John Szarkowski: The photo is not the thing.

July 31, 2013

Food for thought from one of the premiere thinkers in photo criticism, John Szarkowski.  If you've never read "Looking at Photographs" and are interested in art criticism, I'd highly recommend it.  I saw this quote pulled from his writing on another photo site today and it reminded me how much his thinking has helped me clarify what it is I do as a photographer, and how much that understanding benefits my work: 

"What the photographer taking the picture and the historian viewing it must understand is that while the camera deals with recording factual things and events that form the subject of the photograph, it only produces a perceived reality that is remembered after the thing or event has passed. While people believe that photographs do not lie, this is an illusion caused by the mistaken belief that the subject and the picture of the subject is the same thing. One is reminded of the written inscription on the famous painting of a "pipe" by the Cubist painter Rene Magritte that refutes what we believe we are seeing by saying "This is not a pipe." Indeed it is a painting of a pipe and not a real pipe in the same way that a photograph of a subject is both an artifact and a record of what the photographer captured with his camera from nature. Because we see reality in different ways, we must understand that we are looking at different truths rather than the truth and that, therefore, all photographs lie in one way or another."

John Szarkowski


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