Photographs as mirrors and windows

I often tell my students that their best photographs are the ones that reflect their personalities, life experiences and outlooks.  I was recently giving a presentation, when an audience member’s question stopped me cold and forced me to articulate how that same idea has played out in my own work.

By way of background, when I was in college studying the history of photography, one of the most important exhibitions I ever encountered was “Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960.” It was a sampling of 200 works by 100 American photographers, curated and introduced by John Szarkowski. He was the Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, from 1962 to 1991.

Szarkowski divided the images in the show into two groups. “Mirrors” were images meant to mirror the photographer’s own sensibility. “Windows” were photos meant to act as a window for the viewer to see something that is primarily factual and external to the photographer’s own sensibility. Keep in mind that Szarkowski stressed this was not a very strict dichotomy.

For me, that was real eye opener (no pun intended.)  The photography I had studied in high school was utilitarian at best. The idea of an image with heavy signs of obvious authorship was simply inconceivable.

After college, I cast about for a way to make a living in photography. I ended up doing photojournalism, which in Szarkowski’s framework is clearly “window” work. He was not making a judgment about a type of photography, but rather articulating framework for looking at all kinds of photography.

I was showing my work at B & H Photo in New York City to sixty plus people who braved the cold weather to hear me speak. During the question session, a man asked why my style had changed so much. He described the earlier work as darker, grimmer and the newer work as more fluid, open and lively.

For a while I talked about the switch to digital freeing me up in terms of the craft but that was not too convincing.  I talked about the shift from black and white to color, but he was not buying it any more than I was.

Then I remembered something my wife had told me. Before we met, she had seen some of my photography, particularly the series I call “City Light.” That can be seen at: www.davidhwells.com/lightCityWall/index.html. After we met and became involved, she told me that when she first saw that work, she thought those darker, grim images reflected a guy spiraling downward emotionally. Keep in mind that I did NOT understand that was happening as I made those images, but indeed my first marriage was collapsing into what became a subsequent divorce.

I could have told him that meeting and marrying my second wife changed my life and that change is reflected in my newer work. It may also have been the birth of my daughter and our precious relationship. I said that I like to think it is both of those things plus the wisdom of getting older with a little luck thrown in.

I never thought of my older work as darker and grimmer, but I concede the point, (while maintaining a lot of pride in that work.) Similarly, the newer work is more fluid, open and lively, a bit like I am becoming.

So, for a photographer who was sure his work was always “windows,” it was interesting to consider the “mirror” in my imagery and what that imagery tells the viewer about me. It is great that the man at the presentation raised the question. I am pleased that I could both articulate what had changed and appreciate how much of my personality is reflected in my work. It was the kind of moment of self-discovery that every photographer would like to go through.

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