Photography and Text by Wing Hei Emily Cheng, Copyright 2018.
Looking at Photographs by John Szarkowski
After reading John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs, I was struck by the obstacles that photographers faced in the pursuit of the perfect shot. As a lifelong digital photographer, it was inconceivable to me that one might need to set up a portable darkroom in the battleground, or carry a twelve-horse train’s worth of photography equipment into the field, just to get a single picture. With the technologies that we have now, I am able to capture multiple images with just one squeeze of the button, and make tiny micro-adjustments to my aperture, shutter speed and ISO until I get my ideal image. Knowing the intensive labor and precision necessary for historical photography has certainly deepened my appreciation for the masters of the craft.
Given the constraints that photographers faced historically, it is commendable how they have embraced and stretched the limitations of technology, in very divergent ways. As Szarkowski writes, “photography has not developed in a disciplined and linear manner, but has rather grown like an untended garden.” For example, while portraiture may have begun with the static and posed studio shots taken with the daguerreotype, such as William Shew’s image of the Mother and Daughter, it quickly evolved as constraints on the medium loosened. Just 40 years after Shew took his still portraits, Edward Muybridge was able to capture people in motion, frozen in each millisecond of action. But fast forward another 50 years and Irving Penn has returned to the studio, photographing subjects in a minimal style that evokes the nineteenth century portrait. Rather than progressing in a straightforward fashion, it seems that photography continues to reference the past as it evolves.
As a portrait photographer, I was inspired by the transformative nature of photography, how it can depict people in creative and heterogenous ways. Edward Weston’s Torso of Neil transformed his son into and abstract and organic sculpture. Brassai’s Dance Hall captured the seedy patrons of Parisian nightlife in their natural habitat. Meanwhile, Baron Adolphe de Meyer’s portrait of Helen Lee Worthing amped up the drama with luxurious artificial light. While I was reading this book, I was also fascinated by the way in which people could be evoked in images devoid of subjects, or those that heavily concealed them. Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s Woman Combing Her Hair, which casts the subject in heavy shadow save for her profile and a small portion of her dress, is an example of how portraiture can be poignant without even showing the subject’s face. George N. Barnard’s Scene of General McPherson’s Death manages to evoke the subject even without him being present, merely by showing the vestiges that he left behind on the landscape.
The images by Edward Weston and Manuel Alvarez Bravo have informed my work, Woman in Motion, which seeks to distill the essence of my subject in the picture without focusing on her face. I was inspired by Weston’s use of the human body to create intensely sensuous and sculptural forms. I was also inspired by Alvarez Bravo’s dramatic use of light to obscure parts of the subject.
“Photography has learned about its own nature not only from its great masters, but also from the simple and radical works of photographers of modest aspiration and small renown,” Szarkowski wrote in the introduction of his book. Ultimately, the innovative works in Looking at Photographs have reinvigorated me as a photographer and given me the diverse inspiration to to hone my craft.
About The Author: Wing Hei Emily Cheng is a Senior enrolled in the College of the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2018. To access additional articles by Ms. Cheng, click here: https://tonywardstudio.com/blog/emily-cheng-masks-wear/