Window or Mirror

It has been observed that photography can be either a window or mirror. The idea has some merit. But like most real world things, it depends.


The idea originated with John Szarkowski, at the time the head of the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was expressed in an exhibit named “Mirrors and Windows, American Photography since 1960” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1978.

Mr. Szarkowski was a huge influence on photography for many years. I don’t agree with many of his ideas, but I believe there is something to consider in the ideas behind this exhibit.

The press release for the show states that “In metaphorical terms, the
photograph is seen either as a mirror–a romantic expression of the photographer’s sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world; or as a window–through which the exterior world is explored in all its presence and reality.”

Let’s try to unpack that.

A window on the world

At the beginning of photography, it was seen as a way to quickly capture real scenes. The “writing with light” aspect was a big thing. A landscape or a portrait could be captured much more quickly than by previous artistic media. What a breakthrough! To make a portrait in a few seconds instead of having to sit for days while a painter works! And it was “real”! Indisputable. Unaltered. Exactly what the person or place looked like.

This notion that a photograph is true to reality carries on strongly today. I see photographers who refuse to alter anything in the frame for fear of being dishonest. And most viewers have a natural belief that what they see in a print is real. Unless an image obviously looks like a fantasy illustration, it must be fact.

A great many photographers follow this tradition. I started there, too. The idea that an image represented exactly what was there at the time. No illusion or tricks or modification. Many great photographers like Ansel Adams and Gary Winogrand could be placed in this group.

This could be described as the “window on the world” view. What I choose to frame in the image is bringing the viewer an exact representation of reality. It is an outward looking viewpoint. The photographer is silently in the background. It is not obvious what he was thinking or feeling. There is little clear message beyond “look at this”. And there is always the implication that you could go there and see the same scene.

A mirror reflecting the artist

Somewhere in the mid twentieth century (around 1960 according to Szarkowski), many photographer’s intent started to shift. This would describe some great artists like Paul Caponigro and Jerry Uelsmann. It was no longer sufficient to just bring reality. It was important to express my beliefs, to make a statement, to convey my feelings. And it was no longer important that the image depict the scene literally.

Now the goal became to express the scene as I perceive it. That may require extreme processing or compositing or absolutely anything as long as my intent is brought through. The final image may bear little or no resemblance to the original. That is OK, though, because it is an expression, not a capture of reality.

There was one idea in the exhibit notes that resonates strongly with me. The image that a scene projects on the artist who then internalizes it and interprets it to the viewer. This seems to me to capture a large range of what is done in art now.

A natural evolution?

I believe this movement from window to mirror was fairly natural and predictable. By the 1950’s or 1960’s people had become used to seeing images of the world. Major publications like Life and National Geographic flooded us with images of the world, both landscapes and people. Pictures were becoming commonplace.

To take landscapes, for instance, there is only room for a limited number of shots of the major sights of the world. The market was saturated. So artists started to differentiate their work by allowing their own personality to show through. The notion of a personal style became important.

The part of this that seems valid to me is that, while there are millions of photographers out there shooting everything imaginable, only I have my personal point of view and style. Therefore, my images are unique. Even if they are of the same scene many others shoot. That seems to me to be the only chance of artists to carve a niche in the crowded market.


Even Szarkowski was quick to point out that this was not intended to be a clear division of artists. It is an axis, with strong window view points on one end and strong mirror view points at the other. Most people will fall somewhere in between. And they may move back and forth on the axis with time. Although I think the movement is typically from window toward mirror. At least that was my path.

But even with that said, I do jump around. It depends on the context and what I am feeling at the time. So, for instance, when I go to a new location that excites me, I may start out taking “window” shots. To capture the locale, the scenes I am loving. Many of these are consciously for my own memories.

If I have the opportunity to spend time in the location, I move past the “window” shots and start feeling a personal view that begins to be expressed. This is now drifting toward the “mirror” end of the axis. But in the same day of shooting I will probably do both. In familiar territory where I spend a lot of time, there is a greater tendency to concentrate on mirror views, since the conventional views are well gone over.

The metaphor is useful to help us reflect on how we are seeing subjects at any time.


This idea of window vs. mirror views is just Szarkowski’s concept. That doesn’t make it right or some universal truth. I must admit, though, the model has merit. It is a valuable metaphor.

Photography started out as a window on the world. Just the fascination of being to quickly capture as “real” scene in all it’s complexity was one of the things that propelled it into popularity. And I think many new photographers still start out intending to shoot realistic scenes of nature or architecture or people. It is a great way to hone our technique.

And I believe that many who stay serious about the art move toward the mirror end of the axis. It is no longer enough to just present a scene and say “here is what it looked like”. We feel a need to express how we felt about it, or how we perceived it differently than other people.

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