This assignment will begin by briefly outlining the historical context of Formalism in the direction to illustrate the new perceptions claimed with the formalist approach to the analysis of photography advocated by John Szarkowski. The modus operandi and the elements involved in the formalist approach to the analysis of photography discussed in Szarkowski’s volume The Photographer’s Eye (1966), such as the thing itself, the detail, the frame, time and the vantage point, will be examined to determine the limitations of this approach. The identified response will be based on the analysis of the photographs Atget, E., Trianon, Pavillon Français, 1923-1934; Stieglitz, A., Door to Kitchen, Lake George, 1934; Strand, P., Church Vermont, 1944. The response will be justified by the study of mainly the books Szarkowski, J. (1966) The Photographer’s Eye; Wells, L. (2009) Photography a Critical Introduction. The response will be determined by the vision of documentaries on John Szarkowski like John Szarkowski: A Life in Photography (1998) and John Szarkowski on John Szarkowski: Speaking of Art (2005).

With the American Industrial Revolution from the 18th to the 19th centuries, the desire of celebrating the scientific and technological progress resulted in the cultural movement of Modernism (1850-1965), aimed to represent the experience of the advance. This new perception encouraged the triumph of Straight Photography over the phenomena of Pictorialism. John Szarkowski, American photographer, curator, historian and critic who held the position of Director of MoMA (Museum of Modern Art in New York) from 1962 to 1991, supported Straight Photography and its key concepts of the notion of pure form and the exploration of formal techniques unique to the discipline of photography.

In the manner of Straight Photography, in fact, the force of form in a photograph excelled above all other elements of composition, and detail and tonal range belonged only to the photographer’s practice. The latter was indeed notably autonomous from other disciplines, and its use was limited to the possibilities provided by the techniques of the photographer’s craft. In light of this, each form of manipulation such as colour printing, gum-prints and oil-prints typical of Pictorialism were rejected by formalists as they couldn’t confer purity to photography.

In the volume The Photographer’s Eye, 1964, Szarkowski introduced the definition of the significant form as for formalists the revelation of it was the purpose of the photographic art. This significant form was, Szarkowski said, the combination of five formal elements of the photograph. Because of Formalism advocated an ontological investigation, so a study of the nature of being, the analysis of a photograph was necessary. According to that, the examination of these five formal qualities of the image was the only means to reveal the significant form. ‘‘These issues do not define discrete categories of work; on the contrary, they should be regarded as interdependent aspects of a single problem – as section views through the body of photographic tradition. As such, it is hoped that they may contribute to the formulation of a vocabulary and a critical perspective more fully responsive to the unique phenomena of photography’’ (Szarkowski, 1966, Introduction to The Photographer’s Eye).

I’ve chosen this quote to articulate the formalistic biggest concern on the realisation of the significant form. In this statement, Szarkowski pointed out firstly how these five categories ‘as interdependent aspects of a single problem’ needed to be regarded along with each other rather than separately. Secondly, with the expression ‘the single problem’ the writer referred to the problem of photography. In the following lines, he stated that the resolution of such problem stayed in the ‘formulation of a vocabulary’ and in the birth of ‘a critical perspective’ through which the definition of the significant form could have been determined. In other words, Szarkowski meant that all the photographers needed to focus on these five photographic issues (the problems of ‘the unique phenomena of photography’) and to work together on them in order to create a photographic language. Once identified a photographic language it needed to be adopted because of, if employed, it would have brought to the achievement of a significant photograph.

In The Photographer’s Eye, the author presented the five elements considered for a formalist approach to the analysis of photography. Szarkowski began this presentation with a speech on the first category ‘the thing itself’. Referring to a photographer he stated that ‘‘The factuality of his pictures, no matter how convincing and unarguable, was a different thing than the reality itself’’(1966, Introduction to The Photographer’s Eye). With this argument, he made a distinction between the subject and the photograph itself. Szarkowski reported that personal prejudgments could be projected onto the subject by the human eye which sees an illusion, the camera lens instead, is gifted of ‘impartiality’ as it portrays what is in front of it. He added that, if the photographer was capable of including the truth intelligently in a photograph, he could provide truth with the picture itself.



In order to additionally explain this concept, I introduce the photograph Atget, E., Trianon, Pavillon Français, 1923-1934. This photograph was taken in 1923–1924, in Versailles, France, by Eugéne Atget, esteemed and favourite photographer to Szarkowski’s eyes. This print displays a building in the centre of the photographic area, in front of the Pavillon, a pond reflects its figure. In this landscape picture, the subject is identical with the picture itself because Trianon, Pavillon Français, describes the mere reality of the gardens of Versailles without portraying the illusion our sight can lead to. The photograph isn’t in fact a manipulated representation of a fancy environment and does not emphasise the authority of Versailles. It rather shows an environment presented on a human scale and is for that, a truthful photograph.

