John Szarkowski – The Photographer’s Eye


First published in 1966, the book ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ is based upon the 1964 MoMA exhibition, curated by John Szarkowski (Director of MoMA’s Department of Photography).

Writing in the introduction to the book Szarkowski says:

The pictures reproduced in this book were made over almost a century and a quarter. They were made for various reasons, by men of different concerns and varying talent. They have in fact little in common except their success, and a shared vocabulary: these pictures are unmistakably photographs. The vision they share belongs to no school or aesthetic theory, but to photography itself. The character of this vision was discovered by photographers at work, as their awareness of photography’s potentials grew.

If this is true, it should be possible to consider the history of the medium In terms of photographers progressive awareness of characteristics and problems that have seemed inherent in the medium. Five such issues are considered below.

The Thing Itself

Robert Frank. Long Beach, California. (1955-57)

Szarkowski writes that the photograph evokes reality more than any other art form. But suggests that our persisting belief in the truth of the photographic image may be ‘naive and illusory’ (1:12) in the sense that the photographer’s view is inevitably partial. ‘The photographer’s vision convinces us to the degree that the photographer hides his hand’ – or in other words, the subject, the reality, the Thing Itself that we see and believe is the reality presented to us by the photographer.

The Detail

Dorothea Lange. Funeral cortege, end of an era in a small town, California. 1938

Szarkowski contrasts the role of photography to that of narrative painting. As he says ‘He (the photographer) could not stage the battle, Like Uccello …. bringing elements which had been separated in space and time… ‘ (1:42)

Szarkowski suggests that if photographs cannot be read as stories they can be read as symbols.

The Frame

Edward Weston. Church Door Hornitos. 1940

Szarkowski begins this chapter with a wonderfully insightful comment as to the nature of photography and and the concept of the frame:

To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft. (1:70)

He also provides a graphic example of how the photographer’s framing decision can alter the meaning of an image. He says:

If the photographer’s frame surrounded two figures, isolating them from the crowd in which they stood, it created a relationship between those two figures that had not existed before.


Franz Hubmann. Waiter in Coffee House. (nd)

By the term Time Szarkowski means shutter speed – freezing or blurring motion – or time lapse photography. He also refers to the famous Henri Cartier-Bresson phrase ‘The Decisive Moment’ (1:100) which he describes as:

…. that moment the flux of changing forms and patterns was sensed to have achieved balance and clarity and order – because the image became, for an instant, a picture.

Vantage Point

Bill Brandt. No. 43 from Perspectives of Nudes. (1957)


(1) Szarkowski, J., 2007. The Photographer’s Eye. 3rd ed. New York: Museum of modern art.

Get In Touch

Send me an email and I'll get back to you asap.

Start typing and press Enter to search