|Atget, Avenue des Gobelins (via Wikipedia)|
Szarkowski had strong opinions on what makes art meaningful. Of Atget, he says :
It is important to remember that we value Atget not because he loved French culture, but because he made original pictures out of that material. Thus, he enlarged our sense of what the world was made of and of what photography might be for.Contrast that with his comments on Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz took a lot of photos of clouds that ostensibly represented his philosophy of life. Szarkowski was not a fan:
I’ve spent a good deal of time looking at these cloud pictures, and I think it is time for me to admit that I still don’t know what Stieglitz’s philosophy of life was. And I’m really not certain that I should care.To be fair to Stieglitz, check out this youtube clip and see what you think:
I'm sure Szarkowski could have said something profound about the cloud photos, but he was trying to make a point about self-expression as an artistic goal. He goes on to say:
I might as well also confess that the goal of self-expression seems to me a deeply inadequate artistic goal. It’s not simply that it is too easy. It seems to me that it is virtually unavoidable. Think of your own friends. Which of them, on reflection, has managed to avoid self-expression? (even if sometimes you wish they had)If self-expression is "deeply inadequate" as an artistic goal, what, then, would constitute a praiseworthy goal? I think Szarkowski's answer to that is at the very end of his lecture when he praises Atget's use of photography:
He [Atget] practiced photography not to express what he knew and felt, but to discover what he might know and feel.This strikes me as an insightful distinction. If we only use photography to express what we already know and feel, we are greatly limiting what it can do. If, on the other hand, we use it to investigate the world, to examine possible points of view, or to see things we might not otherwise notice, then we move beyond narcissism and into a broader view of the world. This is not to say that we are not expressing ourselves—after all, it's unavoidable. But if we use photos to discover what we "might" know and feel then it might change who we are. My own example of how photography can change a point of view relates to my of moving between Utah and France. I poked fun of my tendency to want Utah to be France back in 2008 with my "Extreme Makeover" project:
Hmm. Maybe this means that I like Paris more because I've taken more photos of Paris. rrright. Or maybe not. Let's not get carried away.