In the tenth in this series of pre-viva posts, I discuss the words of Freeman Patterson, the Canadian photographer who suggested that “the camera looks both ways” (1977) at the subject and back at the photographer.  In a similar vein, John Szarkowski (1978) presented an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York entitled Mirrors and Windows – American Photography since 1960 and proposed a thesis that:

“. . . there is a fundamental dichotomy in contemporary photography between those who think of photography as a means of self-expression and those who think of it as a method of exploration.”  (Szarkowski 1978 p11).

In other words, a photographer uses the camera as a mirror reflecting back at themselves, or as a means of shedding light on the world through a carefully chosen window with a particular view.  Those leading the charge towards exposing the social and political issues of the day included Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, and Dorothea Lange.  On the other hand, Minor White’s founding of Aperture (1952) and Robert Frank’s The Americans (1959) presented a highly personal view of the world, similar to that portrayed by Stieglitz, Weston, and Adams before them.

As I ponder on Szarkowski’s dichotomy, I begin to reflect on my own work and whether it is as Patterson suggests, that the camera looks both ways or it is the resultant image that betrays us.  I scrutinise Patterson’s words further and realise that he qualifies his statement by saying “A photograph is usually as good a description of who’s behind the lens as who or what is in front of it.” (op cit).  In reality, I think it is both the camera as a tool that looks both ways and the way in which the photographer chooses to process the image after the moment of capture that contributes to this sense of a mirror and a window.  As photographers, we make many choices, such as what, where and when we take an image. The choice we make might be influenced by our feelings, thoughts, and reflections on a particular day, what memories might have been stirred, or the focus of some practice-led research in progress.  We also make choices about how to process the image.  When is it processed?  Is veridical memory in play, or has our long-term memory kicked in and embellished the experience at the moment of capture?  Is the resultant image influenced by a personal style of processing thus making the resultant image significantly different to that captured by the camera and in some way, a reflection of who pressed the shutter and then subsequently made processing decisions?

These questions made me consider how I might talk of my images over time in a different way than how I wrote about them and processed them for the contemporaneous blog post.  It confirmed to me that given my wish to capture Being, I should continue to process my images very quickly and minimally.  However, these issues might be the subject of further practice-led research.

In conclusion, I would suggest that rather than the camera having the capacity to look both ways, it is our post-processing choices that give the impression it does.  As we produce the final image, we translate what the camera captures.  Our interpretation takes over and more of us is portrayed through the resultant image than we might wish for!



Patterson, F. (1977). Photography for the Joy of It. Toronto, Van Nostrand Reinhold Ltd.

Szarkowski, J. (1978). Mirrors and Windows – American Photography since 1960. New York, The Museum of Modern Art.


Alison Price

Alison Price

My name is Alison Price and for the past ten years I have travelled the world photographing wildlife, including Alaska, Antarctica, Borneo, Botswana, the Canadian Arctic, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
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