Two of the first books I bought after joining the course, were written by John Szarkowski, "The Photographer's Eye" and "Looking at Photographs". Each was an excellent introduction to the art form and its history. Szarkoski, potentially the most influential man in the history of art photography, was the curator of the photographic collection at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). He introduced the world to the likes of Stephan Shore and William Eggleston.
So, it was with no small amount of excitement that this morning, I got to visit the museum he worked at for so many years. After an almost endless wait in line to check my rucksack only to be told that I could not check a camera bag, we headed up to the 3rd floor to look at the photographic gallery. Probably the smallest space offered to any art form in the museum , this exhibit still managed to cram into its few rooms an amazing range of photographs: Atget, Fox Talbot, WeeGee, Shore, Eggleston, Sherman, Walker Evans, Man Ray, Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, Stieglitz, Adams (Both of them), the list goes on. A major proportion of the gallery was given over to a large number of Atget photographs, strangely beautiful records of a Paris long gone. Another hightlight, a typology created by the Becher, the photographs on display presented in the usual highly geometrical grid.
Everywhere I looked I found photographs I had seen over and over again; in books, on the TV, refered to in essays, it was quite an emotional experience. As I increasingly realize, seeing the original is far superior to reproductions in books, the level of detail and tonality simply cannot be reproduced in a mass market book.
I am not sure what I learned, however, there was simply too much material. I could not really focus on any one style or artist. Having said that it was still an experience to remember, humbling and at the same time a source of inspiration.
If there is one thing I took away, it is the growing awareness that a photograph is a print not a collection of pixels on a computer. Only when the image meets the paper does a photograph become a document. Ink and paper is not cheap, but then neither was photographic paper and chemicals. The masters of photography whose work I witnessed today, would not have simply looked at their negatives on a light box and decided great, I'm done now.
Oh and we also got to see Van Gogh's Starry Night, a massive Jackson Pollock, and some fabulous pop art by Lichtenstein and Warhol. OK, not quite as impressive as the tiny Fox Talbot print that simply took my breath away, but an added bonus all the same.