Book review

The Museum of Modern Art in New York, also known as MoMa, has had an tremendous impact on the photography’s development to a respected art form. Back in 1930s MoMa was one of the first noticeable art museums to acknowledge photography’s many possibilities in artistic expression, and started collecting it. The first photographic exhibition, that they curated in 1937, was pivotal in securing photography’s place within the arts, and furthermore the establishment of its own department in 1940. Ever since then The Museum of Modern Art has been one of the most influential institutions to determine the course of contemporary photography and the platform for emerging photographers to get noticed.

Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art is written by John Szarkowski, who was a longtime Director of the Department of Photography at MoMa. He wrote the book as he was the Department head. He picked 100 photographers and one picture from each of them from the museum’s collection, and paired them with one page essays he wrote himself about each individual image.

The vast range of works include some of the most iconic and not-so-familiar photographers, giving a thorough cross-section of the first decade of photography history, not focusing on big names, but the large scale of imagery it consisted of as a whole. The book walks the reader through both the development of the technological and the artistic aspects of photography. Starting with the stiff portraiture of the daguerreotype era, to the landscapes created while mapping out the unexplored wonders of the Wild West, to World War I documentary photography and photojournalism, ending the journey to early 1970s, when the medium has already radically changed from the times of the first photograph. 


Eadweard Muybridge, Galloping Horse, 1886

Frances Benjamin Johnston, Girls Art Class, 1889

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bicycle, 1932

This is a photography book that is a joy both to look at and to read. The essays alongside the photographs are beautifully written paragraphs that not only interpret the photographs themselves, but also give insightful information about what was going on in the society at the time, what technical improvements had been made, what was known about the photographer and about their work in a larger scale, and so on. Almost imperceptibly, when flipping through the pages of this book, you get a review on American history, the history of photography and, to my mind most importantly, a lesson on how to look at photographs, by a master critic and curator John Szarkowski. 

The evolution from using a camera to simply record what is seen, to the iconic portrait and fashion photographers of the twentieth century, is gathered into a pleasant journey-like series of poetic essays and black and white photographs that depict the important events and styles throughout the decade.

Jerry Uelsmann,  Poet's House , 1965

Jerry Uelsmann, Poet's House, 1965

U.S. 93, Wikieup, Arizona, December 14, 1976

Stephen Shore is one of the big greats in the history of photography. He, alongside with William Eggleston and Jeff Wall, was one of the first to take color photography beyond advertisement and to make big prints from the pictures he took with his large-format camera. In his pictures, he portrays the built American environment: small towns, motel rooms, signs and suburbs. He took the highway and went across the country with his large format camera, making pictures as he went, and like Robert Frank and Walker Evans before him, gave a new take on the American image.

In Uncommon Places Shore captures the essence of the American landscape by framing particular, ordinary yet distinguishing, elements. The amazingly beautiful quality of the colors and the preciseness in the details, both characteristics for large-format film, that he's able to capture, together with his infallible sense of composition, creates an exquisite experience to look at the photographs.

Shore’s is the art of the deadpan––rejecting exotic compositions, artful editing, or facile simplification. He accepts the threadbare banality of the American scene, the jerry-rigged, down-at-the-heels seediness of our rural landscapes and the spatial looseness of our towns, recapturing the overfamiliar, making it poignant, coherent, and almost loveable.
— Robert Venturi

Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1975

Perrine, Florida, November 11, 1977

Room 125, Westbank Motel, Idaho Falls, Idaho, July 18, 1973

As you know, if you read my previous post, I'm a big fan of photographing ordinary moments from the everyday life, a style of photography often referred as deadpan. A style that simply says: "This is how things are". Shore successfully manages to capture the essence of that sensibility in his work, which is why I feel so compelled by it. I also love his use of color. He uses a lot of analogous or monochromatic color schemes, which means either a group of three near-to-eachother colors or different hues of the same color, all of them with a soft washed out look. His compositions are simple:symmetrical or centered. The eye doesn't have to rush scanning through the image because it's instantly clear where you should be looking at. This creates the sense of calmness and curiosity in the viewer. 

Here is a chain of though you might have while looking at Shore's work:

 This is what I'm looking at --> Why am I looking at this? --> Let me take a very good look at it

I believe that my own recent cross-America roadtrip has also to do, why I was so intrigued by this book. The scenes in Shore's America in the 1970s look amazingly similar to mine in 2017. I can recognize the same styles of signs, motels and gas stations that I saw countless times on the way. What is changed are the cars and restaurants (unfortunately). Instead of colorful old american cars and family run restaurants and diners the towns were filled with Toyota's and Jeep's, and Taco Bell's and Panda Expresses. 

The feeling I get from the book is the America how I pictured it before ever been in America. It's nostalgic and somewhat idealized, but truthful description of this country. Or what it was in the 70s'. Anyway, it is an important piece of the history and culture of photography and especially the development of color photography, and a beautiful piece of art works.

Cedar Springs Road, Dallas, Texas, June 5, 1976

Ginger Shore, Causeway Inn, Tampa, Florida, November 17, 1977

- Lotta