Issue Author Title
- Colleen Asper Labor with Rectangle
- Dushko Petrovich & Roger White Monument Working Strategies LLC: Structuring Creative Freedom
- Triple Candie Exhibition Preparations
- Sean Raspet 2GFR24SMEZZ2XMCVI5L8X9Y38ZJ2JD…
- Owen Kydd Handheld
- Dan Levenson Notes From Jessica
- Julia Rommel Easy Tacker
- Jordan Kantor MAN(ET/DE)GAS
- Sreshta Rit Premnath The Last Image
- OJO The Adventures of Nuclear Wad & How He Learned To Stop Dreaming
- Julia Sherman Re-Claiming Susan B. Anthony
- Robert Hult Hasidic Street Posters in Brooklyn
- Runo Lagomarsino Pedro’s Story: An Unsuccessful Transatlantic Traveller
- John Houck Pine Ridge: An interview with Jim Houck
- Brian Zegeer Dragoman of Little Syria
- Sidney Russell Kuna Yala Swag
- Desirée Holman Outer Spaces: Part I
- Faith47 The Unexpected Present
- Carmen Winant Personal Best
- Philip-Lorca diCorcia Red Bull Snake
- Jessica Green & Tom Griffiths Terra Incognita (A Video Game Folly)
- Prem Krishnamurthy The People’s Representation: On Staged Graphics in Klaus Wittkugel’s Work
- Cian O'Day N/A, or On the Dark Stores of Brian Ulrich
- Yasmeen M. Siddiqui Avatar Gone Analog: Musings on The Bridge Project by Do Ho Suh
- Emily Larned ARTS 02–2011: The Artist-Created Institution as Art Practice
- Yoonjai Choi & Ken Meier Interview with Metahaven
- Aaron Kunin Space and Place in Two Video Installations by Amie Siegel
- Tom Griffiths Interview with Barbara Griffiths
- Anonymous On Looking at Nature: An Untitled Petition on Crapomimicry
- Paul Huf Musical Box with a Dancing Ballerina
- Lance Wakeling Voluntary Sculptures: Photographing the Unmonumental
- David Kennedy-Cutler Possession Obsession
- Nine Budde Stopping by at a Friends’ Place
- Cody Trepte Untitled (Something Clever Here)
- Jennifer Dudley Interview with Daniel Bozhkov
- Dushko Petrovich & Roger White Report to the Committee on Decentered Practices
- Shana Lutker Artists Are Not
- Steve Cairns & Isla Leaver-Yap Blind Carbon Copy
- Katarina Burin Rooms No One Lives In
- Jonathan Bogarin What’s Your Context?
- Sara Greenberger Rafferty Master of None
- Mieke Marple Interview with Michelle Grabner
- Farrah Karapetian Reframing Mirrors and Windows
Mirrors and Windows opened at The Museum of Modern Art, New York in July of 1978. It was legendary curator John Szarkowski’s exhibition of American photography since 1960. As such, it mined eighteen years of photographic practice, sorting out those artists whose work largely reflected the subjectivity of the artist and those whose work largely sought to see outside themselves. Careful to admit the sometimes blurry nature of the distinction between the two strains of practice, Szarkowski wrote in the catalogue essay that accompanied the exhibition:
The two creative motives that have been contrasted here are not discrete. Ultimately each of the pictures in this book is part of a single, complex, plastic tradition. Since the early days of that tradition, an interior debate has contested issues parallel to those illustrated here. The prejudices and inclinations expressed by the pictures in this book suggest positions that are familiar from older disputes. In terms of the best photography of a half-century ago, one might say that Alfred Stieglitz is the patron of the first half of this book and Eugène Atget of the second. In either case, what artist could want a more distinguished sponsor? The distance between them is to be measured not in terms of the relative force or originality of their work, but in terms of their conceptions of what a photograph is: is it a mirror, reflecting a portrait of the artist who made it, or a window, through which one might better know the world? (1)
In musing that Stieglitz might be the forbear of those artists included in part one of the catalogue—the section devoted to ‘mirrors’—the implied reference is to Stieglitz’s belief in the expressive potential of photography beyond its capacity for straightforward mimesis. Stieglitz’s early engagement with Pictorialism and his later work with Equivalents both, in different ways, propose that a photograph can act to represent the inner motivations of an artist as well as the objects pictured inside its frame. Stieglitz’s gallery, the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, as well as his magazine, Camera Work, became spaces for photography shown in relation to painting, sculpture, and drawing, all of which were understood to be mediums with expressive potential for ambitious artists. It is partially this inclination to understand photography as a part of a multi-disciplinary community that thrusts his legacy into a contemporary conversation.