As stated by Szarkowski’s words in the documentary John Szarkowski on John Szarkowski: Speaking of Art (2005), the value of a serious photographer is determined by his honesty. I consequently mature the belief that in Trianon, Pavillon Français, Atget demonstrated how he didn’t confuse the subject and the object. He instead proved that he did put French Culture as the main nucleus of the photograph. Under this viewpoint, I would credit to this photograph authenticity because of it describes the objective reality of Versailles.

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Atget, E., Trianon, Pavillon Français, 1923-1934, gelatin silver print

A formalist approach besides the contemplation of ‘the thing itself’ required the consideration of ‘the detail’ where Straight Photography found a significant limitation in its incapability of narrative. Szarkowski, undoubtedly aware of this restriction, supported the idea that reality couldn’t be encountered in the world as a story, alternatively it could be found as a clue.

A formalist approach besides the contemplation of ‘the thing itself’ required the consideration of ‘the detail’ where Straight Photography found a significant limitation in its incapability of narrative. Szarkowski, definitely aware of this restriction, supported the idea that reality couldn’t be encountered in the world as a story, alternatively it could be found as a clue. For formalists, the meanings of political, philosophical, intellectual and social nature could not be told by photography which could only describe. Eisinger said ‘‘The photograph may suggest, but cannot define, intellectual or philosophical and political values’’ (p214), ergo pictures could not make stories but could make it real by depicting the details of the contents with precision. The photograph Trianon, Pavillon Français, portrays the garden of Versailles desisting from self- expression by the reason that the photo does not indulge in explanation nor opinions but stands out for being an expression of Atget’s photographic passion. The Pavillon stands out as the strongest content in the photograph focused on the details by the power of the photographic tools. For a deeper understanding of the category of ‘the detail’, I am going to examine the photograph Stieglitz, A., Door to Kitchen, Lake George, 1934.

Stieglitz, A., Door to Kitchen, Lake George, 1934

The print illustrates a farmhouse in Lake George, place of interest for the New Yorkers’ upper classes, where Stieglitz’s family bought a property. This gelatin silver print portrays the building’s outdoor access to the kitchen. The decision of making a fully sharpened print suggests Stieglitz’s devotion to Straight photography. A straight photographer, in fact, recognised that the camera had the unique ability to sharp focus and capture forms and shapes and exploited the incredible advantages of the photographic medium.
The smallest photographic apertures provided an extraordinary depth of field which allowed photographers to provide a distinct reproduction of details. The clear definition of Door to Kitchen, Lake George, therefore presents Stieglitz as a viciously direct photographer, an artist who photographed things the way they were without alternating them at all. The photographer had then faced reality and had photographed realism out of it.

Formalists referred to another feature of photography: ‘the frame’, suggesting that the process of photographing wasn’t synthetic but selective of ‘choosing and eliminating’, according to that they defined the frame ‘partial’ in contrast to the impartiality of the camera lens. In Trianon, Pavillon Français, the forms of the trees in the upper part of the image function to frame the monument both on the ground’s and on the pond’s levels. In the corners of the image, the organic shapes move the eye of the viewer towards the central outdoor architecture, which is defined by the edges of forms and by their contours. All the elements of the landscape are symmetrically balanced demonstrating the photographer’s sense of proportion.

In the picture Door to Kitchen, Lake George, horizontal boards and their straight outlines cover the facade of the cottage, repeating themselves all over the composition of the image. This repetition of motifs gives to the scene a peculiar rhythmicity. The framing choices for Door to Kitchen, Lake George, emphasise the geometric shapes of triangles and rectangles which compose the farmhouse. As far as I’m concerned, the arrangement of such forms alludes to the photographer’s familiarity with Cubism and to his ability to produce out of the natural confusion of the countryside a sort of ‘aesthetic order’.

When choosing the image Door to Kitchen, Lake George, I could not restrain myself from associating it with the picture Strand, P., Church Vermont, 1944, for their similar frameworks. The last two photographs mentioned were taken with a ten year’s difference. Paul Strand realised Church Vermont in the aftermath of Stieglitz’s teaching. The platinum print is a depiction of a church in Vermont, northeastern state of America.

