The Szarkowski Lectures

Graham Howe
Art and Australia
July/Sep 1974

Talking about some of the most recent photography produced in the United States of America Mr Szarkowski spoke of Bill Dane, who makes his own photographic postcards and has been sending an avalanche of them direct from the dryer to a sizable, more or less random, cross-section of the world's population. 'What a beautiful, friendly, open-hearted, trusting medium is the postcard, also self-documenting. Every postman becomes a curator and each morning I look forward to the post, but the real reason I enjoy Bill Dane's postcards is because he makes beautiful pictures, pictures that somehow define new subjects. It seems to me that the subject of Bill Dane's pictures is the discovery of surprise and delight whatever enfolds in a wasteland of boredom, the discovery of classical measure and grace in the very heart of God's own junkyard. Dane's work shows the rediscovery of a kind of optimism and lightheartedness that is still open at least to our eyes but not necessarily to our reason.' Photography is not only the most reproducible of all the arts, but it is open to enormous possibilities for use in con-nection with other art concepts such as the post. Bill Dane, like many other young photographers who have been born into our increasing visually orientated society, has accepted photography as an inherent mode of life.

The Australian Centre for Photography, tentatively called a Foundation when it was formed last year, brought Mr John Szarkowski to Australia for a nationwide lecture tour in May. This first major project of The Centre was made possible by a special grant from The Visual Arts Board of the Australian Council for the Arts. As Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Mr Szarkowski is one of the world's leading authorities on photography and is active in tracing the progress of this medium. His tour included six public lectures and four discussion groups in Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Hobart, Perth and Adelaide. In all cities the lectures were held in universities as the tour was aimed at a general audience including not only photographers but also artists and teachers. The purpose of the tour was to liberate photography from the world of technique and commerce and to suggest that it could also be of absorbing artistic and intellectual interest.

Mr Szarkowski's lecture, entitled, 'Toward a Photographic Tradition', explained photography in its historical and art context 'mothered by naturalistic painting and fathered by philandering science' and what is exactly the nature of its tradition as the 'most radical of all the art forms for the last century and a third'. In broad chronological order Mr Szarkowski showed photographs and talked about work by photographers including Nadar, Timothy O'Sullivan, Fredrick Evans, Peter Henry Emerson, Lewis Hine and Clarence White, and he admitted his personal love of the work by French photographer Eugène Atget. To many bright young photographers today Atget seems to be the richest of all their ancestors in terms of the complexity, subtlety and the questions that his work poses. 'Without reference to the issue of surface style, Atget's work is an inexhaustible, fertile source of inspiration and instruction to photographers who understand their medium.' The art of photography in the not too distant past was at times embarrassed by the fact that photographs seemed too much like reality, but what the father seeks to forget the son strives to remember. As Szarkowski remarked, 'I think that the specificity of photography today is at the very heart of its potential. . . . Photographers today know that the conventional concept of realism in photography as simple, obvious and feeble was perhaps never anything more than a windy academic misunderstanding.' Szarkowski pointed out that good photographs are generally characterized by 'visual ambiguity, lack of narrative and by general neutrality'. He offered a rough general rule saying 'when the meaning of a photograph is perfectly-clear, you are wrong'. Other photographers discussed were Jacques Henri Lartigue, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, László Moholy-Nagy, Andre Kertéz, Brassai, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus. Mr Szarkowski explained brieflly the significant contribution to the tradition of photography made by each of these photographers and how their photographs were innovative and central to the life and progress of the medium in its path towards self-definition.

Talking about contemporary photographic attitudes Mr Szarkowski said that for the first time in the history of the world there are no longer themes too humble or unaesthetic to be the stuff of art. Because of this wonderful and generous tool, photography, we are able to celebrate the intelligence of our eyes, wholly and freely. In defining the nature of photography Mr Szarkowski explained how photo-graphers can fix and enlarge intuitions attached to experiences which would have otherwise been lost the instant after their birth. 'Such pictures can help us know, rationalize and share levels of experience that have been untouchable and uncommunicable'. Photography approaching this spirit shows potentials that are so exciting that the photographer has stopped caring whether the world at large understands what a beautiful art it is that he practises. In this sense photography is probably one of the most underground of all the arts.

Talking about some of the most recent photography produced in the United States of America Mr Szarkowski spoke of Bill Dane, who makes his own photographic postcards and has been sending an avalanche of them direct from the dryer to a sizable, more or less random, cross-section of the world's population. 'What a beautiful, friendly, open-hearted, trusting medium is the postcard, also self-documenting. Every postman becomes a curator and each morning I look forward to the post, but the real reason I enjoy Bill Dane's postcards is because he makes beautiful pictures, pictures that somehow define new subjects. It seems to me that the subject of Bill Dane's pictures is the discovery of surprise and delight whatever enfolds in a wasteland of boredom, the discovery of classical measure and grace in the very heart of God's own junkyard. Dane's work shows the rediscovery of a kind of optimism and lightheartedness that is still open at least to our eyes but not necessarily to our reason.' Photography is not only the most reproducible of all the arts, but it is open to enormous possibilities for use in con-nection with other art concepts such as the post. Bill Dane, like many other young photographers who have been born into our increasing visually orientated society, has accepted photography as an inherent mode of life. It seems Moholy-Nagy was close to the truth when, about forty years ago, he said 'the illiterate of the future will be he who cannot make a photograph'.

In Australia, as elsewhere, the most seminal ideas and discoveries that direct the life of this form are those of photographers who have a very small audience. Perhaps this situation clarifies the need for the Australian Centre for Photography whose function is to mediate between these photographers and the potential audience for their work. In the United States of America this is becoming a self-generating process where the audience is beginning to push museums, galleries and publishers. Mr Szarkowski in Australia indicated this trend, which follows from the desire to know better what photography means as an art form intimately related to the other art forms, both traditional and modern. Photography is the radical child of the arts but it has already re-defined the nature of our visual vocabulary and our understanding of our modern visual experience.