Week 1: What is Worth Recording, part 1
Updated: Jan 25, 2021
Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation. A photograph is a result of the photographer's decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen.
- John Berger, Understanding a Photograph, 1980
In one chapter of his book The Photographer’s Eye, John Szarkowski compares the photographer to the painter: ‚ He could not stage-manage the battle, like Uccello or Velasquez, bringing together elements which had been separate in space and time. If he could not show the battle, explain its purpose and its strategy, or distinguish its heroes from villains, he could show what was too ordinary to paint: the empty road scattered with cannon balls, the mud encrusted on the caisson’s wheels, the annonymous faces, the single broken figure by the wall.‘
Basically, taking photographs is ‚easy‘ and fast enough to be able to capture subjects that are too trivial for a painter to put weeks or months of effort in.
This is what I like about photography, it shows the rawness of life, the reality as it is. Our lives consist mostly of trivial things; the same walk to work every day, watching rain through the window, enjoying extra time in bed in the morning, etc. Sometimes when I see photographs with an ordinary subject they can evoke a nostalgic feeling of familiarity, as if I have been there and done that. And I have, but in my reality.
I have a lot of photographs in my laptop that one could call ‚just ordinary snaps‘. In fact, they are. These depictions are very simple and therefore easy to relate to (for the viewer). But to me they are like a diary. The photographs are mundane depictions of existence which for some reason was important to preserve.
Lucie Nechanicka, 2016-2020 I really like the work of Josef Sudek. He is a great example of a photographer who liked to capture (seemingly) trivial subjects. He photographed everything: Gothic and Baroque architecture, streets of Prague, still life objects, etc. Large portion of his work was captured in his apartment, he was very fond of shooting through the glass of his window.
To understand his work, here is a context; While apprenticing as a bookbinder Josef Sudek began taking photographs. In the 1916 during the World War 1 he was called to the Italian front where he was shot in his right arm, which later had to be amputated. This event led to the end of his bookbinding career, and he turned to photography full-time. In the 1926 he was invited by his friends to a concert in Italy. Halfway through the concert he disappeared, to return to the fields where he was shot and search for his arm.
The incident of 1926 that could be considered a reverberation of his war trauma mirrored a shift in his work, relationships, and his investigation of his inner world. After 1926, he would make brief trips to the countryside of Prague, but he refused to leave the city’s environs, and he never travelled again. He moved into a wooden cabin in the backyard of a tenement building, where he would continue to live and predominantly work for the next thirty years. There he produced his two famous cycles “The Window of My Atelier” and “Labyrinths,” series of photographs of the scenes on his windowsill and on his window glass—vases of wildflowers, ethereal rows of hanging laundry, twisting apple trees—and the interior of his studio cluttered with sculptural stacks of papers, other photographic relics, and artwork.
In the 1963 film, “Zit Svuj Zivot” (Living Your Life), a documentary portrait of Sudek by Evald Strom, we see a sensitive man describing his efforts to photograph the reality of the objects around him, not as if he were bringing the objects to life, but as if it was his purpose to represent the lives of objects as they truly are.
- Ashley Booth Klein, Josef Sudek and the Life of Objects
Everything around us, dead or alive, in the eyes of a crazy photographer mysteriously takes on many variations, so that a seemingly dead object comes to life through light or by its surroundings.
- Josef Sudek
Josef Sudek, Last Rose, 1954 Josef Sudek, Labyrinths series, 1960-70
Josef Sudek, the Memories series, 1954 Josef Sudek, Janacek's House 1948 An interesting book I was recommended to look into is The Pond by John Gossage. He photographed a pond and its surrounding in an unkempt wooden area close to the city. These photographs have no aspiration to be beautiful captures of a landscape. Instead, they portray reality on the border between man and nature.
Gossage photographs that which has just occurred, from markings on a wall to a table after a meal, to remind us that we may have already forgotten it happened or that we were there. By asking us look at what we have misplaced or abandoned he brings us face to face with the present as it becomes history.
- Stephen Daiter Gallery
John Gossage, The Pond, 1985 Both mentioned photographers come from a different country and background. Their subjects are different, too, yet share something similar. It is the triviality of their subjects. But these trivial subjects formed their reality that they both considered meaningful enough to preserve (both for their own reasons).
To follow up his previous statement, John Szarkowski said in his book The Photographer’s Eye: ‚From the reality before him he (the photographer) could only choose the part that seemed relevant and consistent, and that would fill his plate. Intuitively, he sought and found the significant detail. His work, incapable of narrative, turned toward symbol.‘
I believe a photograph can turn into a symbol, after putting it in context and seeing it in a series with other photographs. But the very moment of taking a photo is about responding to some sort of feeling which urges me to capture this particular subject/situation. An excitable feeling that makes me believe that the subject/situation is very important to be remembered. However, taking these ‚ordinary snaps‘ is just one part of my practice. What else I do in my practice is a topic for the follow-up article. Figures:
https://josefchladek.com/book/john_gossage_-_the_pond Text: Sudek:
John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye, The Detail, 1966