At a time when the news media are full of gender politics, Brexit et al, I find that I am becoming increasingly sceptical about binary choices. That goes equally for John Szarkowski’s division of photographic images into ‘mirrors’ and ‘windows’. The metaphor is useful; framing it as a binary choice is not.
To take the metaphor literally: when we look at a mirror, we see our own image reflected back at us; when we look at a window we see the outside world clearly. However, a clear glass window will show some element of reflection and in extreme cases (dark outside, brightly lit on our side) will act as a mirror. Similarly, a mirror that is silvered but not backed can act as a one-way window (again, depending on lighting). A mirror viewed obliquely will show us not ourselves but a view of the world (although not the same one we would get by looking ‘through’ it). An arrangement of mirrors might be a kaleidoscope, or a window might be made of textured glass, both of which let us see the world in entirely new ways.
Having stretched the metaphor well beyond its original formulation, I will return to the world of photography and this exercise:
Go through your photographic archive and select around ten pictures. Separate them into two piles: one entitled ‘mirrors’ and the other entitled ‘windows’.
• What did you put in each pile and why?
• Did you have any difficulties in categorising them?
Rather than placing images into ‘piles’, I will try to place each one on a continuum between ‘mirror’ and ‘window’. At the time of taking, I think I regarded all my photographs as objective records (therefore windows) but since studying with OCA, particularly the C&N module, have come to realise that basic choices such as subject choice, framing and focal length will inject a subjective element (therefore at least partially mirror). Equally, no photograph can be completely subjective; there is always one element of fact (the subject was there in front of the camera).
Selecting the images was an interesting, and rather humbling, experience in itself for reasons best explained in the philosophy of clickittycat.com
I have been taking photographs for almost fifty years, since my schooldays, most of which are lost because I am very bad at archiving. This includes two episodes of camera-club membership, some decades apart, my current OCA studies and several ‘fallow’ periods. Rather than attempt to explore the whole period, I looked at an album of CD- and DVD-ROMs. Images on these mainly fall into two categories: photographs taken in the early noughties with my first digital cameras, and images from scanned negatives dating back to the late 1970s in some cases. I found myself doing a ‘clickittycat cringe’ in terms both of technical quality and photographic vision. I also found myself taking a long time over the exercise because nostalgia kept kicking-in. Many thanks to OCA for prompting the review. This is my selection, of 12 from a ‘long-list’ of 60:
Comments on individual images, in random order (actually filename order which is pretty random)
My old sailing club, about 1990. Dave (seated) had just qualified as an instructor and was practicing on us. About 90% window – the mirror element reflecting my interest in sailing and friendship with the people involved.
A Rotary ‘Kids Out’ trip to Chessington, about 2002, before ‘child protection’ and GDPR made it difficult to take and publish this kind of photo (it was used on our club website). Clive is a member of my club. About 90% window for similar reasons to the previous image.
Canary Wharf in 2001. I had business nearby and took the opportunity to visit for the first time. Almost entirely ‘window’, but there is some personal input in viewpoint and framing.
Margate in 2001, at a time when the town was particularly depressed and run-down. My digital camera was new, and I was reading a lot of hobby magazines at the time, hence the use of filters. I remain happy with the effect, which suits the subject, although the sky needs some work. Say 60% window for the subject matter and 40% mirror for my choice and execution of post-processing.
My father in his office, probably 1980 when I first worked for him. It is disturbing to realise that I am now 12 years older than he was at the time of this photo. Semi-candid photo, with a lot of conscious and subconscious imagery. 60% to 70% mirror.
My grandfather with my daughter in 1984. His first great-grandchild. Emotional connections in frame as well as subject-to-photographer. About 90% mirror.
Infra-red film (the much-lamented Kodak HIE), my wife and a tree make my fantasy impression of summer (date uncertain, about 1980). I visualised and directed the shot, and chose the materials and techniques. Almost entirely ‘mirror’.
My wife, Jan, at Petworth around 1980. More objective than the previous image; I used conventional film and the picnic spot was chosen without reference to photography. There was some direction and arrangement of image elements to fit my vision. Approximately 80% mirror, 20% window.
Maidstone in the early 1970s. The scene would be unrecognisable today as every element of the image has been demolished and redeveloped. I do not recall the circumstances of taking this picture but I have a dozen scanned images of the town from the same roll of film; I think the plans for redevelopment had been published and I waned to record what was about to be lost. Almost entirely ‘window’.
Playing bowls during a three-generation family holiday at Centre Parcs in 2006. Son, mother-in-law and daughter (the baby of an earlier picture). This is one of an extended sequence of shots exploring camera angles, taken once I realised that photos of bowlers alone are not particularly interesting. About 90% mirror.
This one is difficult to classify. It was taken in the Okeefenokee Swamp in 2005 and shows a young alligator and a clump of Sarracenia flava pitcher plants. I had taken a lot of photos of the swamp as a generalised holiday record but my interest here was the sarracenias; I had previously grown them as a windowsill plant and this was the first time I had seen them in the wild. On reflection (sorry, I couldn’t resist it) this is 75% window and 25% mirror.
Also taken during the same holiday in 2005, this is a deserted house in Cataloochee Valley, NC. It is a record shot in a pictorial style and could be considered 95% window, except that I chose this particular house because it is ‘The Old Caldwell House’, Caldwell being Jan’s maiden name. Final score 85% window, 15% mirror because of my reason for taking it. (It would remain 95% window for any other photographer)