Informing contexts

IC - Week 1 - Photography – the shape-shifter

Shore and Szarkowski

What is photography for me? What is the nature and intent of my practice?  What context my works should be consumed in?

I am getting easily lost in the complexity of those seemingly simple questions especially in the context of the critical framework outlined in this week presentations. 

I decided then to begin first with an attempt to organise my thoughts about what photography and photograph is, memorising in the same time the the new vocabulary and definitions outlined by John Szarkowski and Stephen Shore.

Photography is one of the visual means of expression and communication. To be seen, the photographic 'message/exspression' (which is a light or other electromagnetic radiation reflecting off the physical matter*) must be recorded either chemically on the solid light-sensitive surface, or electronically on the image sensor.

John Szarkowski, The photographers eye.

John Szarkowski, The photographers eye.

Szarkowski and Shore conducted the in-depth analysis of the photographic medium with the intention to create the framework for the critical discourses. Both came up with some categories which can help to describe the characteristics of the photographic image and better understand its meaning:

John Szarkowski: The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time, Vantage Point

Stephen Shore: The physical Level, The Depictive Level (flatness, frame, time, and focus), The Mental Level

Stephen Shore, The nature of photographs.

Stephen Shore, The nature of photographs.

For both Szarkowski and Shore, the photographic image was a physical object. For obvious reasons they did not take into account the digital image so their classification is not complete, although the most of the defined by them attributes of photography and the photographic image, applies to both types of records - analogue and digital.

There are multiple factors the photographer need to think of when taking/making a photograph. All the aspects defined by Shore (frame, time, focus) and Szarkowski (vantage point) in regards to the 'depictive level', determine the final outcome. Very small differences in the settings can result in a dramatic change of the overall aesthetic and meaning. I think that it is important to mention here as well the other factors which influence the image on the depictive level - the properties of the apparatuses (lens, camera, filters etc). 

Both author and spectator of the photographic message must be able to see the image to make the exchange of information to happen, although the subject of that message does not necessarily have to be visible on the image in the obvious/objective way. And here is where the things start to be very complicated...The intrinsic and most characteristic to photographic medium ability to evoke the "the tangible presence of reality" (Szarkowski) causes a lot of confusion in the world where the camera is used across all areas of human activities, from science to art, and where where the aim and expectations differs radically (the image of the skin for the medical purposes will be 'read' differently than the same image used by artist to portray some formal qualities). 

The recorded image may be a result of the intention to capture the real world in the way it resembles as much 'realness' as possible (Szarkowski's The thing itself). But even if the intention is to capture the most objective truth and document it, the photographed fragment of a real world is always a 'different thing than the reality itself' (Szarkowski, p.8).

To understand the true meaning of the most banal and seemingly obvious photograph, it is necessary to know the author's intention and the context in which the photograph was produced.

Szarkowski states that in oppose to the painting, photography is 'incapable of the narrative' (p.42). His very conventional understanding of possibilities this medium offers is build on assumptions supported by some examples of allegedly unsuccessful attempts (Robinson and Rejlander). In the current world where the 'storytelling' is almost an required factor of the succesfull photographic project, the Szarkowski's belief seems hard to justify.

Some not attractive aspects of reality, not obvious as an potential subject and overlooked for various reason, might be intentionally emphasised through an act of photographing (given a significance) and become a statement of a different way of seeing the world or serve as a frame for a thought, metaphor or a symbol (Szarkowski's "The detail"). 

All those thoughts about the nature and attributes of photography mentioned above are in relation to the conventional approach. Neither Szarkowski nor Shore analysed or even mentioned the cameraless and other experimental methods of recording the light. 

Squires And Cotton

The fascinating possibility a photographic medium offer is without a doubt the ability to construct the image which can reveal the new forms through the deliberate or accidental experiments. Forms which not necessarily have to represent the familiarity of the world but still have the resemblance of it through the photography's intrinsic nature to record.

The difference between 'taking' the photograph and 'making' it seems to be characteristic to more creative and daring artistic approaches and very often is related to multidisciplinary character of practice.

The exhibition 'What is a photograph' organised by Carol Squires exemplifies the most unconventional and influential works of artists who realized the possibilities the photographic medium offers and whose works challenge the common perception of what photography is. Some of the most interesting works, in my opinion, are by such artists as Eileen Quinlan, Liz Deschenes, Adam Fuss, Sigmar Polke, Lucas Samaras...well, it's actually hard to stop as I found most of them interesting in one way or another.

Two years later another important exhibition took place in New York - "Photography is magic" curated by Charlotte Cotton who at that time already published her book under the same title. The artists invited by Cotton pushed the boundaries of the photographic medium territories even further. She invited the young generation of artists working predominantly with the digital medium and exploring the new experimental opportunities which the digital recording and post-production methods offer nowadays. One of the most interesting artist among those invited by Cotton is Lucas Blalock about whom I wrote in the previous module (November). 



  • Szarkowski, John (2007) "The photographers eye", The Museum of Modern Art
  • Shore, Stephen (2010) "The Nature of Photographs", Phaidon Press
  • Squires, Carol (2015) "What is a photograph?" , DelMonico
  • Bate, David (2016) "Photography (The Key Concepts)",  Bloomsbury Academic
  • Cotton, Charlotte (2015) "Photography is magic", Aperture