Ménage à trois, The Hague 1996

Il Florileggio '96 03

Ménage à trois, Il Florileggio, Elegance Magazine 1996

During the 20s and 30s of the last century, an exploration of the expressive possibilities of the then relatively new medium of photography related to the art of painting originated. This often resulted in a kind of photography in which form was the fundament, content came second. Basically abstractions of reality. Photographers from that period like André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy, Alexander Rodchenko and Man Ray are still famous for their new ways of seeing.

This type of work was still the trend in art photography during the 40s and 50s, but became old-fashioned when John Szarkowski, Director of Photography at the MoMA in New York, developed his Mirrors and Windows theory in the late 70s.
By Mirrors he meant the expression of pure personal ideas and emotions, by Windows the subjective depicting of the visible reality. “It isn’t what a picture is of, it’s what a picture is about.”, is how Szarkowski defined the essence of modern photography.

This meant the end of the traditional nineteenth century point of view that what you see in a picture is real, that it is showing the truth or reality, which started the era of ‘snapshot aesthetics’ with photographers like Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Jaques Henri Lartique, William Klein and Gary Winogrand. Ed van der Elsken, Johan van der Keuken, Martin Parr and the recently ‘discovered’ Vivian Maier would have fit perfectly into this list.

This new insight – which meant that a photographer could distinguish himself from others, not only by form but also by content and vision, or as Szarkowski stated it: “To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft.” – caused a change in appreciation of photography from Mirrors (Ray, Kertész) to Windows (Arbus, Frank, Klein), while today, forty years later, it looks like if we are seeing a change in the direction of Mirrors again (Nick Knight, Van Lamsweerde-Matadin,Tim Walker), which quite ironically, probably has to do with the fact that one has become used to digital techniques and manipulation; the newly evolved knowledge that what you see in a picture is not the truth but the subjective representation of an idea or vision.
Something which, of course, has always been like that. Since the very beginning.

Excerpt from ‘Nothing is Real’ Chapter 2, Form and Content

 

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