The Detail

Mississippi Delta, 2012.

“The photographer is tied to the facts of things, and it is his problem to force the facts to tell the truth. He can not, outside the studio, pose the truth; he can only record it as he found it, and it is found in nature in a fragmented and unexplained form – not as a story, but as scattered and suggestive clues. The photographer can not assemble these clues into a coherent narrative, he can only isolate the fragment, document it, and by doing so claim for it some special significance, a meaning which goes beyond simple description. The compelling clarity with which a photograph records the trivial suggests that the subject has never before been properly seen, that it is in fact not trivial, but filled with undiscovered meaning. If photographs can not be read as stories, they can be read as symbols.

Intuitively, he sought and found the significant detail. His work, incapable of narrative, turned towards symbol. “- John Szarkowski


I love this quote. It gets to the heart of what comprises the unique character of traditional photography as an expressive and creative medium. Even if the expressive truth of a photograph is symbolic, its veracity is premised on the basic distinction between recording the truth and “posing.” Its character as a means of faithful recordation is the bedrock basis of photography’s uniqueness. Of course, when Szarkowski wrote this in 1966 it was premised on the assumption that photography in some sense faithfully records a state of affairs ‘out there.’ Can we still make this assumption now that digital has severed the link to the photograph’s ‘indexicality’?

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26 thoughts on “The Detail

  1. 32BT

    Purely from a reproduction perspective, the answer would be affirmative, since so far most advances in digital *on the capture side* were primarily aimed at “better” reproduction quality. However, as we gradually move to computational photography (that combination of words by itself is horror enough) and the application of AI during capture, then the answer will quickly become a solid “No.”

    That said, I disagree with the notion that photography has always been limited in being a record of truth. There was always the ability to move the camera itself for example or deliberate misfocus to generate suggestive silhouettes instead of factual reality.

    And even more intriguing is the fact that we can see *and comprehend* a long exposure photograph, even though none of us has ever seen “reality” in that way…

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      I’d also argue with Szarkowski’s contention that photography can’t create narrative. Certainly, bodies of photographs can be structured into narrative form. In fact, most of my favorite photography is narrative – Frank’s ‘The Americans’, Winogrand’s ‘1964’, and my favorite favorite, Mike Brodie’s ‘A Period of Juvenile Prosperity’.

    2. Leicaphila Post author

      “That said, I disagree with the notion that photography has always been limited in being a record of truth. There was always the ability to move the camera itself for example or deliberate misfocus to generate suggestive silhouettes instead of factual reality.”

      Yes, but….those ‘suggestive silhouettes’ are the result of something actually in front of the camera lens.

  2. Stephen

    A refreshing post after all the doomsday talk about reality bending photo apps. Your photograph is in the vein of my own work, which, sadly, is not as refined and luxurious as yours. Planning to get off my ass and walk around with a camera today, hoping to perpetuate what may be this dying craft.

  3. Rob Campbell

    First of all, it would have been good to know if Szarkowski was addressing a specific photographer, or writing in general terms.

    Either way, I’m not so sure that his idea holds water. Photography can be that way, but it sure wasn’t the advent of digital that cast doubts upon the veracity of photographs either in or out of studios. I told more than one little fib outdoors using film!

    Perhaps it would have made more sense for him to suggest that photographers were partly limited to the materials that existed before their lenses, rather than suggesting that they were not going – almost inevitably – to distort whatever there was in that space to suit their concepts. I think that from the second something catches your eye, your mind is already playing games of isolation, framing, foreground and background relationships and, for some of us, bokeh. (Perhaps the only “honest” photography, then, can come out of the camera of the photographic virgin who has the standard lens set at f22?)

    Not a lot of the above reality of making pictures seems to me to be a close relative of truth.


    1. .

      It is almost as if what Tim describes as true photography was a blip in the history of visual art, in that the crudeness of the process limited the ability of the photographer to express him/her self. Before Mr. Fox -Talbot made his discoveries, the canvas was the artists’ oyster.

      As Rob says here, the skilled photographer spends much time and thought attempting to make something original out of something that is perhaps quite ordinary. Which is where my art suffers, regardless of what medium I use, the results are distinctly ordinary, I rarely get over the first hurdle.