Szarkowski writes in Mirrors and Windows that the boom in photographic education he witnessed between the ‘60s and ‘70s (which has only increased exponentially since then) influenced artists ‘who previously would have considered their disciplines to be mutually discrete’ (2) to become ‘increasingly alert to the ideas, effects, and techniques that might be borrowed from one medium and persuaded to serve another.’ This line of ‘hybrid work’ he ties to the work of the ‘mirror’ artists, observing that a photographer working in this fashion tended to add into his photographic prints ‘some evidence that he had hands as well as eyes.’ (3)
The pieces in part one of the exhibition hedge away from the specific circumstances of their photographic exposure. They do not seem to want to derive primary meaning from the place and time in which they were exposed. They seem to want to be read instead in terms of how they exist in the gallery or in terms of how they were conceived and handled by the artist. Words Szarkowski uses to describe the practices of the artists in the mirror category are ‘manipulated’ and ‘synthetic,’ and he illustrates the category through a variety of artistic tactics. The combination of pictorial space with real space is one such tactic, as in Jerry McMillan’s Untitled, Torn Bag (1968), a three-color lithograph inside a paper-bag construction, and as in Robert Heinecken’s Refractive Hexagon (1965), twenty-four movable photographic pieces on wood. Alternative photographic processes are another such tactic, such as Andy Warhol’s serigraph of Marilyn Monroe or Robert Rauschenberg’s offset lithograph Kiesler (1966). Conceptual seriality seems to be another such tactic, as exemplified through excerpts from series by Lewis Baltz, Joseph Dankowski, and Duane Michals. The photographs that engage with this serial motif, despite extreme specificity of pictorial information or linguistic specificity in their titles (such as Baltz’s Construction Detail, East Wall, Xerox, 1821 Dyer Road, Santa Ana), may imply a project more than a place.
Szarkowski’s legacy, however, is not in promoting the work of the mirror artists. Though the reputations of Warhol and Rauschenberg thrived (notably outside the explicit confines of photography), the other artists whose practices Szarkowski described as synthetic were not to go on to enjoy quite the fame as that seen by Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, or Garry Winogrand, artists whose pictures reside firmly on the side of the window. It is in the clarity of their perspectives on the outside world that Szarkowski located the profundity of the twentieth century: the psychological consequence of the Vietnam War, he says, was better communicated by the photographs of Diane Arbus than by its war photographers. (4) This is to say her images are not an ‘equivalent’ of a feeling of psychological instability; rather, they observe frailty and are therefore neither literally images of eccentric people nor metaphorical at all.
It is Arbus, Friedlander, Winogrand, and others who populate part two of the Mirrors and Windows exhibition. If Atget is the patron saint of the ‘window’ artists, it is his attitude towards his photographs as well as the photographs themselves that define him as such. Atget’s photographs describe a place more than a project. He saw his photographs as ‘documents for artists,’ though his thousands of images of people and sites around Paris, made with a large-format camera, have long surpassed their original use-value as images from which painters might paint. They have become a resource in terms of understanding a human civilization, a French civilization; they have also become—as Szarkowski’s reference suggests—a model for the photographer and the photograph within that civilization. (5) Despite their ineffable Atget-ness, they are possible to understand impersonally, or rather in terms of a transparency that anticipates that place between the literal and the metaphorical later to be occupied by Arbus.
In January of 1964, just a year and a half after Szarkowski began his tenure at MOMA, Clement Greenberg wrote in the New York Review of Books that Atget’s art is ‘the art of the Complete Photographer.’ (6) ‘If ever an artist humbled himself before his subjects, Atget did. He was not after beautiful views; he was out to capture the identity of his subject, and the success with which he did so has to be called “classical.”… Involved here is an attitude even more than a subject or a method.’ (7) For Greenberg:
Because of the transparency of the medium, the difference between the extra-artistic, real-life meaning of things and their artistic meaning is even narrower in photography than it is in prose. And as in prose, ‘form’ in photography is reluctant to become ‘content’, and works best when it just barely succeeds in converting its subject into art—that is, when it calls the least attention to itself and lets the almost ‘practical’ meaning of the subject come through. (8)
I have said that the purely formal or abstract is a threat to the art in photography. This threat manifests itself in a variety of ways, of which the worst is not the forthrightly abstract photograph but the trick shot and the odd shot; the long exposure of moving objects, the reversed negative, the close-up or magnified view that brings out the curious, abstractly curious, configurations any sort of object will reveal when seen in microscopic detail. This kind of photography may contribute to knowledge, but it has never been anything but abortive as art: and it is offered as that and taken as that only people whose experience of pictorial art in general is defective. (9)
Fourteen years before the opening of Mirrors and Windows, the institutional stage was set for the success of artists whose photographic prints functioned as windows. The stage was set not just because of Greenberg’s brief – and rare — exposition of his opinions on photography, but because of his developing sensibility for the post-painterly abstraction of high Modernism (or because painters were moving towards this new abstraction, and he described it thus). In his essay accompanying the catalogue for the exhibition Post-Painterly Abstraction, which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1964, Greenberg described a duality not at all unlike the one Szarkowski described fourteen years later for photography: if painterliness had become mannered and overly personal after Abstract Expressionism, the new painting was open, clear, fresh, and plain. There is something of that in the window.
