The new book by American photographer and educator Stephen Frailey, Looking at Photography, borrows the concept and format of Szarkowski’s seminal primer Looking at Photographs (1973): it puts together 100 great authors and a page of text for each, articulating the themes and emerging sensibility of contemporary photography.
Frailey, who is a photographer, writer, curator and currently the Director of Education at Red Hook Labs, introduces us to significant photographs from the early 1970s to the present day, featuring works of artists such as Tina Barney, Jeff Wall, Steven Meisel, Nan Goldin, Helmut Newton, Martin Parr, Tim Walker and Wolfgang Tillmans, among others.
The book, published by Damiani, turns out to be an useful and engaging resource for students, professionals and amateurs as well: it shows us an incredible amount of good works and images, explaining with easy words the complicated grammar of the medium of photography.
Read our Q&A with Stephen Frailey to learn more.
How the idea of the book came about?
I’ve had the great privilege of being a photography faculty person and then the Chair of a large program in New York at the School of Visual Arts. I know I’ve worked with young photographers for 40 years. When I left that position I wanted to take all that information that I had gained in the classroom and to share it. All of those years in the classroom I learned so much about the medium because of the students’ work, of their questions their concerns. In 2018 I started to write the book based on the format of Looking at Photographs, the famous book by John Szarkowski and thus provide a way for the reader to be able to assimilate and to digest the works without the encumberance of unecessary text.
I really like that you put together names from different genres of photography, from fashion to documentary, from conceptual to staged photography… Why did you make the choice to give importance to name rather than genres?
Good question. When I was putting together the first changes in the department of photography at SVA one of the things that I wanted to emphasize in terms of the curriculum and the faculty is that the Department would advocate all kinds of work. Historically, in regard to institutions and publishing and education, photography has been segregated by different genres. My feeling was that young photographers, no matter what photographic pursuit they were interested in had the same goal: to do something that was original. Thus in the classroom I wanted to gather together the documentary photographers, the fashion photographers, the self-portrait artists and so on, as all can learn from one another. I don’t think it’s productive to separate by motivation. So, my educational philosophy is to explore and encourage all different forms of photographyequally. And this attitude is reflected in the book.
How did you select the authors?
I chose the hundred photographers because I thought that, individually, their work had the most influence to young photographers over the last thirty years — those chosen are the photographers that have affected most emphaticaly what photographers were thinking about, their dealings with the medium and their challenges. Another thing to mention is when we decided to put the photographers of the book alphabetically that was a really important decision because it avoided, as you said, organizing the book by genre, so the reader would go from, say, Dawoud Bey to Deborah Turbeville , ignoring usual hierarchies.
As a professor and director of school programs, what can you tell me about the importance of photo education today? Can you explain me also what you make a Red Hook Labs?
I think photo education is very important. Photography is such an accessible medium that one would think that you can learn on your own how to make important and interesting pictures, and you can to some extent, but I think that photographic education develops a critical language and critical line of thought, and, ultimately, originality. And that critical language is relevant to any part of one’s life, it doesn’t just remain in photographic terms.
On the other hand I feel like in all visual arts education there are serious problems, one being the cost especially in the United States. It’s tremendously expensive, and encourages huge amounts of debt that are crippling. Ironically, this encourages graduates to compromise their work when they get out of school because they have to make a living. One of the things that I’ve been doing in Red Hook Labs is to rethink how we can offer relevant and committed and challenging education but in economically accessible ways. And since it is in Brooklyn New York where there’s so many young photographers, we realized also that it was essential to offer a critical conversation to them, two or three or five years after graduation to assist to sustain a meaningful relationship with their work. It’s really about building a community.
You mentioned Looking at Photographs by Szarkowski as a source of inspiration for the book. Can you suggest us other books about the language of photography?
There’s a wonderful book by Marvin Heiferman called Photography Changes Everything. That playfully shows the way that photography influences everything about contemporary life. I think it’s just a phenomenal achievement. I admire what Charlotte Cotton and David Company have done, as well the writings of Mark Alice Durant and Vince Aletti.