      Whilst I accept and agree that the photoshopped trains illustrated a few weeks back here are not to my taste, a cousin of mine was married to a lady whose brother was very well known for his paintings of such trains, there is little that is real about these pictures, but they are skilfully executed and he made quite a good living from his art.

      Nobody is proposing to remove chemistry based substrate photography and replace it with computational or even just plain digital methods, just like nobody banned paintbrushes and oil paints during Fox-Talbot’s time.

      1. Leicaphila Post author

        Your concluding paragraph is a fair enough criticism…up to a point. You are correct: nobody is attempting to banish “chemistry based substrate photography;” we can continue to go on our merry way with our unwieldy film cameras and our HP5. No question.

        But…and this is where it gets problematic: “photography,” its uniqueness, has been premised on its indexicality i.e. it records stuff out there in some faithful fashion. Computational photography has destroyed that assumption FOR ALL PHOTOGRAPHY, both digital and film, because the easy means exists to fake the indexicality, to lie, to dissemble, and it implicates ALL photography now. Even “traditional” film photography (how can you be sure anymore). The genie cannot be put back in the bottle. the Naive assumption of the truthfulness of ALL photography has been destroyed. Now the burden is on me, the film photographer, to claim the truth of my film photos. How can I possibly do that convincingly anymore? I can’t.

        And that’s why ‘photography’ is dead.

        1. .

          I am not against having tools that limit one’s ability to express oneself, bearing in mind that artists and writers regard lying and obfuscation as part of their art, indeed some deliberately lie in order to confuse and amuse.

          I use film and film cameras myself, I use digitals, phone cameras and pinholes, they are all capable of providing me with some amusement. Cameras are only tools though, just like paintbrushes, there are only a few uses of photography where absolute fidelity is demanded, forensics for instance. Another might be for I.D. purposes, but I bet those ageing apps, leave enough behind them to reveal the digital truth, otherwise the border authorities might get themselves into a right stew.

          However, in regard to photography as art, I just do not see the point of this crisis you have over authenticity.

          I used the phrase “chemistry based substrate photography” so as to include all those other non HP5/ID11 recording/development methods. They had a progression that saw various increasingly simple methods, not replacing the older systems but receiving general acceptance.

          There are always those (like me) who like to mess around, but most people have accepted the ease of digital, and they just snap away, making pictures of their dinner.

          Despite your protestations Tim, nobody has taken anything away from you.

          1. Leicaphila Post author

            Thanks for the contra view. I love the fact that I have a readership that’s willing to think…and to question my assumptions. As for this issue, we will respectfully agree to disagree. Something HAS been taken away from me. Whether that’s MY problem or a larger problem of the medium is open to debate.

  4. Aaron C Greenman

    Great quote, I agree with it and agree with the first comments that while early digital for the most part simply shifted the medium, computational photography/image processing is fundamentally altering it.

    Heading out today with my Mamiya 6……

    Best Regards,


  5. 32BT

    I can, unfortunately, vividly imagine a future where a hoard of tourists visit the grand canyon in broad daylight, roughly point a camera at the scene and request the internal AI to -generate- an image of the scene with a dramatic sunset. Fluffy white clouds obediently turned into an imminent thunderstorm bathed in golden light.

    After a week or two, as the tourists return home and share stories with friends and family over an uneventful BBQ gathering, collective memory has morphed into the previously requested virtual reality as well, and the danger of course is in the latter part: the malleability of our collective consciousness.

    1. Rob Campbell

      That is how elections are won. Change the past to your preference, and nobody remembers the detail well enough to vote for anyone other than the party of knee-jerk habit.

      We need not look with fear upon AI: we manage to fool ourselves very convincingly already.


  6. Nick

    Photography has nothing to do with truth but with appearance. Like painting or drawing. Remember Magritte and his famous “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. Once you understand what it really means, you distance yourself from all this talking.

  7. Nick

    No, it is not a bad analogy unless you want to stay at the surface of things. We have exactly the same phenomenon with photography, the only difference being that photography looks more “realistic” even if we don’t deal with real things but only the way they look. Don’tr be confused by the real thing ans its image.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Nick: There is a huge difference between the painting you’ve mentioned and a photograph of a pipe. The painted pipe doesn’t exist and never did. It was conjured up in the mind of the artist, in this case Magritte. It’s not a pipe; its a painting.

