IC 1 - Szarkowski / by Chris Chucas

This week has been interesting with us starting to look at informing contexts and were our own work belongs. We started by looking at 3 works that try to identify the ontological nature of the photograph. 

He was interested in the characteristics of a photograph and looking at it as an object, main emphasis  on selection over synthesis. By selecting a fragment of reality it becomes something else and we as viewers have had to learn to view this with the photograph evolving and carrying social and culturally values with it. For example in Victorian times photography replaced painting with similar poses and photo portraits being displayed and shown in similar places as their older painting counterparts.

William_Henry_Fox_Talbot,_ 1864.jpg


Today images are consumed digitally and belong in many parts of the modern world. We expect to see images everywhere we turn and we are not in awe and barely notice them, but the unveiling of a photography plate in the earlier times would have been enough to stop and pay attention. 


I’m going to take on board Szarkowski’s  key characteristics he uses to argue photography is  visual art in its own right and explode on them.

The thing itself

The first thing the photographer learned, was that photography dealt with the actual.  He had not only to accept this fact, but to treasure it and unless he did, photography would defeat him. I agree in Szarkowski’s . I agree in his opinion that photography is unique in the way that it deals with the indexical trace of the thing itself and although it may seem similar to the subject in a pairing they are different and I agree. It is a REAL physical thing a copy of the reality and that can’t be done with painting or other art forms. I also agree with him that the photograph invokes the tangible presence of reality and here. I feel that especially today as photography is so democratic and available to everyone that were more connected than ever with the tangible touch and memory that’s connected to the image as we can relate to taking the image and thus empathise with the moment of taking it and experiencing that moment first hand.

A Poloroid of me and my niece after my wedding.

A Poloroid of me and my niece after my wedding.

There's a sense of the personal and memory when looking at a blurry non professional poloroid. I absolutly adore this quality in the physical photograph. Before thinking about it in as much detail as needed before this module I've always separated personal snap shot photography with more thought out constructed images within my own practice. I definitely feel like I could explore the grey area in between the two. Perhaps I already do. 

I guess this all depends on the arena in which the image is consumed. For example the image above could be found on a living room coffee table and a house guest or family member could look at it and class it as a family photograph and nothing more. If this was viewed in a gallery curated with other images both the gallery and the other images would point push the viewer to look at it in a different way. I'm fascinated with this approach and feel that one could and probably has exploited this. I'm not sure if it's important especially within my own practice but I'm defiantly aware of it.  When trying to place myself within the current contemporary art landscape I really don't know where I belong. my relationship with photography is a very personal one and I find it easy to get lost and sometimes lose interest in the importance of pidgeon holing ones work into a school of thought or an art movement. I can appreciate Gary Winogrand's notion on his photography; 

“I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” – Garry Winogrand

The detail

"The detail in that the photographer was tied to the facts of things and it was his problem to force the facts to tell the truth’ .  The reality of the thing itself meant that the photographer was tied to representing reality, but that they could only capture fragments of that actuality as it happened in her presence.  It could not capture the entire thing, only fragmented and discreet details of an event."

Catching our lunch on the family moon

Catching our lunch on the family moon

I agree with this. There are limits to a photograph and the frame being the most literal and physical of them. We were shown a great example of a William Klein photograph showing a youth holding a gun looking mean but in his revisiting of work in his painted contact sheet project the next frame on the contact sheet the same child is being playful and smiling.

William Klein
William Klein.jpg

If the viewer is shown the first image without the second the meaning is completely changed. This is another problem with the photograph in that the viewer will look at whats in the image and be unable to read other feelings that you would be able to if you were there in present. Although its a great way of delivering a message it is inherently flawed as a means of narrative. That being said we as viewers have adapted and grown to be accustomed to both photography and the means in which we consume it. So if we see an image on facebook for example a most would acknowledge there’s a high chance that the image could be manipulated and it could also be placed out of context with misleading text accompany it. So I agree in a way that there are massive problems with photography as a means of delivering a narrative but it is also great at doing so.

On the same concept of the William Klein image and how the later released contact sheet made viewers re examine the original image. I wanted to look at some of my own work and how displaying it in different ways could alter the viewing of it.  I think that looking at each of the following images on their own would create a different feeling to the viewer, on top of that, the place in which they are displayed would also guide the viewer into a suggested way to view the image. 

I can imagine this image as a PR still or as a advert. It's actually a portrait from a punk rock back for my project. Without going to the lengths of mocking up a fake ad to demonstrate my point, I think this image could lend itself well that purpose. The subject is looking at the camera and smiling. If I were to break down the image with my basic understanding of semi otics;  the signifier is a woman wearing a leather jacket with a nose piercing and bright green hair. The signified ( to a vague audience, I hate using a blanket term and think that really the specific context in which it's published matters more but...) could mean a woman who might be part of a subculture, perhaps music based with the visual characteristics of both the subject matter, and the photography. This woman is welcoming and relaxed, her smile and body language would translate both with our cultural understnading of what a smile could mean, ( relaxed and happy) along with the visual characteristics of the image ( we're used to seeing similar images on blogs, social media, magazines ( if there still around) and general marketing materials. 

