Mirrors and Windows

Szarkowski’s musings indicate that photographers sit somewhere between two analogous poles, mirrors and windows. The former, Mirrors, is where a photographer forges a specially curated vision to reflect subjective, synthetic or psychological expressions, and the latter, Windows, is where the photographer takes an inventory of our mortality in an objective, optical, and real way. 

The distance between them is to be measured not in terms of the relative force or originality of their work, but in terms of their conceptions of what a photograph is: is it a mirror, reflecting a portrait of the artist who made it, or a window, through which one might better know the world.’

John Szarkowski, 1978.

I turned to my archives to investigate which camp I belonged to. Are my images closer to a mirror, where I reflect myself and ideas within the art, perhaps challenge perspectives and ideas, or are they closer to a window, where I truthfully capture the world as it is. I struggle to tie myself to a particular side as I often flutter between capturing the local town of Aberystwyth as the day unfolds, but also enjoy setting up photoshoots in my shed with family and friends. Photographer and Art Historian Lucy Soutter asks her students the question,

what is the difference between an art photograph and a handbag?

Lucy Soutter, Why Art Photography, (Routledge, 2018).

and people are seemingly immediately self-sort into four dichotomising groups before examining their opposer’s opinion. I had quickly realised that it is much harder to categorise ones own work. For example, my favourite photographs are where a real reaction is taking place, the emotions in an image become palpable to the reader, the context only adding more weight to the work.

The image above was taken on the first night of Aberystwyth University Freshers’ Week in 2020 during the COVID pandemic. Students who moved into halls of residence were required to isolate for two weeks before attending any events or lectures. These bedrooms face the sea on the west coast and therefore get to witness many unreal sunsets. However, as many students have deferred for a year, most rooms are empty and current students are lonely. It should be a time to celebrate freedom for many young adults, get loose, and meet new people but this year, all they had was the view. Despite the circumstances, it was wonderful to capture almost a living embodiment of the news headlines at the time and a literal window into students’ new lives. 

On the other hand, I personally cannot yet find technical brilliance in objective photography as most of them are taken on the fly with smartphones and who knows what settings they use the sharpness, detail, and lighting that arise from using a Canon 80D cannot be paralleled by my iPhone 8+! Likewise, a calculated, staged portrait just seems to pop more than its opposition, but are less fun to look back on. I see them as a project instead of a reflection of time. Despite this, it is sometimes exciting to be inspired by current movements within the world. Below is a photograph of a young man wearing light makeup and an open shirt. The idea for the portrait came from Harry Styles’ Vogue cover outfit, and the singer came under fire from the right for wearing a dress. I decided to emulate the vibe by testing the waters of makeup on men in Aberystwyth.

Although, it is important to note that portraits are integral to an artist’s expression. It is a style that cannot be taught, but felt by the maker and inspired by their peers. For example, popular Chicago photographer and filmmaker Eric Floberg is renowned for his double exposures and little post-production. He effortlessly understands the need for documentary style wedding shoots and stylised portraits, but combines them with natural, real elements like the night sky or a setting sun.

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