2007) The Genius of Colour Photography. London: Goodman

Szarkowski, J. (1966) The Photographer’s Eye. New York: The Museum of Modern Art