What I want to begin to understand is how the institutional frame of the window evolved and how it might have affected the development of the form of the photograph. If nineteenth-century distinctions—between the work of Stieglitz and Atget, for example—took place in pictorial space, in how the exposure and printing of photographs might have been handled, many twentieth-century distinctions—between a multi-part, moveable Heinecken and the succinct on-its-ownness of an Arbus—take place in real space. It is the hand as well as the eye, the self as well as the other—that distinguishes a mirror artist from a window artist. Surely some of the ambitious work that Szarkowski represented in the mirrors group has functioned to lasting effect within the art world, but the conventions for how leading photography is made and shown were set during this period with serious subtlety.
The stage on which Szarkowski showed photographs was the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That building was designed in the International Style by Modernist architects Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone and opened to the public on May 10, 1939. Its steel and glass façade anticipated the quiet evolution of the framing of photographs that would take place over the next decades. Indeed, the evolution of photographic prints and frames has closely trailed evolutions in window design since the turn of the twentieth century. This can be understood as simply a matter of developing sensibility, decorative trends, if you will, but given the close relationship afforded the photographic print and the real window, the link is probably not so strange. (10) Both a flat, framed photographic print and a framed window define the space seen as pictorial, aesthetic, abstract.
In the summer 2008 issue of The History of Photography magazine, Sarah Bassnett describes three exhibitions of photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston. (11) Johnston’s photographs were taken in 1899 as part of a commission to photograph life at the Hampton Institute, a school founded to give former slaves a vocational education. The resulting photographs were shown first in the social economy building of the American Negro Exhibit at the Paris Exposition of 1900, then at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966, and finally were appropriated for an installation by Carrie Mae Weems at Williams College Museum of Art in 2000.
Bassnett describes the 1900 exhibition as in part a promotional opportunity for the school. Both because of that function and because of current trends in exhibition design, the photographs were framed and hung on moveable leaves on a dark wall, viewable almost as though they comprised a thickly paged book. These leaves were surrounded by contextual publications, such as those written by Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois. In the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, overseen by Szarkowski, the gallery walls were white, the prints were shown with white mats and subtle frames, and though the prints were small, they were hung close to one another in a horizontal line, thereby emphasizing a certain landscape or formal sentence.
When the photographs were appropriated for an installation by Carrie Mae Weems at Williams College Museum of Art in 2000, they were printed on large semi-transparent muslin banners and stretched canvas alongside Weems’s own photographs and were accompanied by an audio track. Says Bassnett, ‘Associate curator of the museum and project manager for The Hampton Project, Vivian Patterson, described Weems’s contribution to the exhibit as a “very personal response to the philosophy of Hampton’s visionary founder and to historic and contemporary intersections of race, education, and the democratic ideal.” (12)
While Bassnett’s intricate analysis of these exhibitions is tied to the social circumstance of the reading of the photographic imagery, (13) I borrow her examples of the exhibition styles to illustrate a different point. When Vivian Patterson describes Weems’s use of the photographs in an installation as ‘personal,’ she unknowingly ties the work—now firmly embedded in a visual culture and art tradition of installation work—to a history within photography that reaches back to Szarkowski’s ‘mirror’ photographs, if not to Stieglitz and Pictorialism. The history she ties it to is the one that proposes a handling of the print in real space, which is one that has grown up within the traditions of sculpture and installation art and not within the tradition of photography.
