Mirrors and Windows
Some time ago, I took part in an interesting discussion about photographs that were ‘mirrors’ and photographs that were ‘windows’, prompted by John Szarkowski’s catalogue/book Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960 (ISBN 0870704761). So I got a friend to loan me the book, and I read it and looked at the photographs therein.
In my mind, this book is the Platonic ideal of what I think of as ‘art theory’ books on photography.
In the opening text that forms the first part of the book, Szarkowski advances the premise that there are basically two types of photographers – those who take photographs of things to show what they look like when photographed, and those who take photographs of things because they’re engaged in some process of discovery (and self-discovery is explicitly included). He further goes on to say that, having drawn this distinction, he’d like to point out that it’s not so much a firm distinction as it is a spectrum along which we have photographers strewn, with someone like Atget at the ‘what it looks like’ end and someone like Minor White at the ‘discovery’ end.
Ok, that’s perhaps a useful observation, and I’ve just explained it in one paragraph. But for Szarkowski, doing this requires 25 pages, the introduction of no less than three systems of photographic taxonomy, and at least two new proposed nomenclatures for describing photographs. Then, as if this was not torture enough, he ends with the statement:
The intention of this analysis has not been to divide photography into two parts. On the contrary, it has been to suggest a continuum, a single axis with two poles. Many of the pictures reproduced here live close to the center of the axis, and can at the readers pleasure be shifted mentally to the other side of the book’s imaginary equator. The author, after still further reflection, will doubtless make similar revisions.
25 pages of turgid, hopelessly academic, pompous, bloated, distended prose which expostulates at length on this proposed ‘mirrors/windows’ taxonomy, followed by a summary paragraph that says, in essence “Oh, but… never mind. It’s all useless, because it is so hopelessly vague that the taxonomy shifts every time a gnat flaps its wings. In fact, a neutrino passed through my cerebellum, and I changed my mind about everything even though a neutrino has no rest mass and no charge.”
I couldn’t make head nor tail of how the photographs in the book are divided into two sections. I labored mightily, really. But I don’t get it. I’d think I had the two sections pinned down, and then I’d turn the page and come to another photograph that made me think “Oh, no, I was wrong about that”. It was an experience disturbingly akin to playing ‘twenty questions’ but with the questions selected from a vast list at random, so that you are continually keeping a mental set of possibilities and throwing things out as counterexamples are presented.
I confess that I think the entire thing is an enormous practical joke foisted on a very deserving community of art historians and art critics, and that Szarkowski is in fact sniggering through the entire thing, thinking “No one is silly enough to bite on this stuff.”
But then I think that about virtually everything written by art critics.