Monthly Essay: Windows and Mirrors

Soft shores - Isle of Harris, Scotland

Soft shores – Isle of Harris, Scotland

Some time ago I attended an exhibition at the Hermitage museum of Lausanne, Switzerland. Under the enticing title of “Windows”, a great number of paintings from artists like Matisse, Rothko and Magritte, among others, lured the visitor with the symbolic and metaphorical meaning of windows in the arts. Painting after painting, windows appeared in many different ways, unveiling a myriad of connotations: Mystery or transparency, freedom or reclusion, joy or sadness, loneliness or openness, order or chaos …

Walking around the museum, I could not avoid making some connections with the world of photography, and how this very same concept of the window had always haunted the expectations of our field to be considered as a valuable medium of artistic expression.

Two islands - La Palma, Spain

Two islands – La Palma, Spain

When photography was first revealed to society, it was presented as a technological feat able to reproduce reality with a degree of exactitude never seen before. Photography imposed itself as the perfect tool to document the world, bringing it to a flat bi-dimensional piece of material to be shared with others. It would not take many years to be adopted by the pioneers of landscape photography, who roamed the West of the USA with mules loaded with heavy cameras and glass plates in search of capturing accurate views of those “new” landscapes. In 1835, William Fox Talbot created the first negative ever produced, “A latticed window in Lacock Abbey, England” surely without realizing that this very photograph portrayed what the new invention was going to be considered from that moment on: a window to reality. Indeed, was not photography a mere virtual frame of a small piece of the universe carefully chosen by the photographer? With photography as the perfect literal tool, arrived the end of painting as a medium to represent and portray reality and the trigger to make it evolve into a more figurative way of representing the world. From that moment on, if photography was to rule in the name of reality, painting would continue its voyage in the name of art.

In 1960, John Szarkowski, head of the photography department of the MoMa in New York, inaugurated the exhibition “Windows and Mirrors”. According to Mr. Szarkowski, photographs could be associated to two different forms of expression. Photographs as mirrors were defined as “romantic expressions of the photographer’s sensibility as it projected itself on the things and sights of this world”, whereas photographs conceived as windows would “explore the exterior world in all its presence and reality”. Even if all photographers included in the exhibition were in “pursuit of beauty, and that format integrity that pays homage to the dream of a meaningful life”, a clear distinction in their objectives had been made by Szarkowski, and with it a strong affirmation of the possibility of using photography as a perfectly plausible medium of personal artistic expression. Not a single photograph hanged from the walls of any art gallery in New York at the time of the exhibition.


Salty sunset – La Palma, Spain

Half a century later, I am writing these lines as a finer art photographer. Like Szarkowski said, I have always been focused on experiencing the dream of a meaningful life by means of a camera. However, my initial motivations of using photography to merely dissect a piece of the universe have increasingly evolved into something different and more personal. Today, in this modern world of technology, ultra high resolution cameras and HDR, I am not really interested in creating windows through which the viewers will observe technically perfect renditions of reality anymore. I no more want photographs full of detail which show it all and let little room for the imagination, photographs which merely depict a beautiful rendition of a certain place. What I want is to create photographs where the viewer will peer into my own soul, revealing the dreams, fears and emotions which accompany me through life.