The Little Galleries of the Photo Secession held its inaugural exhibition of one hundred photographs at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York in 1905. The exhibition space consisted of two rooms—one fifteen feet square, the other a hallway. The walls were hung with dark green burlap and edged with white strips. The photographs in the show were mounted in generous white mats and hung salon style above a continuous white shelf that divided the room in thirds. A light curtain hung from those shelves to the dark floor, and the curators situated at least one vase of flowers on the shelf, allowing the stems to graze the plane of the matboard surrounding two photographs. Conspicuous lights hung from the ceiling. Their light was muted by a low scrim. All of these decorative decisions—the paint, the shelf, the curtains, the flowers, and indeed the photographs in their mats—were part of one unified aesthetic scheme. No part of the room falls away to make any sort of illusionary pretense that the photographs are windows to the worlds they depict. The photographic prints were very much pictures within an architecture, and not even trying to be a part of the architecture itself. I would not go so far as to say that the curators were aware of or emphasizing the presence of the photographs in real space, but it clearly did not occur to the curators to make real space disappear in deference to the pictorial space of the photographs.
This is, of course, only five years after the exhibition of Johnston’s photographs at the Paris Exposition, and the exhibitions share a conversational, almost educational, salon style aesthetic, though the Photo Secession exhibition is of course more spare, given the differing nature of the themes. At the time, the Arts and Crafts movement had brought frame styles away from the gilded and opulent tastes of the nineteenth century and into a simpler aesthetic more reliant on the skill of the craftsman for its value. (14) Some frames—especially for painting—were still carved, but palettes were generally more monochromatic, and especially given the intricacy of the styles that had just gone out of fashion, Arts and Crafts frames can be seen as fairly subdued. Even in the home, framing had become less decorative. Image cases and cartes de visite had gone out of style, and framed photographs were hung in orderly arrangements suggestive of the window frames of the period.
Arts and Crafts windows typically were large casements fitted with small panes of leaded glass. (15) These window panes are very much within an architecture: you know you are looking out a window when you look through them, just as you know you are looking at a picture when you look into a heavily matted, substantially framed object on a wall of contrasting color.
After World War I, framemakers ‘began to draw on themes from industry,’ (16) using wood with coatings such as silver, chrome, and aluminum. The Art Deco movement encouraged geometric shapes in frames, such as emphasized rectangular lines, and later frames moved into a spare Modernist aesthetic. Welded metal and metal section frames were developed in the 1960s, and their unobtrusive nature remained popular, at least in private homes, until the 1970s, when wood frames resurged, but this time they borrowed on the simplicity of form of the metal designs. (17)
This movement again paralleled the design of window frames, which had become extremely regular in their rectangularity. Panes of glass were larger, their frames thinner, and rectangular shapes of casements began to fill the sides of buildings. (18) The architecture had begun to envelop both the window and the framed photograph, so that the distinctions between interior space and exterior space or pictorial space was becoming less clear. By mid-century, entire houses were being built out of glass, from Philip Johnson’s glass house of 1949, (19) to Mies van der Rohe’s of 1951, (20) to the Space House of 1963–64, designed by Peter Foggo and David Thomas and influenced by the California Case Study program. (21) The walls of galleries at this point were decidedly white, and photographs floated in their centers like direct apertures to the outside world.
A photograph today is often large enough not to imply but to be a picture window on a wall. As late as the 1990s, a white border was prevalent on mounted prints, which referenced the mats used more religiously in previous years. (Mats are still used with vintage prints that have not been mounted, as the print itself is considered an irreplaceable object whose fate should not be tied to a piece of foamcore or aluminum.) Borders have largely disappeared, increasing the primary impression of the image on the beholder. Modern prints are mounted flat so that their paperiness is as indiscernible as possible, and techniques in mounting have developed to the extent that utter flatness is an accessible goal. With every step away from the straightforward, vulnerable material of the print, the image inscribed on its surface can become more of a route to transcendence: the beholder stands on one side of a window to a world rendered true by the photographer. The goal of the glazing that goes over the print is to be as transparent as possible, and developments within glassmaking have made that an increasingly accessible goal. Whereas in the 1990s many gallery frames were black, metal, or wood, today’s frames are often painted white like the wall. A common profile is an inch on the face, two inches deep to the wall, wherein the print is set off the glazing by a spacer the same color as the frame. This depth, even, increases the impression that one is looking out of a window.
In 1976, Brian O’Doherty’s essays on the Modernist gallery space appeared in Artforum, describing the default white cube as a manufactured thing. This was something of a debunking, and it is not my intention to rehash that particular effort in the case of John Szarkowski’s legacy at MOMA. I am interested, however, in the fact that photography came to public maturity in a Modernist context, framed by Modernist framers and housed by Modernist architects, all of whom concurred—consciously or not—with the paradigm of transparency for the photographic medium and the ensuing dominant metaphor of photographic form as window.