      A photograph of a pipe isn’t a pipe either, but it is a recordation of the factuality of an actual pipe. Now, granted, the photo is a different thing from the pipe itself…but it’s still dependant on the pipe’s existence for its own existence, unlike the painting of the pipe, which is a figment of Magritte’s’ imagination.

      Magritte can paint a picture of a human with 8 heads. You cannot take a photo of a human with 8 heads, because they don’t exist.

      It’s simple really. Maybe I’m just completely incompetent at articulating it, but it seems like it’s a fairly obvious qualitative difference that otherwise intelligent people seem unable to see. I think it may be because critics of the position I’m advocating – the same thing held by Barthes etc – seem hellbent on refuting it, when to my mind it’s basically irrefutable.

  8. Nick

    Magritte does not tell you if the pipe he painted was in front of him or not as it is totally irrelevant. He is not talking about something which does not exist, he it talking about the representation of something which is present, or not, who cares as it is not what he meant. Of course, it is a little more difficult with photography as it is closely linked with appearence of things (what you call reality) and the ultimate picture would deal with their dis-appearance. Baudrillard wrote nice essays about it (and you know that he was interested in studying photography in many ways).

    1. 32BT

      Nick, a painter can combine any “symbolics” he/she wants to create a complete narrative. A photographer always depends on actual objects/subjects as potential symbols to hopefully create at least the suggestion of a story. It’s not about questioning reality or its representations, but about what used to be a defining limitation of photography as an art-expression, which, due to advances in technology is gradually becoming more like painting. Thus, the original limitation is gradually removed, at which point photography in its original form as art-expression is dead.

      1. Rob Campbell

        Yes, right up until the last clause.

        I can’t accept that as being true. It can certainly be argued to be true, but I think that is more a case of personal stance, and not a definitve reality.

        There are, and were, always shades of manipulation that created effects rather than truths. Today that may be accomplished at a level so high that true and false are very difficult to tell apart, if not sometimes impossible to distinguish.

        However, that in no ways prevents the capable photographer from using photography as an expression of his eye, his mind; his art, in effect. You do that all the time.

        1. 32BT

          Definite reality, not currently, but it soon will be dead in the same way that the Latin language is dead. You can still write poetry using Latin just fine, but the language no longer evolves because of too little practitioners.

          Once you can command the camera to include symbolics at will, adapted to taste, we will enter a new realm of creativity more akin to painting. Where the oldskool photographer forces the viewer to engage her mind because of half-baked ad-hoc and impromptu symbolics which actually require effort to interpret, the new era will serve narrative on a silver platter with icing on top.

          Of course, by that time the viewer will be so lazy that it will actually be considered an art if you are able to conceive a reasonable narrative in an image, which shouldn’t be too hard comparatively, considering the exposure to selfies relative to other type of images.

          It is not meant as negatively as it may appear. I love images that trigger one to make up parts of the narrative. The opening image in that sense is absolutely fantastic. But I’m fairly certain it will become a lost art. Considering the comments on the train thingy, we may already be half way there, unfortunately.

  9. Andrew Molitor

    I think Magritte is relevant, but not the whole story.

    Photography has long been recognized as surrealist, especially if one takes the word literally rather than spending a lot of time with the philosophical ideas of the artistic movement. A photograph occupies a peculiar position that is arguably somewhere between the Real and the Rrepresentation.

    A photo (especially an analog photo) of a pipe is not the pipe, but it is an index of the pipe. It is in a pretty well defined way a lot closer to actually bring the pipe than any painting of the pipe. But, yes, it also is not the pipe, but rather a representation of the pipe.

    It is this tension, perhaps, that makes the photograph so powerful. On the one hand it witnesses “this has been” with a kind of tenacity and vigor that nothing else does. On the other hand, it represents what it shows, with all the complexity and issues that arise when you “represent” a thing.

    We recognize a painting as “not the thing” instantly. We assume, as naturally as breathing, that the painter may have modified the thing in representing it, that we’re seeing the painter’s idea of the thing, or what the thing *ought* to be, or *might* be. This is at least part of Magritte’s point. Our reaction to the photo is different, we are more reluctant to consider that the photographer’s ideas and impressions could be present in the picture.

    Some photographers have gone to enormous efforts to make their presence felt, in a photograph that is at risk of being a mere reflection of reality. Other photographers seem to be at pains to conceal themselves, their opinions, in a photograph that is maybe not a particularly truthful rendering of reality.

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