Strand, P., Church Vermont, 1944, gelatin silver print

The whole space of the photograph is almost occupied by the church, in front of it, a snow-clad field outlines the lower border of the image. On the upper section of the image the church’s tower is cropped in a way that demonstrates the photographer’s sense of spatiality. In the background of the church are depicted a cloudy sky and silhouettes of trees. The walls of the building are made of horizontal boards like Stieglitz’s farmhouse, and for this similarity, I’d classify Strand’s picture, as well as Stieglitz’s one, an example of a rhythmic framing. The rectangular doors and windows in Church Vermont and the triangular structure leading to the church’s tower evoke my consideration to the photographer’s investigation of abstract forms. The photograph represents a sort of unity because of the connection between the element’s shapes.

Photographers are sometimes limited in the act of moving subjects, instead at times subjects like buildings or monuments don’t move but stay there. Artists can, in the most cases, return to locations and make infinite pictures out of landscapes. The three photographs, regarded with the issue of the frame, need to be also considered with what Szarkowski defined ‘the vantage point’. This ‘vantage point’ is the view from where the angle results to be the most advantageous to create perspective lines, so it can be used to make the observer feeling the scene, to emphasise the nature of the subjects or to represent a peculiar pattern of lights and shadows.

Trianon, Pavillon Français, is an in-front wide shot where the Pavillon and the pond figure completely in the frame of the photograph. From the chosen angle Atget created a whole representation of the location. The image provides subjects which are overall balanced giving to the photograph stability and a sense of stillness. All the contents by coexisting and connecting well with each other convey to the scene a sort of harmony.


Door to Kitchen, Lake George, is an instance of a ground-level shot where the view is showed from the subject’s perspective. In this mid-shot, Stieglitz photographed a part of the farmhouse from a slightly lateral angle. Nonetheless the figure of the cottage is cropped, the viewer can have an idea of the whole subject. On the lower part of the composition the ground constitutes a clue for the observer which suggests the surrounding rural environment. The facade is lit by the sunlight and by contrast, a shadowed area between the outside space and the kitchen’s door is created, leading to the significant part of the image: the kitchen’s door.

Church Vermont was taken from a front standpoint and the church’s perspective alludes that the author approached the subject from a low angle. The triangular geometry of the building’s structure directs the onlooker’s eye to the upper edges of the image, where the church’s tower, its highest structure’s point, is cropped. The portrayal of the scene is very organised, attributing ‘clarity and order’ to the photo.

Szarkowski in The Photographer’s Eye pointed out another ingredient which is essential to complete the masterpiece, that I had not discussed yet: the formalist matter of ‘time’. The human eye could not grab that specific fraction of time of a moving object, but the photographic equipment could. Photography found a limitation as it could not represent the past or the future, but provided images addressed to only describe one fraction of time: the present. ‘‘…in 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.’’ (Szarkowski, p100). With this sentence, the writer describes how the camera’s exposure time transforming reality into an image could make significant photographs.

The problem of ‘time’ brought to the exploration of moving objects, light for example, as dynamic radiation owning its speed and as strongly related to any photographic material, was a key factor for the realisation of an image. Consequently, the way the ‘changing forms and patterns’ provoked by the lights and shadows were represented was crucial in a photograph. In the three photographs previously discussed in the text, short-time exposures captured the details of fractions of time. Trianon, Pavillon Français, was probably taken under a cloudy sky. The clouds, by covering the sunlights, softened the light and for that the place’s atmosphere. The Pavillon’s pattern reflected in the water proves Atget’s ability to combine tones, that, creates a beauty which pleases the viewer.

Gelatin silver prints provided a wide range of tonalities, in Door to Kitchen, Lake George, the properties of the process and the artist’s knowledge of the use of lights and shadows, mitigate the aspect of a spartan countryside. The shadow in front of the kitchen’s door enhances the texture of the wall next to it, and brings the viewer’s attention to the entryway.

Church Vermont displays an accurate variety of tones. The platinum print demonstrates how Paul Strand assembled with thoroughness the tones of Vermont’s rurality. The light hits directly onto the church. On the background the dark shadows in the sky increase its impact, creating a dramatic effect which emphasises the presence of the church itself.

The Formalist movement believed that the expression of ‘truth’, which was impersonal and objective, could only be represented by the photographic medium, with the constant awareness of its practice’s limitations. My examination of the general formalist approach led me to conclude that the concept of ‘truth’ is relative. Considering that a photograph represents a subjective expression of one’s view and internal character and since its a personal disposition, it should be represented accordingly to the feelings grown as a result of the photographer gathering with different natural elements and not be obstructed by the formalist photography’s limitations.

Posted by:Elena Galbusera