The Photographer’s Eye

Bert Danckaert

In the mid 90s I assisted the American photographer Stephen Shore with a workshop. Over a five-day period he discussed the work of the participants. Between these sessions he gave a couple of technical lessons and showed the work of colleagues he admired. At the time he was writing the book The Nature of Photographs (6) (a reworked version of which was published in 2007 by Phaidon Press). The publication came about as a result—and written version—of the courses Stephen Shore had given at Bard College in New York.

Stephen Shore and Bert Danckaert, Hasselt, 1995, photo Carine Demeter

In the publication he reveals, through a series of around seventy photographs from different periods and varying principles, the “nature” of the photographic image. Both anonymous and found photographs are placed alongside the works of contemporary artists (such as Thomas Demand, Thomas Struth, and Andreas Gursky), as well as descriptions of the work of street photographers from the 50s and 60s (Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand). Shore consistently provides the images with a short, clear text. Above all, Shore writes from experience—he knows what it means to try and get a grip on the world using a camera. Shore is photography, the two merge together, just as an artist and his research. Or just like a sailor needing to repair his boat out at sea, without the luxury of bringing the vessel into a dry dock (7). Stephen Shore doesn’t view photography from the outside, not from an academic perspective (like, for example, an art historian or theoretician), but attempts to fathom and frame the thoughts and actions of the photographer from within.

Stephen Shore, The Nature of Photographs, Phaidon, 2007

Over five chapters, Shore addresses among other things the physical appearance of a photograph (the paper, the emulsion, etc.) or the “depictive level,” in which he further discusses the transformation of reality into a photograph. In contrast with reality, photographs are two-dimensional, held within a frame; we see a moment frozen in time. In this way, photographs often reveal things we cannot usually perceive: in 1977 Larry Fink, using a flash, photographed a girl dancing, her braided hair swinging decoratively behind her. Shore describes the image as “frozen time,” creating a new moment. Based on a photograph by Garry Winogrand (Texas State Fair, Dallas, 1964) Shore describes the synchronicity of some photographs and the contingency of the chaos that surrounds us, and how photographers are able to challenge that synchronicity. In the photograph we see a cowboy wearing a Stetson hat, pulling a cow by a heavy rope. At exactly the same moment that Winogrand releases the shutter—allowing 1/125 seconds of light into his camera —the cow stuck its tongue out in perfect symmetry with the form of the cowboy’s hat. A fraction of a second later, this “sublime” moment will have dissolved again into the “ordinary” flow of time.

Garry Winogrand, Texas State Fair, 1964

In the final two chapters, Shore expands on the mental levels of the photograph and the way in which we use “mental models” to read images. Just as this text is simply ink on paper, we are able to discern its meaning by decoding its bizarre symbols. On different levels photographs are also constructions; the maker creates a construction through staging, framing, and selecting, while the viewer mentally reconstructs the flat piece of paper of the photograph into a memory of (or reference to) a past reality.

According to Shore, the difference between photography and fine art painting lies in the fact that the photographic image is analytical while a painter synthesizes an image. The photographer (or rather his camera) can only record what is in front of his lens, and with these means he creates an (directed) analysis of reality. The painter, on the other hand, processes an image by using a brush to physically sweep across the canvas rendering an autonomous representation. The painter reaches synthesis. The photograph is always a reference to light reflecting from a surface (8). In other words, the light existed regardless of the photograph. A painting consists of paint on a canvas, defined by a reality of its own.

Larry Fink, Studio 54, New York City, May 1977

I particularly remember one of the questions Stephen Shore put to the workshop participants: to imagine on which point the photographer’s eye had been focused when the shutter was released. Shore maintained that you could read this from an image. Most probably because the choice of frame, perspective, and selected moment in which the photograph is taken are the direct result of the point of focus. In other words, the eye of the photographer is embedded in the image. Shore went even further, he asserted that if you were to place a camera on a tripod in a controlled environment (like a photography studio), set the aperture, the shutter speed and focus, and subsequently invite different people to take a photograph of what they found in front of the camera (the different photographers can therefore only look through the viewfinder and press the shutter release), that this would still generate different images. Magic through the eye of the photographer, simply because the photographers themselves were focused on different objects at the moment they pressed the button. Naturally, this esoteric photography hocus-pocus raises more than a little skepticism; nevertheless, I find the thought extremely useful (and perhaps Shore had meant it more as a provocative thought experiment). The idea that the photographer’s thoughts—and from this, their point of focus—can steer the meaning of the photograph, without the use of technical influences such as perspective or framing, resonates with the notion of “invisible contamination,” in which the meaning of the photograph is also the result of a “magical” (invisible) projection. Above all, what’s interesting about Shore’s assertion is that his own particularly down-to-earth approach to his photographic work—in which the camera is sooner used to register, as oppose to interpret—seems quite contrary to his occult photography-philosophy. In fact, I also remember that this sober New Topographics (9) photographer was also a staunch supporter of homeopathy (evidence of the actual results of such homeopathic dilutions was the recovery of his dog, which was obliged to disprove all kinds of placebo effects).

Images are often smarter and more consistent than their makers, because they are the eroded residues of their perspectives, thoughts, doubts, and failures. Words about images are often no more than masks or veils: or circling descriptions, undoubtedly useful and challenging, but never reaching the core of the image.

6 Stephen Shore, The Nature of Photographs, The John Hopkins University Press, 1998. Baltimore.
7 In reference to Kathleen Coessens’s lecture at “Suspense,” symposium about research in the arts, Fotomuseum Antwerp (organized by kaska – Sint Lucas Antwerp), May 2011, where Coessens cited The Artistic Turn – A Manifesto, Kathleen Coessens, Darla Crispin and Anne Douglas, Leuven University Press, 2009, (ch. 4, “The Ship Sailing Out”). Leuven.
8 Garry Winogrand: “It’s light on surface!” from the documentary film Light on Surface by Jason Forrest.
9 New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape was the legendary exhibition (1975) at the International Museum of Photography in the George Eastman House (Rochester, ny). The exhibition, curated by William Jenkins, was a milestone in American landscape photography and still influences contemporary photography today. The title New Topographics can be understood as a reference to the photographer as topographer: describing the landscape as accurately as possible, with (ostensible) scientific precision. Exhibiting were the (then) young American photographers Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gholke, Nicholas Nixon, Henry Wessel, John Schott accompanied by the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher (de), known for their typologies of industrial architecture under the title Anonymous Sculptures. In his introductory text Jenkins also referred to Edward Ruscha, who produced several photographic artist’s books in the 60s (26 Gasoline Stations (1962), Various Small Fires (1964), 34 Parking Lots (1967), etc.) in which he plays with ideas about the issue of “style” in photography and the “anonymous character” of the medium. Ruscha: “Actually, what I was after was no-style or a non-statement with a no-style.”