What Makes Photography Unique?

Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother' photo composite from 1935

Today, a photograph does not need to shout “I am Art.” Photography stands on its own without reference to other arts, with its five essential qualities, first proposed by MOMA curator John Szarkowski. These elements make photography unique:

1. The Subject and its meaning and symbolism.

Think of the Great Depression. One particular image comes to mind. A mother, holding her children, a determined set to her expression. The photographer, Dorothea Lange, was part of a government team charged to document our American life in the 1930’s. Lange’s 1935 portrait is now called Migrant Mother, and it is THE symbol of the Great Depression. Lange’s image became the central visual signpost from thousands of images of the era.

Yousef Karsh's Winston Churchill photo, 1941

All images © The Estate of
Yousuf Karsh. All Rights Reserved.
To see larger image of 1941 photo…

2. The Detail in the image.

There is a wealth of story-telling detail in this 1941 portrait of Churchill by Yousef Karsh. The details of the Prime Ministers cane, handkerchief and watch add to his persona. While we do not know that a moment earlier that Karsh took Churchill’s cigar away from him, the intense expression that Karsh captured symbolizes how we think of Winston Churchill.

3. Frame

Master photographers compose with a rightness of framing. Everything that appears in their photographs is essential. Compositions are often stark, direct and honest. Ben Shahn’s 1938 image below was taken outside an A and P store in Somerset, Ohio. What is left out of the portrait is as important as what Shahn put in: his framing gives us a location, tells the season, offers hints about the era, and frames humanity in the moment. Everything in Shahn’s frame needs to be there.

Ben Shahn's Summer 1938 A & P Store in Somerset Ohio photo

4. Vantage Point

Marion Post Wolcott stood inside a tobacco barn in Mebane, North Carolina, and shot down a wooden floor to the street. For her image, she chose the vantage point that defines the action of organizing tobacco baskets. Wolcott’s technical skill with the details of time, place and subject make for a compelling image; we can even pick out the cars in the background as Model T Fords.

Marion Post Wolcott's Arranging Tobacco Baskets in Mebane, N.C. photo

*** All Photographs Library of Congress Public Domain ***
Credits: Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ composite
Yousef Karsh’s Winston Churchill
Ben Shahn’s Summer 1938 A & P Store in Somerset Ohio
Marion Post Wolcott’s Arranging Tobacco Baskets in Mebane, N.C.

5. Time

All photographs involve Time: its passage, space-time, surreal time, hyper-real time, time as illusion, static time. Some images involve time as an icon, others use time as a symbol. Modern advertising photography for the web seems to be driven by market needs involving shorter slices of time. Immediacy, economy and speed are the livelihood of today’s commercial photographers.

The symbolic nature of master photographs takes them beyond the subject. Detail invites us to return to look again and again. Framing confers importance on all that the photographer has included in the scene. Vantage point is crucial; moving the camera a few inches makes the difference between a picture and a master photograph. Time is woven into all photographs and, as it passes, elevates the status of a photograph.

 Virginia Photo of Color Guard marching in the NATO parade in Norfolk, Virginia by Jim Austin
© 2011 Jim Austin. All rights reserved.

A team from the Virginia Color Guard marches in the NATO parade in Norfolk, Virginia.

By the way, here are some living master photographers, whose work exemplifies the 5 key ingredients we’ve seen here.

Mathew Jordan Smith: Japan and personal galleries

Andrew Davidhazy: High speed photography 

Tim Fitzharris: Nature photography

Amy Arbus: Narrative and theatrical portraiture

by Jim Austin
All text and photos: © 2010 Jim Austin. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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