In this image although it's similar the subject is looking away almost wistfully looking off camera implies a more staged feel, but judging by the lighting and lack of other people or activity in the image it would suggest that the subject is very aware of the photographer and is almost being directed. A different feeling ( I feel) to the first image.

In the third varient the slightly wonky angle of the framing and the gaze of the subject both lend themselve's to a pr or ad style of image. The contents of the image along with the style are both important to how the viewer interpretates the message but theres one last piece of the puzzle that I cannot emulate on this blog post and that is the context in which it is delivered. Your reading it here on an academic journal and as such your probobly a fellow student or staff. My point is that your auotomatically viewing it in a context as a demonstration or as evidence of an artistic journey. Is it even possible for me to produce work in a naive way with the act of making it being the driving principle? I don;t think so, and as previously developed in previous modules the context is set by my artist statement and place in which it's consuemed- on my acedemic journal. 

The photographers intentions and auxiliary information about these motivations are just as important as the image, but how much is an image maker expected to disclose with their image?, I’m still un clear on this. Like Szarkowski says ‘ If photography can be read as stories they could be read as symbols. He talks about how Fenton was unable to capture live action at war due to the technological constraints of the time, so he focused on objects and in an example shown he looks at cannonballs which signify the violence of war. He states that this has perhaps objects that may have been viewed upon as trivial may not have been so, but perhaps over looked and could perhaps hold a deeper meaning. I agree with his notion and also that agree that only by photographing them and viewing them through photographs could they be appreciated or looked at with a new undiscovered meaning. 

beach, Mumbles, Pay phone, rustic ©Chris Chucas Chrischucas.com -8506.jpg

The frame

Szarkowski states that because of the photographers decision making role in the construction of images , their subject matter could never be wholly contained and they could never be fully discret. I agree with this and as I’ve talked about in previous modules photography is not as democratic and I’m partial as some might think. Every  choice that I make from the camera to the framing and subject matter etc is tainted with personal opinions and the way in which I view the world has been pre determined to a degree no matter how hard I try to be open minded and un biased. Everything from my upbringing, education, social status, and personal relationship with subject matter both in making images and viewing them has drastic effects on their development. So i agree that the frame is a definitive characteristic of the photograph and that it comes with some flaws for both image maker and viewer.


Every photograph is a parcel of time which is sealed in a continuous presence of the photographic object.  The photograph is static, a framed few of his subject matter interrupted or stolen from the flow of time and as such again, it quotes it’s subject matter out of context, but we must remember that the photograph itself as an object, also passes through time. I agree with Szarkowski on his notion of time. It’s a huge area in which a lot of artists focus on ( the passing of time). It’s interesting how we have evolved with technology as image makers in and using blur and fast shutter speeds to get images that our human eye would be unable to view without. I like the way that he uses the parcel of time metaphor a detached and sealed piece that transcends time. A photograph can outlive the creator and be around for centuries later and the subject matter the audience and it’s intention can continuously shift.

I feel that in my work capturing slices of time and freezing them enables the viewer to look at the subject matter in a different way. Another factor that’s more clear now is that it’s not just the freezing of the subject matter itself, but also the act of making the photograph that creates a space for the viewer to look at it with a different meaning.



In that moment, the flux of changing forms and patterns were sensed to have achieved balance and clarity and order, because the picture becomes for an instant, a picture. this decisive moment is not so much a dramatic climax, but a visual one and the result is not a story, but a picture.

Vantage point

One of the last important principles that Szarkowski talks about is that with photography the photographer has flexibility with vantage points.

“If the photographer could not move his subject, he could move his camera. To see the subject clearly – often to see it at all – he had to abandon a normal vantage point, and shoot his picture from above, or below, or from too close, or too far away, or from the back side, inverting the order of things’ importance, or with the nominal subject of his picture half hidden. From his photographs, he learned that the appearance of the world was richer and less simple than his mind would have guessed. He discovered that his pictures could reveal not only the clarity but the obscurity of things, and the these mysterious and evasive images could also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful”.
John Szarkowski: The Photographers Eye, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 2009.


I think this is a unique characteristic with photography and perhaps cinema today. The ability to change or even take multiple vantage points is something photography lends itself to particular well. There are a lot of contemporary artists that work and use this vantage point as a device to say something about today’s world. Artist’s like EXPAND


Photography deals with the actual, not just accept but treasure it. EXPAND