When Szarkowski retired from MOMA in 1991, the framing and exhibition of photographs did not change, except, as I have said, insofar as they grew more drastically clear. What happened when Szarkowski left MOMA is that the picture inside the window changed. When Peter Galassi took over the director’s position in photography, he acquired all sixty-nine black-and-white photographs in Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills series, a photographic project that had commenced in 1977. He then proceeded to support a generation of photographers many of whose conventional photographic negatives (made from conventional large-format cameras and framed quite conventionally) pictured constructed narratives. If Arbus’s attitude and Arbus’s subjects defined a mid-twentieth century American sense of self, then it may be that the constructed realities photographed and exhibited and popularized since the 1990s defined that late-century American: someone uncomfortably aware of an America the fantasy of which was dying. Working within the inherited Modernist construct of the neutral print and gallery context has been useful for these artists, because it supports the fantasy they purport to picture.
There is a lot to work on within the pictorial space of the photograph, and the methods Szarkowski and others used to privilege that space have truly enabled artists to work deeply in performative, theatrical, and sculptural models, while still abstracting their ideas into concise, two-dimensional form. The construct of the print as a window has even influenced the way the photograph is appropriated as an object into sculptural practice, so that when Tom Burr or Rachel Harrison deploys a photograph into a sculptural situation, the photograph still manages to define its own discrete space within a more complicated—and in Modernist terms, hybrid—framework. There is, however, something left to be done here, which is to say: where is the work with the frame itself? Where is the photograph unflattened, unfurled, unglazed? Where is the photograph neither mirror nor window, neither architectural decoration nor architecture itself? Where in contemporary practice is the photograph a photograph?
(1) John Szarkowski, Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960 (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1978), p. 25.
(2) ibid. p. 15.
(3) ibid. p. 16.
(4) ibid. p. 13.
(5) Szarkowski wrote extensively on Atget, including a four-volume catalogue entitled The Work of Atget (with Maria Morris Hambourg; New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1981–85).
(6) Clement Greenberg, “Four Photographers: Review of A Vision of Paris by Eugène-Auguste Atget; A Life in Photographs by Edward Steichen; The World Through My Eyes by Andreas Feininger; and Photographs by Cartier-Bresson, introduced by Lincoln Kirstein” Clement Greenberg: The collected essays and criticism Volume 4 Modernism with a Vengeance 1957–1969, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 184.
(7) Ibid. p. 184
(8) ibid. p. 183.
(9) ibid. p. 186.
(10) Photographers are notoriously drawn to photographing windows, as well, a motif that is often seen as extremely self-reflexive.
(11) Sarah Bassnett, “From Public Relations to Art: Exhibiting Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Hampton Institute Photographs” in History of Photography, volume 32, number 2, summer 2008, eds. Thy Phu and Matthew Brower (Oxon, UK: Taylor & Francis), pp. 152–68.
(12) ibid., quoting Patterson, Vivian. “The Hampton Project.” Carrie Mae Weems: The Hampton Project (New York: Aperture 2000), p. 32.
(13) Please do see Bassnett’s article for more information on this fascinating topic.
(14) Anne Vazquez, “American Frames: 1900–1950,” Picture Framing Magazine (March 2001), p. 74.
(15) The Elements of Style: An Encyclopedia of Domestic Architectural Detail General Editor, Stephen Calloway. Consultant Editor, Elizabeth Cromley. Revised and Updated by Alan Powers, New Edition. (Originally published NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997), p. 313.
(16) Anne Vazquez, “American Frames: 1900–1950.” Picture Framing Magazine (March 2001), P. 79.
(17) Anne Vazquez, “American Frames: the 1970s.” Picture Framing Magazine (September 2001), p. 88.
(18) The Elements of Style, pp. 423 and 454.
(19) Glass House: Buildings for Open Living NY: The Vendome Press, 2008. 16.
Philip Johnson is believed to have coined the phrase “International Style” to describe the European Modernism he helped to bring to the United States as director of the department of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art.
(20) Glass House: Buildings for Open Living (NY: The Vendome Press, 2008), p. 18.
(21) ibid., p. 29.Farrah Karapetian is an artist currently based in Los Angeles. She received her BA from Yale University, where she concentrated in photography, and her MFA from UCLA in 2008, where she worked with photography in a sculptural field.
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